Thursday, 20 December 2018

Five more days that made Corbynism inevitable

Despite all the alarms and excursions of recent months, if most of the recent opinion polls are right, Britain’s Labour Party are still heading for government. Yes, maybe they’ll be in a minority. Yes, maybe they’ll be reliant on the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats if they want to actually pass any legislation. Yes, Britain might be back at the polls (yet) again pretty quickly. But as Theresa May’s remarkable stickability shows, and James Callaghan showed before her as Prime Minister between 1976 and 1979, there’s a huge amount that even a minority government can do to cling on for much longer than you’d think.

That’s why we took a look, last month, at eight of the key dates that gave us ‘Corbynism’ – that strange amalgam of radical rhetoric, conservative ideas and new-old economic thinking that has captured the Left, if not yet convinced the country. Those ranged from the big things – the privatisation and financialisation of the economy – to the little things, including Labour MP Eric Joyce’s famous punch that led to Labour’s One Member One Vote revolution and ultimately Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour's leader. This month, we thought it would be interesting to go further, perhaps deeper, and look at some more of those structural or big picture reasons why Corbynism has been able to take off. Here are five more dates that have made Britain’s Left turn all but inevitable in some form.

The destruction of Allende’s Chile, 11 September 1973. The single most important thing about the Corbynite movement is its anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism. That’s why the disastrous Second Gulf War gave it such succour, and why the election of Donald Trump helps it too. For the Labour Left, most things that pass in the world must be America’s fault, or the fault of ‘the West’ in general. Sometimes that’s true, of course. There’s certainly a lot of truth to that in the case of the military junta that overthrow Left-wing Salvador Allende’s Chilean government in 1973, toppled by a full-on military coup that led directly to the torture and murder of many thousands of Chileans. It's one huge driving force behind the Left's suspicion of America, and its admiration for South America's anti-capitalist Left.

Richard Nixon’s government in Washington was deeply implicated in the whole thing, fearing Soviet penetration of the Western Hemisphere, and to this day the coup is a standing warning and inspiration to the Left’s struggle everywhere. Mr Corbyn himself, who is now married to the Mexican Laura Alvarez, was married to a Chilean woman – Claudia Bracchitta – who was a refugee from the putsch, and with whom he campaigned for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s extradition to Spain for trial. You cannot understand Corbynism – its prior enthusiasm for the socialist experiment in Venezuela, its current alliance with South American populists such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales – without grasping the fundamental link between such world-historical events and the course of the domestic Left.

The invention of the World Wide Web, March 1989. There could be no Corbynism without the Web. It is there that his most fervent adherents gather, pushing video after video and meme after meme, organising campaigns, sharing Left and alt-Left stories, supporting each other on Facebook pages, and on the nastier fringes of the movement dishing out abuse to the insufficiently loyal. It was the Web that first allowed them to see how powerful the Left could become in 2015. It was the Web that helped them turn the tide during the 2016 leadership election and the 2017 General Election. It’s the Web that allows previously unheard-of activists to become media stars. The Canary, Skwawkbox, Novara Media – they are all creations of the online world that could not possibly have broken through without the aid of post-modern connectivity.

It’s here that you can read all about Newsnight putting that 'Russian' hat on Mr Corbyn. Or where you can see his mouth and words slowed down so that… well. Or that you can link Porton Down to the Salisbury chemical attack. Whatever takes your (flight of) fancy, really. When Tim Berners-Lee got frustrated at computers’ lack of a shared syntax from his CERN vantage-point in 1989, he saw the potential of the burgeoning Internet if only it could only allow all this IT to speak the same language. And lo, HyperText Markup Language was born. Little could he know that HTML would change the political world, as well as the scientific arena, absolutely and forever – for good or ill.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 9 November 1989. There’s no way Corbynism would have got anywhere under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Ex-spooks have come out to condemn the Jezziah. Faintly ludicrous accusations of Cold War complicity have been levelled at him. Post-War Britain was always on the lookout for infiltrators – often unsuccessfully, but at least with energy. That created an ‘us and them’ atmosphere that permeated everything. The idea that a movement so sympathetic to (say) the ex-Communist Die Linke in Germany could emerge within the Labour Party would have been anathema to its titanic Cold Warriors – men such as Ernie Bevin, Denis Healey and Jim Callaghan.

The end of that Cold War heralded by the opening of the Berlin Wall (above) initially seemed as if it would mean liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would rule the roost. It hasn’t worked out like that, of course, and the rebirth of history in its all nationalist, populist, racist, statist forms has surprised no-one with a History degree. What the removal of the Red Threat has actually done over the medium term is allow those who always saw themselves as equidistant between two Evil Empires to reposition themselves as social justice warriors primarily interested in domestic policy. Mr Corbyn’s entourage contains people happy to ‘contextualise’Stalin’s crimes and play down the deeds of those who oppose the hated American giant – whoever they are. You know what? Now that’s not a matter of pressing diplomatic concern, no-one really cares.

