Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A Return To Party Politics

Although he is wrong that the Labour vote for Brexit was motivated by immigration (what immigration?) rather than by the desire to reverse the deindustrialisation that he himself bemoans, Peter Hitchens writes:

I try hard not to write about the European Union issue. I am bored by it myself, because there so seldom seems to be any real hard purpose in the incessant talk about it. In the main, people are posturing about it to gain position, or perhaps damage opponents. It is factional, about party, but not truly political, and about the nation. I think it will be resolved mainly in the last hours of talks, and I am grieved by the low level of most of the debates about it. 

I still think I was right to stay out of the referendum. The idea that such a huge decision could be taken in a plebiscite still seems quite wrong to me. It should always have been resolved at a general election, by the election of a government openly committed to secession from the EU, and with a clear programme for departure – and a clear understanding of why it was necessary. That clear understanding still doesn’t exist [well, some of us have it, if we can get into the next hung Parliament with it]. 

I also think I have been correct to say that the EU is like the Hotel California, that you can check out, but never leave; or that we will move, in the end, from having been half-in the EU to being half-out of it. I also think my warning, that the dominance by pro-EU persons of both Houses of Parliament, the civil service, the media, the academy, the diplomatic service and the legal profession together mocked the idea that you could simply say ‘we’re leaving’ and walk out. How do people think real politics work? 

But I think the speech by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in Coventry today (Monday 26th February) is a genuine development. This doesn’t mean I approve of it. Quite honestly, I neither approve nor disapprove, I merely observe. But this speech, in which a major division opens up between the two big parties [if so, then not for very long], is the first full reassertion of party politics since the referendum itself. 

The last general election, a ludicrous event in any case, which should never have taken place, was largely an unpopularity contest between the leaders, in which no real major issues were addressed. The EU could not really be discussed, because all politicians were scared of being accused of defying or overriding or undermining the referendum outcome. But Mr Corbyn’s speech yesterday was a return to party politics. 

Like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone reappearing, in Churchill’s memorable words,  after the metaphorical deluge of the Great War, the old party divisions have now emerged again, as the floods of the referendum  recede and sink. But, as we shall, see, the muddy ruins of this drowned world are not quite as they were before. 

The full text is available here here. And most will have seen the accounts of it. But I was especially struck by this passage: ‘So I appeal to MPs of all parties, prepared to put the people’s interests before ideological fantasies, to join us in supporting the option of a new UK customs union with the EU, that would give us a say in future trade deals.’ Interestingly, the speech follows the pro-EU Economist more or less coming out for the Norway Option last Friday, a major development, as it seems to me. 

Serious liberal-leftists are moving ever more swiftly towards a compromise of some sort on this matter. But what seems most striking of all is this apparent surrender by Jeremy Corbyn to his own party’s southern and London area Blairites, whose voters heavily supported remaining in the EU, and his snub to the northern Labour MPs who increasingly fear their voters’ anti-EU feelings [I doubt it, as Hitchens goes on to concede]. 

Mr Corbyn and his new Blairite friends may think this switch will be endorsed, or at least not rejected, in local elections in May, in which Labour is all but certain to do well, especially in London. On this basis they hope to make a damaging raid on the Tory Party, at some point forcing a significant and decisive vote on the Customs Union, which they hope will peel away a significant number of Blairite Tories; or it might influence Mrs May into moving towards staying in the Customs Union herself, so landing her in a knife-fight with those in her party who regard this as a sell-out.

Either way, there seems to be a calculation here that the passions of June 2016 are weakening, that the strange coalition which achieved the majority for exit nearly two years ago either does not exist any more, or lacks coherence and force, and can be taken on .

Which means that Mr Corbyn has finally been seduced by the promise of Downing Street, and has begun to dream of himself taking his seat among its pillars and portraits, while El Gato rips at the curtains and ousts Larry from his accustomed post. He presumably thinks that we will be out of the EU enough to calm the stirrings of his Bennite conscience, and to keep the ghost of the great Tony (no, not that Tony, the other Tony)  from walking, wailing ‘Woe!’, through the halls of Number Ten at midnight.

He may be right about the anti-EU coalition. As far as I can identify it, it is in four parts. The first, including me, simply wanted self-government, the control of laws and Parliament, currency, army and frontiers. The paradoxical thing for me is those most British things I cared about, such as customary weights and measures, counties, common law, jury trial, the presumption of innocence and habeas corpus have died anyway, because hardly anyone cares about them, and leaving the EU won’t bring them back. 

The second has the mad idea that if we leave the EU, and can negotiate our own trade deals, the world will be pounding at our doors to buy all the exciting goods we no longer make. The third, mostly composed of habitual Labour voters, was furious about mass immigration and wanted it stopped, but would never have voted Tory to achieve this and never will. 

The fourth, perhaps the biggest of all [in fact, it was those who wanted to reverse Thatcherism were the biggest of all, by quite some distance] is made up of people who (quite wrongly believed that the original Common Market was purely an economic and trading arrangement, as it might be, a customs union and a single market, and just didn’t like the political bits. 

None of these three groups much like each other. My lot, I can confidently say, would be very happy with Norway even if The Economist backed it. The free marketeers have very little mass support. The Labour voters, now that UKIP has shrivelled back into its shell like a salted mollusc, have nowhere else to go [they never voted UKIP, anyway; UKIP came second behind Labour in places where the Conservatives used to come second behind Labour, and where they now do so again]. And the ‘If only it had just remained as  single market and a customs union’ lot can hardly be cross if we stay in either the customs union, the single market, or both.

Sooner or later someone was going to risk acting on these assumptions, and on the undoubted fact that most people are bored by the whole thing, bored beyond the limits allowed by the Geneva Convention by the whole thing, so much so that their boredom is beginning to hurt. If Corbynite Labour’s instincts  and timing are right about this, they will blow the Tories to bits and win the next general election. If not, well, not. I don’t know if they are right, but I can see why they have gambled.

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