Tuesday, 13 March 2018

British nationalism isn't exclusive to the Tories

One of the lines used by Corbyn in his speech at the weekend was this: "As democratic socialists, we respect the result of the referendum”.  At first sight, it looks like an entirely reasonable statement, but the premise behind it deserves a bit more thought than that.
I can see how being ‘democratic’ requires the result of any vote by the people to be ‘respected’, in the sense of being a decision at a point in time.  But any democratically-taken decision at a point in time can always be changed by another democratic decision taken at another point in time.  Whether a particular time is the ‘right’ time to test opinion again or not is a question of detail, and I can understand – and even support – an argument which says that we can’t keep on asking people to revisit a decision until we get the ‘right’ answer.  That isn’t at all the same thing, though, as saying that we have no right to continue the argument and try and persuade people to change their minds.  There’s nothing about the word ‘democratic’ which requires a decision thus taken to be immutable regardless of the consequences or subsequent events.
I don’t see, though, why being a ‘socialist’ requires any decision to be ‘respected’ to the extent that it is somehow illegitimate to argue for it to be reversed.  Indeed, quite the reverse.  Being any sort of ‘socialist’ surely requires one to articulate a particular view of the world and to actively seek to persuade people of the validity of that view rather than simply accepting that the people have rejected your world view.
And that brings us to the heart of the Corbyn/Labour problem in relation to the EU.  Corbyn – and some of those around him – still cling to the view that detaching the UK from the rest of Europe is actually a way of advancing their socialist vision rather than constraining it.  An ‘independent’ UK coupled with a ‘socialist’ government is, from that viewpoint, a route to beginning a transformation of British society.  They just seem unable or unwilling to articulate it in those terms, which suggests at the least a lack of conviction either that they can make it happen or else that they can convince people of the merit of the case.  Possibly both.
The political analysis which paints the EU as a club of capitalists committed to an ideology which does not operate in the best interests of working people is one with which I have considerable sympathy, and was part of my opposition to membership of the EEC at the time of the first referendum back in 1975.  As things transpired, however, working people had more to fear from the government of the UK throughout the 1980s whilst it was the EEC/EU which did more to protect the rights of working people, even if the UK repeatedly sought opt-outs from the relevant EU rules.  Looking back over recent history, it was Tory governments which sought to resist extensions of rights proposed through the EU structures, and Labour governments which subsequently embraced those changes, such as the Social Chapter.  In that context, it’s no surprise that one of the Tory drivers for Brexit is the idea that all of those protections can be removed once free of the influence of ‘Brussels’.
The problems for the unarticulated Corbynite view of the world are, firstly, that he can’t carry his own party with him, which is part of the reason for failing to explain his position in detail; secondly that even if he could, it depends on Labour being able to win a succession of elections over a lengthy period to make and embed the sort of changes required – a possibility which history suggests is unlikely; and thirdly that the rest of the world needs to play ball while it happens.  The history of trying to build ‘socialism in one country’ is not exactly a happy one.
The alternative is that ‘democratic socialists’ in the UK seek to work with similarly-minded people in other countries across Europe to bring about wider and more permanent change across the continent.  It’s a daunting task, but it seems to me more likely to succeed in the long run.  It requires the sort of ‘internationalist’ approach about which Labour often talk but on which they rarely act.  Deep down, there is a strong thread of British nationalism and exceptionalism running through the Labour Party, just like in the Tory party.  It’s always been there, but the combination of Corbyn and Brexit is exposing it more clearly.

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