Many people ask, why are they so crazy as to be doing this, the apparent self-harm of Brexit? To understand what it is really about, one needs to reach behind the statements the Brextremists are making to the underlying, largely undiscussed hidden agenda, the “completion of the Thatcher revolution”.
Thatcher’s children in power
The people now in power in Johnson’s cabinet are, in political generation terms, known as Thatcher’s children. These are the people who first developed political awareness during the heyday of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, 1979-1990, and would be very roughly of “Generation X“, those born between the early to mid 1960’s and the early to mid 1980’s. These people are likely to have been strongly impacted by Thatcherite ideas and influenced by them in the policies they support.
Thatcher’s era saw the radical change of policy often called “Thatcherism“, a neoliberal agenda that included restrictions on trade union rights intended to increase labour market flexibility and reduce union power, reduction in government expenditure, a shrinkage in the role of the state in people’s lives and of the welfare state, removal of regulations, privatisation of state assets such as public utlities, the sale of council houses, the use of monetary means to control inflation such as high interest rates, and tax reduction. It includes a belief in “free markets” and the promotion of private enterprise and entrepreneurialism.
Many have regarded Mrs Thatcher’s work as incomplete and wish to take her reforms further. A large group of right-wing Thatcherite Tories entered Parliament around the 2010 election and several of them are now ministers, such as Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng.
Brexiters’ Thatcherite agenda
Liz Truss is International Trade Secretary and charged with negotiating free trade treaties with countries outside the EU, to come into force after Brexit. She regards Brexit as the ideal opportunity to impose “fiscal discipline and economic liberalisation … [to] give people power over their own money and their own lives”. Thus she advocates reduction of taxation, removing regulations and cutting public spending. Before becoming Trade Secretary she carried out a series of meetings in the US with libertarian groups to discuss deregulation and tax cuts, and the denials that have followed have reinforced the sense of there being a hidden agenda.
She, like many Brexiters, is strongly pro-American and pro-Trump’s policies. Trump and his supporters have made it clear that, if there is to be a free trade treaty with Britain, they are looking to the removal of regulations on their products (such as enabling chrorinated chickens), to have access for US big business to the NHS, to be able to sue Britain if restrictions are introduced later, to avoid the restrictions on big technology companies like Google and Facebook that are being planned and the taxes on their so-far undertaxed sales in the UK.
Sajid Javid is the current Chancellor of the Exchequer and has favoured tax reduction, especially for top-rate tax payers. Such tax reduction is favoured by neoliberals as it is believed to stimulate wealth creation and benefit the poor through a “trickle down” of wealth.
Liz Truss, Priti Patel, the current Home Secretary, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, and others in 2012 wrote “Britannia Unchained”, saying that the British had grown lazy and useless and their buccaneering spirit had been sapped by a culture of dependency. Brexit, for them, was the Big Bang that destroy the welfare state, environmental standards and labour protections and release a Global Britain of very low taxes for the rich, unregulated hyper-capitalism and boundless “free markets”.
The role of euroscepticism
The EU is seen as a prime example of the kind of state intervention and regulation that Brexiters would wish to remove. Hence there has already been a lot of debate about how the Tories intend to use their recently-gained power to control former EU regulations upon Brexit. It has been a long-standing complaint of eurosceptics in Britain that the EU is too interventionist in Britons’ affairs. Naturally therefore Thatcherites would gravitate to an anti-EU position.
Brexiters have promised a “bonfire of regulations” upon Brexit.
The hidden backers and funders of the Brexiters
People are often mystified as to how such seemingly radical policies can get so entrenched within a political party and have such influence and others suggest that there is a hidden agenda. This is partly due to the role of right wing pressure groups such as the Institute for Economic Affairs. Some suggest however there is also big money behind this.
