Labour’s left wants chaos as much as the hardest Brexiteers do
Stephen Collins: The British party’s left-wing has long had a cynical attitude to Ireland
The future of Brexit now lies in the hands of the British Labour Party. There are some grounds for hope that this will result in a softer Brexit than the rejected May deal but, going on past performance, there are good reasons why people in Ireland should feel very afraid.
Mainstream Labour has always had a positive attitude towards Ireland and the European Union. This was epitomised by the approach taken by Tony Blair in the talks that led to the Belfast Agreement and in his strong commitment to the EU and Britain’s place at the heart of it.
However, the Labour left has in the past shown itself to be consistently hostile to Europe and indifferent and cynical regarding Ireland. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has epitomised that approach. In his long years as a Labour rebel he was a strong supporter of Sinn Féin and the republican movement as it sought to impose its will on the Irish people by force. He was also an inveterate opponent of the EU.
In recent months he has, for naked party political advantage, backed the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in its efforts to subvert the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU.
His approach is reminiscent of Harold Wilson, an avowed left winger, who was prime minister from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. During his period as opposition leader, Wilson came to Dublin in 1973 and, in open defiance of the Irish government, held a meeting with the leadership of the Provisional IRA.
Back as prime minister in 1974, he tacked the other way and appeased loyalists by betraying the powersharing arrangements agreed at Sunningdale, abandoning the deal in response to the Ulster Worker’s strike, and it took another quarter of a century of suffering before the essential elements of the deal re-emerged in the Belfast Agreement, memorably termed “Sunningdale for slow learners” by Seamus Mallon.
Wilson also held a referendum on membership of the EEC, a year after the UK had joined, simply for internal party reasons. He risked the UK’s future to appease his left wing just as David Cameron did four decades later to placate his right.
The big issue now is whether the majority of Labour MPs who want either to remain in the EU or, at the very least, in the customs union and the single market can bring their influence to bear on the final outcome or whether the left wing ideologues, whose desire for chaos matches that of the most ardent Brexiteers, will carry the day.
Can a majority of MPs in the two big parties who are united in opposing a no-deal take responsibility for the future of their country?
While there is a clear majority in the House of Commons against a no-deal Brexit there is no sign to date that this majority can be mobilised behind a coherent plan to avert it. Those opposed to a no-deal will have to decide quickly whether to put their energies into the demand for a second referendum or support a deal in parliament to keep the UK in the customs union and in regulatory alignment with the EU.
The chaos in British politics means that a no-deal outcome could happen by default unless the majority of Labour MPs can unite behind a coherent proposition. If they can, then all could be yet be well, but the chaos, infighting and political manoeuvring that has characterised the approach of both main parties to date is not encouraging.
The sheer irresponsibility that has taken hold of British politics was pointed up by the Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld on BBC’s Newsnight. “There is no agreement on anything in British politics and that is the real problem. They’re all playing politics and I find it amazing that the two big parties cannot take responsibility for the future of the nation.”
That is the core of the problem. Can a majority of MPs in the two big parties who are united in opposing a no-deal take responsibility for the future of their country by coming up with an agreed solution, even if their leaders show themselves incapable of it?
A second referendum is the favoured solution of many MPs who supported remain in 2016, but it would be a risky option. The prospect of a rational debate about the pros and cons of EU membership is remote, and a referendum campaign would probably be dominated by violent emotion and empty slogans.
An inkling of the popular mood was provided by Cardiff City football manager Neil Warnock last weekend. Asked if Brexit would cause problems for the Premier League, the 70-year old Yorkshire man exploded: “Why did we have a referendum in the first bloody place? I can’t wait to get out, if I’m honest. I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing in every aspect. To hell with the rest of the world.”
The fact that almost all of the players on his team comes from the rest of the world, as do his club’s owners, did not appear to impinge on Warnock’s thinking. Given that level of unreason, it might be better if MPs took their courage in their hands and lived up to their responsibilities as elected representatives of the people in the way Edmund Burke advised so long ago.