Brendan O’Neill

Jeremy Corbyn has ditched his principles over Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn has ditched his principles over Brexit
Text settings

Remember when people would say things like, ‘Jeremy Corbyn might talk a lot of nonsense but at least he has principles’? We now know what rot that was. Corbyn is, in my view, the most unprincipled politician in the UK right now, and by some margin. Exhibit A: this man who was a devoted Eurosceptic his entire life has now effectively been employed by the establishment to keep us tied to the EU. This man who raged against the Brussels machine for years is now tasked with softening Brexit to such a degree that Britain will remain tied to the Brussels machine. For a taste of power, for a taste of influence, Corbyn has sold out everything he once believed in. It is a depressing and depraved spectacle.

The news that Theresa May is having talks with Corbyn has got some Tory supporters hot under the collar. Some are cutting up their membership cards. ‘Don’t talk to this Marxist!’, they cry, suggesting they’re in dire need of a dictionary so that they might look up what the word Marxist actually means. May deciding to work with Corbyn to try to make her deal, or some deal, acceptable to parliament is not the shocking thing here — after all, she’s desperate, and we know she’s determined to push through her irritatingly soft Brexit. No, the shocking thing is Corbyn’s willingness to play the role of Mr Super Soft Brexit, the guy who will essentially do the EU’s bidding by trying to convince May to keep us in the Customs Union, aligned with the Single Market, and in some kind of Common Market 2.0.

It is difficult to overstate the gravity of the betrayal that this entails. In willingly lining up to try to soften further Mrs May’s already soft Brexit, Corbyn is betraying himself, his principles, his movement and his mentors. As per Labour’s ‘Brexit’ policy — which now hinges on keeping Britain in a Common Market and also holding a ‘confirmatory referendum’, which is Newspeak for ‘second referendum’ — Corbyn the Eurosceptic will find himself in the extraordinary position of trying to convince May the Remainer to water down her Brexit deal even more. Let’s all think about this: a politician who opposed the EU for decades now finds himself putting pressure on a politician who supported the EU to stay entangled in EU institutions and beholden to EU rules and regulations. It is remarkable and bizarre. The EU critic turned pro-EU lackey — what a terrible collapse of political conviction.

Literally the only interesting thing about Corbyn when he was a backbench MP for years and years — and it was a very interesting thing, to be fair — was his implacable opposition to the EU. Same with John McDonnell. In line with their Labour left heroes, like Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, Corbyn and McDonnell were stinging critics of the EU. Corbyn said the EU was a neoliberal racket (correct), and anti-democratic (correct), and that it hates European people’s democratic rights so much that it forces them to vote again and again if they ever say No to it in a referendum (correct). Yet now he is the best friend in Britain that this neoliberal, anti-democratic, voter-loathing institution has. 

The Labour left’s opposition to the EU was its most important and principled position. In particular they opposed the Common Market. They recognised it was economically unfair and a direct curtailment of national democracy and by extension of our democratic rights. In a brilliant address to the Oxford Union during the EEC referendum in 1975, over the baying jeers of the privileged student body who, of course, mostly supported the Brussels project, Barbara Castle denounced the Common Market as ‘Euro-jingoism’. Tony Benn was the most articulate critic of the EU and its ruthless restraints on national democracy. He said the EU issue boils down to the question of ‘whether the British people are to be allowed to elect those who make the laws under which they are governed’. He reminded leftists who looked to the EU to pass ‘progressive’ laws that our own parliament was reluctant to pass that a ‘bad Parliament’ is better than a ‘good king’, for the simple reason that we, the people, have some say over our Parliament.

The left has forgotten these ideas and ideals. It has forgotten the very founding principle of left-wing politics: that ordinary people deserve a real say in the affairs of the nation and over their own lives. If the left isn’t for democracy, what is it for? Corbyn and his cheerleaders have become the keenest moderators of the Brexit Spirit, the foremost dampeners of the British public’s Bennite desire to leave the EU, the willing diluters of our historic decision to make good on the Labour left’s democratic urge to shake off Brussels. It is genuinely shameful. They buried Tony Benn’s body five years ago — now they bury his principles.