A look at the recent funders of Johnson’s leadership campaign show a small number with business in finance, banking and property, “who would arguably have a vested interest in lower tax rates for the high-paid (a Johnson proposal), slashing the rate of corporation tax (as his opponent Hunt seeks to do), and a government with less interest in regulating businesses”. One such person, Crispin Odey, founder of Odey Asset Management, previously gave £870,000 to the Leave campaign and made £220million overnight as sterling slumped after the 2016 referendum result. He gave £10,000 to Johnson’s leadership campaign. He is apparently currently “shorting” Sterling, predicting it will fall further due to Brexit. It has been striking how a number of such wealthy Brexit backers are in this line of work.
There is a view that Brexit and Brextremism receives a large amount of funding and support from what the former Tory minister Margot James referred to after her recent resignation as “shady people”, who also “funded the original referendum campaign”, often big business backers who are looking to benefit from the hidden agenda of Brexit. “There is a cadre of owners of large private companies who want Brexit because they want a low-tax, low-regulation economy,” she said.
There is also a view that there is international funding and resource support. Examples include Steve Bannon, who has, it is said, been in close contact with Johnson and Farage, and Robert Mercer, the billionaire who, it is said, both helped fund the Trump campaign in 2016, helped fund the Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum and was behind the harvesting of data for political propaganda purposes. Another two are allegedly the Koch Brothers.
There is broader evidence of right wing US wealthy donors to British groups with a free market agenda of low tax, lightly regulated business and privatisation of public services. Many of these groups are extensive networks of think tank who have recently collaborated together to penetrate the inner reaches of government to influence Tory policy.
Networks of hard right wing influence
The website DeSmogUK has useful graphics to illustrate the web of relationships that operate behind Boris Johnson (click on the image to enlarge in a new tab). Many consider that what this network have in common is a deregulatory agenda along with new trade deals, presumably to facilitate business interests linked to the network. At the centre is Matthew Elliott, the former Vote Leave chief executive. The Johnson government is now largely a Vote Leave one. Some of Vote Leave advisers are from the Tufton Street Network, a group of organisations linked through their use of the same building in Westminster, and ideologically aligned through their lobbying on behalf of business interests. Many are linked with climate denial groups. One member of the group is the right wing Taxpayers Alliance, founded by Matthew Elliott, a low tax deregulation group from whom a number now in government come, such as Chloe Westley, the digital advisor at No. 10. Another Elliott connection is Shanker Singham, who is involved with the pro-Brexit Institute for Economic Affairs and in faciliating links between US agribusiness and UK politicians. A large number of climate sceptics have been organising to stop commitments to net zero carbon emissions being enshrined in law, and many of them are linked to these networks.
It also provides the political scientist with a fascinating example of the inter-penetration between business interests, lobbyists and politicians and the overlap between such interests and ideological concerns. To study the network described in this link is to provide important evidence of an in-depth hard right agenda and teams of activists and backers that work to use Brexit as the means to a far greater transformation behind the declared right wing agenda.
Dodgy dealings and the 2016 Referendum
There is also a view that Russian hacker, propaganda and funding activity was behind the Brexit vote, as also with the Trump election. Authorities in the UK are investigating the funding behind a pro-Brexit campaign, and whether it might have included illegal foreign donations. The National Crime Agency (NCA) is investigating the insurance executive and political donor Arron Banks, who was suspected by the UK’s Electoral Commission of not being the “true source” of £8m in funding to the Leave.EU campaign. The matter was referred to the NCA by the commission after it said it had “reasonable grounds” to suspect a number of criminal offences.
The Russian Connection
This is a very murky area, but it is supected that there are close connections between Russian oligarchs friendly to Putin and the Tories. Johnson has been a frequent attendee at Lebedev functions, including one the day after his election victory. Lebedev’s online paper, the Independent endorsed him as the best potential PM before the election. Johnson has resisted calls to publish the House of Commons intelligence and security committee report on Russian involvement in influencing UK elections before the General Election and now that the Tories control the relevant committee, the report may never be published.