Jeremy Corbyn is criticized because his support for continued British membership of the EU isn’t ‘enthusiastic’, ‘principled’ and ‘positive’ enough. But why should he pretend to be enthusiastic if he isn’t?
For any socialist the European issue must be a finely-balanced one. Traditional leftist internationalism should put us in favour of any kind of cross-border co-operation, so long as it doesn’t seem to obstruct a wider internationalism: in other words, in this case, resemble a ganging up of ‘white Europe’ against the rest of the world. (That’s where the old idealistic form of multiracial ‘British Commonwealthism’ scored over it.) On the other hand, a united Europe dominated by international neo-liberal ideology could be said to be worse than no united Europe at all. That’s the nub of the problem, for Leftists.
So far as I’m concerned, I’d probably vote for Brexit if I thought it meant we could escape the clutches of neoliberalism. But that’s emphatically not what the majority of the leading Brexiters want. And it’s certainly not what a Conservative government of a newly independent UK – shorn, perhaps, of its most left-wing province, Scotland, which would probably use the opportunity to secede – would legislate for. They are free-marketeers to a man (and the occasional woman). On the other side, there’s enough anti-austerity feeling on the Continent to give a better hope of escaping from or at least restraining neo-liberalism, than the British Left could offer on its own. That will be my reason for (probably) voting for ‘Remain’. But it’s not exactly an ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘principled’ one.
On the other hand I’d claim it’s more intelligent and rational. Politics is rarely clear-cut; international politics least of all. Corbyn’s reasons for supporting a united Europe – ‘warts and all’, as he puts it – are far more thoughtful and consequently reliable than the arguments of the zealots on either flank of the debate. I suppose it’s my being an academic that warms me in particular to them. Certainty is intrinsically foreign to most kinds of scholarly pursuit. Our irresolution often lays us, too, open to attack from outside. I remember publishers, planning the marketing of my books, complaining that I never seemed to come out unconditionally on one side of an argument, in a way that they believed was necessary to sell them. (‘Are you for Empire, or against?’) Going further back, it reminds me of my mother’s once asking me if I was a communist. ‘Well, it depends what you mean by communist.’ ‘No, answer me straight: are you a communist or not?’ We intellectuals don’t like questions like that.
It has only been relatively recently, I think, that simple, firm opinions and enthusiasm have been taken to be desiderata in public affairs. It began with Thatcher’s ‘conviction’ politics: ‘The Lady’s not for turning.’ That in its turn may have been a reaction against Harold Wilson’s perceived lack of ‘principle’; in other words, his willingness to compromise.Thatcher it was who defined what she called ‘leadership’ (translate that into German, by the way, to get a different view of it) in these terms: conviction, all-or-nothing, zeal for one idea or another; which it has never shaken off since. Hence the press’s gleeful seizing on ‘U-turns’, whenever a politician comes to his or her senses. Or on ‘inconsistencies’, when a new situation makes it irrational to stick by a belief one held forty years ago.
I can live with Corbyn’s marginal support for Britain’s remaining in the EU, far more easily than I can with the other leaders’ hyped-up enthusiasm. Never trust a zealot. That should be the golden rule.
Off to Sweden now. I wonder what they’re making of all this there?