Whatever his critics may say, Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Brexit has been clear, principled and consistent from the start. He is a Eurosceptic, of course, as he is bound to be, as a socialist disturbed by the way the EU appears to be in hock to neo-liberalism and its powerful agents. But scepticism is not the same as opposition. You can be a Eurosceptic and still deplore the alternative of a ‘hard Brexit’, which almost everyone accepts would certainly strengthen the hands of the neo-liberals in the Conservative party. Indeed, there might be little alternative, with Britain’s needing to bid low in order to replace her existing European trade with – say – a commercial treaty with the USA requiring her to lower her food import standards, and to open up her NHS to American private health firms.
However difficult it might be to resist such pressures from within the EU, it would be vastly more difficult – nay, impossible – to do so alone, and in the parlous economic situation Britain would find herself in directly after a hard Brexit. ‘Socialism in one country’ is not a realistic option. Britain would not even be ‘one country’, in this sense, but a de facto ‘informal’ colony of other, bigger economies. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2019/03/06/sovereignty/.) To achieve any measure of social democracy in the modern world, you need allies whom you can persuade to march with you in this direction. The European Left offers at least a hope of this. That’s a good argument in favour of Remain; but only as the lesser of two evils. I imagine it’s Jeremy’s.
And it must be why he seems to be less committed to ‘Remain’ than true Remainers would like him to be. For him Brexit matters, but it’s not the crucial issue of our time and place. He’s said this over and over again, most recently in a speech to Scottish Labour’s annual conference.
[The Labour Party] is not obsessed by constitutional questions, like the others are. We are obsessed, absolutely obsessed, with tackling the problems people face in their daily lives… So let me spell it out: our mission is to back the working class, in all its diversity. And that’s what drives our approach to Brexit. (Guardian, 9 March.)
Holding to this priority, ‘Remain’ – or ‘Return’, as it may soon be – would be the likeliest means to this end, granting a socialist Britain in Europe some considerable say in the formulation of EU policy. But it might not be the only one.
There are alternatives. Something along the lines of what is called the ‘Norway model’ – remaining in the European single market, and accepting its rules, including ‘free movement’, but without any influence over their formulation – would at least allow Britain to continue trading with the EU without lowering her standards. This incidentally is what I’ve semi-predicted all along: see https://bernardjporter.com/2018/12/30/corbyns-way/. It would also enable Corbyn to escape from the practical, political difficulties he would face in going all-out for ‘Remain’ (vide the same reference).
The current problem is that Prime Minister May apparently can’t accept that, partly because it conflicts with one of her notorious ‘red lines’: the immigration-obsessed one. (Unless, that is, she gives in in the next couple of days; this is being written on the eve of some crucial debates in the Commons.) But we know that Corbyn – in favour of ‘controlled’ immigration – could fix it, if he were in charge of the negotiations; as indeed he already has done, informally and unofficially: see https://www.itv.com/news/2019-02-21/jeremy-corbyn-pushes-labours-brexit-blueprint-in-brussels/. The Europeans have indicated their willingness to renegotiate on that basis. Which explains why Corbyn’s preference, in the event of the current talks breaking down, has all along been for a general election, which (hopefully) would put him in charge. Only if that were ruled out would he favour a new referendum – whose result would be unpredictable in any case. Then, once this knotty problem has been settled, a Labour government can get on with what Corbyn sees as the really important business of the day: which is to return Britain to social democracy.
That seems to me to be a rational and practical strategy. The only reasons why most political commentators seem unable to credit it are, firstly, that they can only see the issue as a simple black/white pro/anti-Brexit one, without this added layer of sophistication: if you’re not either for it or against it, you’re dithering; and, secondly, their visceral antagonism towards Corbyn personally, politically and in view of his support for the Palestinian cause.
That in its turn has much to do with ‘image’, our appallingly dishonest media, and foreign (Israeli) pressure. For me, as an old Leftie, Corbyn seems an ideal candidate for the premiership: decent, liberal, honest, deep, social-democratic in the Attlee mould, nearly always right in the past and with spot-on judgment about the crucial issues of our time, unwilling to resort to the kinds of rhetorical and propaganda weapons his critics deploy against him, and so genuinely representing a new, better, kinder and more thoughtful kind of politics. He is both right and wise on the subject of Brexit. Although pretty old, he inspires youth (who are mostly Europhile); rather like Bernie over the water. I’d love to see him triumph.
But… Yes, there’s a big ‘but’. – The forces ranged against him are formidable. He’s the most vilified Labour leader in history, even including Foot and Milliband. His supporters cannot disregard this. Our current Conservative government may well come to be regarded as the worst in Britain’s history – the most incompetent, if not the most malevolent and corrupt. It’s clearly heading the country in a disastrous direction. It seems to be on the very edge of toppling. Our (the Brits’) overriding priority just now must be to defeat and replace it. This ought to be easy, in the present political situation; but if the monstering of Corbyn, and its effect on public perceptions, makes it less likely, then maybe he’d better be got rid of first. (So long as a left-wing but less monsterable replacement could be found.) It would be grossly unfair to him, a kind of surrender to the devil, and a sad disappointment for bearded Lefties like me; but perhaps it’s a compromise that needs to be made.
Unless, that is, his virtues – to my mind – can be made to shine through the propaganda; which they might do, perhaps, if that propaganda seems to be going too far. Surely by now its readers can see through the grotesquely over-the-top Daily Mail?
The next week may change all this. I’ll be glued to the ‘Parliament’ station on TV. More comments to follow that.