I’ve been out of the UK for two months now – in body, if not in mind. How could I mentally distance myself from all that’s happening there politically just now, even if I wanted to? It’s all the doing of our modern media globalisation, of course, especially the internet – enabling us to keep in touch with everything that’s happening everywhere all the time. I sometimes feel nostalgic for the old days, when travelling abroad meant you could cut yourself off entirely from home. I remember flying back from a fortnight’s ski-ing trip in the Alps with friends about fifty years ago, remarking: ‘Anything could have happened while we’ve been away – a revolution, even.’ And so it turned out. While we’d been sliding down mountains in Obergurgl, Martin Peters had been transferred from West Ham to Spurs. For non-football devotees among you, or at least of that vintage, this seemed the equivalent of Netanyahu going over to Hamas. Nowadays I’d hear of it the very moment it happened. I can get away from Britain, but Britain follows me, via my smartphone. Of course I could switch it off. Kajsa’s always telling me to. But that’s a big ask.
As a historian, I ought to be able to suggest historical parallels for the political defections of the last couple of days, but I can’t. That has nothing to do with my exile. It’s the bi-partisan nature of the new ‘Independent Group’ that differentiates it from most of the great British parliamentary splits of the past: over the Corn Laws in the 1840s, Ireland in the 1880s, imperialism in the 1900s, the nuclear deterrent in the 1970s… and other lesser ones in between. ‘Centre’ parties have generally failed, but we don’t have many precedents that recruited from both sides.
All I can contribute as a historian is the broad view of things that a study of history can give you, which suggests to me that something else is going on here. It’s not just about ‘anti-semitism’ or Corbyn or ‘extremists’ infiltrating both parties, or even Brexit. It’s a result of a more seismic shift in British – and indeed Europe-wide and even American – political society, in which the hitherto accepted verities are being thrown into confusion in a way that can’t be reflected in our traditional political structures. All of these are breaking apart, but along fault-lines that don’t necessarily represent the fundamental causes of the crisis. We can all have our theories about what those causes are. Mine happen to be (neo-?) Marxist. It all has to do with the inevitable self-destruction of late-stage capitalism. But there are other possibilities.
If this is so, then the great ‘Brexit’ debate could be regarded as a mere distraction. I’ve suggested before that this makes sense of Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy: not to allow the issue to distract Labour and the country from the key social and economic transformations – including, most essentially, equality – that are required to bring us (back?) to a measure of national stability and relative contentment. How to do that now? The trouble is that Brexit is a vitally important issue in itself, as well as a distraction. The best that we Labour Remainers can hope for, therefore, is that it is resolved – ideally ditched, but short of that made as ‘soft’ as possible – in such a way as to settle the issue, in order to allow (1) the more fundamental debate to take place; and (b) a Corbynite – preferably still Corbyn-led – Labour government to lead the country into it.
And we also, incidentally, must tackle the problem of foreign interference in our domestic politics. In these days this means not mainly the Americans or Russians, but the Israelis; whose complicity in measures to ‘take down’ Corbyn – because of his championing of the Palestinian cause – is by now indisputable. (Here’s the latest on this: https://electronicintifada.net/content/watch-film-israel-lobby-didnt-want-you-see/25876?fbclid=IwAR2UcqO7ylm8bMoGpCHriZnzZ6YnRGIHm-KVh94i2x4G4NkMQhcz8gRcl3Y.) That this is so difficult to say these days without being accused of ‘anti-semitism’ indicates how active and insidious the ‘Israel Lobby’ is. Even Jews can’t say it – and many do – without being called ‘self-hating’. But that’s a familiar controversy.
(Personal note.) Next week I’m off back to England. That I’ve been here in Sweden so long this time is because Kajsa broke her wrist falling on the ice about a month ago, and so needs me to help with things (or so I insisted). She’ll follow me shortly. But I need to get back, for my next solid bit of writing. I used to think – to return to my original topic – that the internet would enable me to work just as well here in Sweden, with my laptop; but I’ve found over the last week or so that there’s only so much I can do without my library. Kajsa can wiggle her fingers now, so she should be able to cope on her own for a few days. But I feel guilty about leaving her, all the same.