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We Need Statesmanship
26 Jul, 2017

Britain has stumbled into negotiating its future relationship with Europe without a clear vision of the outcome that our people now want, still less a strategy for getting there. Neither the ruling Conservative party nor the opposition Labour party has been able to articulate a credible view of the UK’s future place in Europe, let alone in the wider world. They are inward-looking, obsessed with minutiae and mantras, and have closed their eyes to the big challenges now facing humanity.

Leaders of both parties relentlessly claim that, in seeking to take Britain out of the European Union, they are following the “will of the people” as expressed by just 38% of the electorate over a year ago. This is used by the Tories and their DUP friends as a flimsy justification for blindly pursuing negotiations that put at great risk the future prosperity, security and territorial integrity of our country and could greatly diminish our influence in shaping the world’s future.

An exit process driven by personal phobia and ambitions rather than a true commitment to Britain’s future

The most alarming aspect of the unfolding negotiations is that Britain’s self-harming stance seems to be driven (even after the recent humiliating “snap” election that failed to deliver the enhanced majority that May had sought) not by the signals coming from voters but by the Prime Minister’s deep personal phobia about the rule of law and by her autocratic tendencies. This first came into the open when May challenged a High Court judgement in favour of giving parliament authority to approve the invocation of Article 50 to set in motion the Brexit process. We then saw her muzzling meaningful debate on the issue by the imposition of a 3-line whip on her MPs. Her unyielding animosity towards the European Court of Justice, reflected in her determination to exclude Britain from all aspects of its jurisdiction, seems bound to stymie meaningful negotiation, presaging a no-deal exit with disastrous consequences.

May has given her accomplices in extracting Britain from the EU – Johnson, Gove, Fox and Davis – great responsibilities but have repeatedly shown that their actions are driven not by any concern for Britain’s destiny but by their own, almost puerile, ambitions to eventually replace her as Prime Minister. If their insincerity was not clear to everyone at the time of the referendum and their fanciful red bus promise, it became obvious in their recent hypocritical antics on public sector wage caps and in the deliberate leaking of cabinet discussions so as to diminish the standing of their pro-EU rival, Hammond.

The course that May and her team have followed on Brexit over the last year has already greatly harmed British society, our economy and the respect in which our country is held in the world. In telling our 27 European partners to “go whistle”, our foreign secretary has unhelpfully cut the chances of arriving at a decent deal with them. The Brexiteers have fuelled deep divisions between the nations of the United Kingdom, split communities and families, and unleashed a toxic wave of xenophobia and hate crimes. The process that they have espoused has thrown sterling into a nosedive that is now spurring rising rates of inflation.  It has fostered a pervasive atmosphere of great uncertainty that makes decision-making for families and companies difficult and is already leading many businesses to relocate their head offices outside of the UK, eroding British pre-eminence as a global financial services centre. It bodes very badly for a future outside of the European Union, yet most politicians seem to be in denial of the harm that the pursuit of Brexit has already wrought.

Corbyn comes in from the cold

While the recent election diminished May’s credibility as Prime Minister, it greatly enhanced the standing of Jeremy Corbyn. To the surprise of many, even within his own party, he emerged as a charismatic leader who can claim personal responsibility for bringing Labour back to offering effective opposition to the government.

Corbyn owes his election success largely to his winning support from young voters and from people with higher education: these included many who want Britain to stay in the EU but who voted for Labour on tactical grounds and in the hope that the party, which was ambivalent on Brexit, would ultimately opt to remain engaged. While still respecting the referendum outcome, Corbyn has signalled his wish to advance EU negotiations in a constructive manner, looking to ways of safeguarding the economy and respecting the rights of EU citizens in Britain.

This is the most critical moment in Britain’s post-war history: whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations will have immense impacts on the lives of all young people in the country. From a moral perspective, the aspirations of the young deserve to be given special weight in determining Britain’s negotiating strategy.

We need leaders who will bring wisdom to bear on a perilous situation

What Britain badly needs right now is statesmanlike leadership –  an individual or group of people who can stand above the current divisions and gain wide respect from people of all ages and diverse political affiliations for bringing wisdom and common sense to bear on what is now a chaotic and perilous situation. We must throw our weight behind politicians who will inspire us to respond positively, in the interests of the world and of our own nation, to the great contemporary challenges posed by the fast-moving processes of globalisation and by the increasingly rapid advances in technology and communications.

We need people who will lead us to understand that, if our children and grand-children are to live well and in peace, Britain, whatever its past greatness, cannot afford to isolate itself from these overwhelming challenges, but must be fully engaged in shaping responses at home and abroad. We must work with other like-minded nations to harness the new opportunities for the common good and to protect us from the huge risks that, if mishandled, they pose to peace and security, to equity and to the sustainable management of the world’s resources. We require the leadership and inspiration of outstanding persons – like Cable, Davidson or Lucas – committed to safeguarding the long-term interests of British people as a whole in this rapidly changing environment while enabling us to contribute vigorously to ensuring benign outcomes not just for us but for all the inhabitants of our shared but fragile planet.