The election of Donald Trump, 8 November 2016. Now Donald Trump is not the Corbynites’ favourite politician, and that’s putting it mildly. But as it’s now a commonplace to note, both men share much, much more than they’d like to admit. Wildly unlikely candidate? Check. Chequered past? Check. Displacing a complacent party elite? Check. Social media rage? Check. Fervid advocates who will defend their man, whatever he’s done? Check. Black is white, and white is black? Check. But the link is actually more specific than a mere list of similarities from the same era. Since politics is about image, personality and mood as well as policy, it’s no surprise that you can draw plenty of unlikely dot-to-dots between apparent enemies. The interesting thing here is that Labour is actually basing its insurgency on Trump’s success. Cobrynite supremo Seumas Milne made that explicit when he started to beef up Labour’s media operation over the winter of 2016/17, and he got it bang on.

The techniques involved on both sides of the Atlantic are very similar. Attack, attack and attack again. Blame ‘the establishment’. Blame 'the media'. Say that everything is the fault of ‘the elites’. Offer simple solutions. Raise the stakes. Be certain. If you’re in trouble, throw off chaff and distractions – and deny the evidence of everyone’s eyes. Yes, maybe if you’re a policy purist, you’ll put your hand up at the back and say ‘erm, aren’t these employee share options just a tax the workers will never actually see?’ But by then, the kaleidoscopic news agenda of our current politics-on-acid will be haring off again, amidst a loud of shouting and screaming. Here’s what Trump knows: no-one has ever listened to people who know things. Now Labour know that too.

Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, 17 January 2017. There’s a good case to be made here for singling out the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992 – for it was then that the European Union, as it became, surged off down the supranational route that the British disliked so much, threatening to split the Conservatives and ultimately helping to cause Brexit. But Mrs May’s speech outlining her ill-fated ‘red lines’ demonstrates, most of all, just how hard it is to keep the Conservative show on the road. The Conservatives are now really two parties: English Nationalist Eurosceptics who hark back to a closed world of cultural certainties, and British Liberals who stress openness, social change and free markets. Never the twain shall meet, and Mrs May attempted to stress the former while keeping the latter on board. That balancing act now looks very, very uncertain indeed.

What were the red lines that have now turned slightly pink? Well, Mrs May aimed to take Britain completely and forever out of European Court of Justice jurisdiction, and that’s potentially been blurred a bit. The entirety of the UK was also supposed to leave the Single Market, which if nothing happens on the Irish border question by 2021 (or 2023) won’t be achieved either – since Northern Ireland will retain those elements of the Single Market regulatory regime that are required to prevent any border with the Republic. In truth, the Prime Minister's not got a bad deal given that her overriding intention was to leave the European Economic Area and take back control of immigration policy. She’s probably got the only deal she was ever going to get, given the trade-offs involved. But even those compromises threaten to rip the Conservative Party apart, just as it was blown to bits over tariffs and trade policy in 1846 and 1903. Mrs May overbid and overclaimed, until what she did get looked mouselike: in return, her government might collapse, allowing Labour just to walk into Downing Street. Such are the wages of choice.

There is a risk of over-determination here. If you list too many causes, you end up suggesting that nothing else could ever have happened – that everything in the whole world led up to the triumph of the British Left. There were clearly lots of other moments when this could have gone completely differently. What if Mr Corbyn’s backbench opponents had really gone for broke and resigned the Whip en masse in the summer of 2016? What if Labour had never sharpened up their media operation between Christmas 2016 and Easter 2017? What if Theresa May had not decided to burn down her own election campaign? Well, then things would be different.

But they’re not different, and analysing why will occupy many historians for a long time to come. Britain is potentially about to be wrenched out of the course it’s been on since the mid-1970s. Most of the utilities are going to be nationalised. Large-scale private industry is going to be partially socialised via all sorts of binding agreements with workers, customers and partners. The Thatcherite strike laws are going to be torn up. A reborn Ministry of Labour is going to administer national pay bargaining. Tuition fees are going to be abolished, with unpredictable consequences for England’s already-struggling universities. Taxes are going to go up (though actually that just continues current trends). Capital and exchange controls might be needed. In terms of foreign policy, Britain is going to shift away from the Transatlantic alliance, and pivot Eastwards – towards Iran and Russia.

Some people will like those changes. Many people won’t. More likely, voters will like some of them but reject others. But whatever happens, and whichever side of each of those arguments you take, unpicking what has brought us to this point is a necessary and pressing task. That’s what the disciplines of History and Political Science exist to do, and the sort of task that blogs like this exist to make a start on. Britain’s national life is in a fix. Its politics sometimes look like more a tragic-comic joke than a serious attempt to unpick the problems before us. But that’s no reason, and this is no time, to stop hoping that we can understand what’s happening.