What is Corbyn thinking?
Jeremy Corbyn is getting a lot of stick just now – certainly on the anti-Brexit Facebook pages I subscribe to – for not coming out clearly in favour of a second referendum, and for Remain. The Guardian is especially critical: but when hasn’t it been, of this untidy bearded radical who flouts even liberal standards of political 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. But then I think again.
There are three reasons for suspending judgment on Corbyn until the whole sorry affair has worked itself out. First, 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?
Second, he has always been a Eurosceptic, not an anti-European; and for totally different reasons from the right-wing antis: he sees the EU as having been taken over by global capitalism and so an obstacle to the democratic socialism he wants for Britain. That’s why he must be against a form of Brexit that releases Britain from the hands of Brussels only to send it into the claws of Trump, and America’s lower product and labour standards. The emphasis in Corbyn’s speeches has always been on jobs and workers’ rights; which could be secured either within a reformed EU (there are plenty of Leftists there to help him) or by a ‘soft’ Brexit arrangement that kept Britain within the single market. In the present chaos it isn’t clear which is 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 his Northern working-class and other ‘left-behind’ voters to think of. Insofar as they and others voted against Europe (and they may not have been as solidly Brexit as the popular press makes out), it was largely for all the wrong reasons; but they 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 sign that they might be about to be ‘betrayed’ by the ‘Establishment’. At the very least it may be wise for Corbyn not to come out as a Remainer until the practical flaws in the Brexit enterprise have been clearly revealed to everyone, as well as the cheating on the Brexit side.
Much of the working-class Brexit vote was a blind expression of anger, or a desperate cry for help. Only the elitist leaders of the movement cared much about Europe. Any solution to the problem that doesn’t address this, or even exacerbates it, could intensify the dangerous divisions that the debate has opened up in Britain. 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 – membership of the single market with free movement, and the freedom to nationalise things. Corbyn’s ‘red lines’ would be fundamentally different from May’s, and he might be more successful with them. But in the present situation nothing can be predicted.
In the meantime we should try to see the problem from Corbyn’s – and Labour’s – point of view. The party’s priority must be to make radical changes to Britain’s economy and society. The relationship with Europe is secondary to this. A social democratic Britain could be reconciled either with membership of a reformed EU or with a soft Brexit. But it isn’t compatible with any Tory policy towards Europe, either out or in. So: an election must come first; followed either by a renegotiation on Labour’s terms, or another referendum, with Remain as an option, which should give us a more accurate picture of the ‘people’s will’ – a more informed will this time. It might even allow us to crawl back, tail between our legs, into the EU. (That would be my preference; but then I live there.)
Last, but by no means least, this just might undo some of the domestic harm done by this wretched contest, smoothing out the political divisions between Brexiters and Remainers, and enabling the British to live at least moderately happily together again. Johnson and Rees-Mogg, and the rest of the public school crowd, would be pushed back to the margins where they belong. On this view, Corbyn’s way could even be seen as ‘patriotic’. Or am I crediting him with too much good sense?