Corbyn’s getting a lot of stick just now – certainly on the anti-Brexit Facebook pages I subscribe to – for not clearly coming out in favour of a second referendum, and for ‘Remain’. The relatively left-wing Guardian is especially critical: but when hasn’t it been, of this untidy bearded radical who flouts even liberal standards of respectability? I have to say, a part of me is disappointed too. I’d have liked Labour to have taken more of a pro-European lead on this matter. But then I think again.
There are three reasons, I think, for at least suspending judgment on Corbyn until this whole sorry affair has worked itself out. The first is that he is at least being consistent in his career-long Euroscepticism, which is more than you can say for Theresa May: pro-Europe one day, leading the anti-Europe charge the next. What would the press have made of a similar volte-face by the famously principled Corbyn?
Secondly, he has always been a Eurosceptic, not an anti-European; and for totally different reasons from the Right-wing Antis – because he sees the EU as having been taken over by global capitalism and so an obstacle to the democratic socialism he wishes to see reinstated in Britain. That’s why he must be against a form of Brexit that releases Britain from the hands of Brussels only to send her into the claws of Trump, and of America’s lower product and labour standards generally, which would be likely if Britain found she had to compensate for her European trade losses by sucking up to Washington. That’s why his emphasis in his speeches has always been on jobs and workers’ rights; which could either be secured within a reformed EU (there are plenty of Leftists there to help him), or by a ‘soft’ Brexit arrangement which would keep Britain within the European Common Market, thus involving free movement and common standards, at least. In the present chaotic situation it’s not clear which is the more likely. So Corbyn is – sensibly and intelligently – holding his fire. Of course the Manichaean tabloids are too thick to see this; or else assume their readers are.
The third reason for giving Corbyn the benefit of the doubt is that he has got his Northern working-class voters to think of. They largely voted Brexit for all the wrong reasons – see my June 2016 posts – but don’t like being told this, especially by ‘elitists’ and ‘experts’, and so are building powerful and expert-resistant barricades – ‘you lost, accept it’, ‘what part of democracy don’t you understand?’, ‘we’re not idiots, we knew what we were voting for’, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – against any suspicion that they might be about to be ‘betrayed’ by the ‘Establishment’. At the very least Corbyn can’t come out as a Remainer until the practical flaws in the Brexit enterprise have been clearly revealed to everyone. Who better to do this, than our Jeremy, once he’s Prime Minister and has tried everything to reach his own, worker-friendly settlement with the rest of the EU, which might reconcile those northerners to going back there; or, alternatively, might suggest a softer Brexit option which would persuade them that he hadn’t betrayed them, but had honoured the ‘people’s vote’ while safeguarding their interests too?
The working-class Brexit vote was a blind expression of anger, and a desperate cry for help. (Only the elitist leaders of the movement cared much for Europe, or for ‘making Britain Great again’.) Any solution to the present problem that doesn’t address this, or even exacerbates it, could intensify the dangerous divisions that the debate opened up in Britain, and produce a situation close to civil war. (Far-fetched, perhaps; but May has already put the military on stand-by.) This is an important consideration, which only Corbyn’s more subtle approach – if I read it correctly – takes proper account of.
My money’s on an eventual Norway-style settlement – the single market with free movement, and the freedom to (for example) nationalise things. But don’t hold me to this. In the present situation nothing can be predicted. Just try to see the problem from Corbyn’s – and Labour’s – point of view. The latter’s priority just now is to radically reform Britain’s economy. Her relationship to Europe is secondary to this. A social democratic Britain can be reconciled with both membership of a changed Europe, and with the softest of all Brexits. It’s not compatible with any Tory policy towards Europe. So: an election must come first.
And that could undo some of the harm done by this wretched contest, by smoothing out the present political divisions between Brexiteers and Remainers, and enabling us Brits to live moderately happily together again. In this sense, it could be seen as the ‘patriotic’ way.
Or am I crediting Corbyn with too much good sense? I hope not.