Our membership of the United Nations and of the European Union provides us with – albeit far from perfect – institutional frameworks through which we have a significant voice in determining global and regional responses to issues that stand to benefit from coordinated actions that transcend national borders. These concern, for instance, assuring safe air travel, preventing the spread of human and livestock diseases, ensuring the safety of food, protecting workers’ and women’s rights, slowing the rate of climate change, ensuring the secure movement of nuclear fuels, identifying and defusing threats to security, setting rules for the prudent management of banks, and engaging in joint coordinated research and technology development. Rather than deliberately seek, in the name of “taking back control”, to extract ourselves from these mechanisms that play such a vital role in safeguarding our livelihoods, it is clearly in our national interest to contribute to their progressive evolution.

Corbyn is best placed to lead such a revival of statesmanship – but only if he learns to nurture pluralism.

Apart from the fact that he heads by far the largest party in the current opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has good credentials to emerge as the senior statesman who can offer leadership to all who are deeply dismayed by the harm being done to our country by the machinations of the present government. In the recent election, he has shown himself to be a surprisingly charismatic leader who has been able to attract support from droves of young and well-educated people who are in tune with the “modern” world, while still retaining his Labour party faithful. Throughout his political career, he has displayed an unwavering sense of social justice and fairness, and has stood up for those who have been left behind as others have benefitted from changes. Though lambasted by his critics for his contacts with Palestinian and IRA leaders, he values peace highly and understands that this requires opening space for genuine dialogue between conflicting parties and for building mutual trust. In spite of his enigmatic stance over our future relationship with the EU he sees that, now that the issue has arisen, it must be determined not through confrontational bargaining but through engaging in a constructive and open dialogue aimed at reaching a consensus on what brings the greatest collective benefit to all concerned. He has also highlighted the importance that he attaches to Britain’s continued engagement in many of the EU’s decentralised agencies and their programmes.

Corbyn, though he has yet to say this, would probably not rule out an outcome that would enable Britain to remain in the EU provided that other members showed their commitment to a reform agenda that would address many of the issues that induced English voters to opt for leaving just over a year ago. Indeed, it is most likely that the EU would be keen to support the realisation of the major domestic goals championed by Labour and most other opposition parties, including through endorsing European Investment Bank funding for programmes for greater social equity in Britain.

This, of course, is no more than wishful thinking unless Jeremy Corbyn can quickly build a sufficient parliamentary majority to secure amendments to the Repeal Bill and trigger yet another general election. As long as the Tory-DUP deal stands up to pressures, this would require the engagement of all the minor opposition parties and of dissident Conservative MPs.

In the event of an election, Labour would be unlikely to be able to win an outright parliamentary majority, and so Corbyn would have to nurture, from today, the emergence of a progressive alliance. He would have to put forward a fresh, highly personal, manifesto to justify his claim to be able to offer visionary and genuinely inclusive leadership that would bring pragmatism into the Brexit process, define a well-funded set of socially responsible domestic policies and respond to a broadly felt need for a lowering of tensions. He would have to assuage the concerns of many older voters over some of his own more radical ideas, convince still more young people that he can respond to their aspirations, and yet keep most of Labour’s left wing on board.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Corbyn is his own instinct to get drawn into party frays and, increasingly, to seek to bring its Labour members into line with his own views. Remember that he, like May, also imposed a 3-line whip in favour of approving Article 50 invocation and has, since the snap election, censured MPs who support the UK staying in the single market.   If he is to become the statesman we need, rather than merely the leader of a single party with a narrowing base, he must learn not to interpret diverse views as “splits” that threaten his authority but to see pluralism as a source of strength within and beyond his own party. He must not forget that his own recent electoral success owes so much to the votes of young pro-Europeans who count on him to respond to their hopes. It is also abundantly clear that, if he is to defeat the current government and rise to power, he must retain the full backing of other parties that subscribe to the idea of a progressive alliance: this implies not treating them as rivals for votes but as fellow members of a “big tent” committed to a greater Britain.

The parliamentary recess provides the ideal opportunity for Corbyn to connect with these diverse groups, quietly building his credibility as the only person who can stop the government from driving our country down a dead-end road, and offer us the statesman-like leadership that we desperately need. Hopefully he won’t take more than a long week-end’s holiday for quiet reflection and then hit the road!

  • This article is adapted from a post on the website Future of our Children, which came into being after the referendum, driven by the feeling that it was terribly unjust that our children and many in their age group voted to stay in Europe but now run the risk of having to spend the rest of their lives under arrangements favoured especially by the older generation.