False allegations against Jeremy Corbyn: chaos as things shift on Brexit

On 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech saying that Labour favoured remaining in customs union with the EU. The week leading up to that was dominated by said an absurd, untrue, and ultimately retracted, allegation that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. It seems like a testing of absurdity on the way to a wise position on Europe.

In the foreground was the media storm which ended with Jeremy Corbyn winning an apology and payout from Tory MP Ben Bradley over his “Wholly untrue communist spy tweet”.

Andrew Neil’s brilliant interview with Steve Baker MP, demonstrates the ridiculousness of the allegations.

This is so absurd that the question it raises is “Why on earth did anyone believe it?”

In the middle of the storm, one comment caught my ear — Jeremy Corbyn saying that he had spoken with Czech diplomats because he wanted to hear both sides in the Cold War. An individual backbench MP won’t have had a huge effect, but advocating peace rather than war, and talking with the other side rather than demonising them, sounds like the conduct of a wise statesman.

So, why has this story blown up now? There is a political answer, and a below-the-surface one.

Below the surface

I keep going back to Melanie Klein’s insight that the sort of simple-but-intense thinking that dominates in babies continues under the surface even as we learn to operate in more sophisticated ways. At that very primitive level, things are stark, clustering round sharp binary contrasts of “good” and “bad” and strong emotions. That’s is part of how we do politics, and where we regress to at times of high anxiety, but it doesn’t cope with complex situations. It is where we can go when we need “enemies” and facts don’t matter.

On the streets in Ware that weekend, with East Herts for Europe, I was struck by the intensity of the support for Brexit from a small minority. Their positions didn’t seem particularly well-informed, and could be heard as anger at the evaporation of the Brexit vision they had been sold, but it also makes sense as a regression to this primitive level, away from the complexity of Brexit, which has been described as “trying to take the eggs out of an omelette”, to a place of raw fear and anger.

The political response

In January 2018 there was a poll showing significant support for membership of the Single Market among Labour voters.

The days before Corbyn’s speech saw a persuasive piece in The Guardian arguing for continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union, over the signatures of an impressive group of wise and experienced Labour figures, followed up by Keir Starmer announcing that it Labour backs remaining in the Customs Union.

The Tories went into the 2017 General Election promising a fundamentalist hard Brexit. Losing seats can’t be heard as giving them a mandate for that. This re-positioning of Labour begins to put the pressure on in style. It points to the big divide for the next General Election being between Tory Brexit fundamentalism and Labour acting in the pragmatic interests of the British people. Tories must be worried, but in its extremity and its absurdity, this was more than a crude ad hominem attack.

Melanie Klein’s insight is useful: it points to some Tories, under stress, not just grabbing at any excuse to demonise Jeremy Corbyn, but landing on something rooted in the polarities of the Cold War, as if hankering after a time when there were sharp contrasts of good and bad. In that mindset, it is easy to dismiss people as “traitors”. If Jeremy Corbyn was indeed seeking to understand both sides in the Cold War, then he was doing something wise and courageous. I can see why that would come as a threat to some of the more ardent, and less rational, proponents of Brexit.

But Corbyn is not the only person with wisdom and courage in the political world. The signatories to the Guardian article offer some striking examples from the Labour party. There are plenty more among Liberal Democrats, not least Vince Cable. The Tories who are beginning to break ranks over Europe are the group who will probably make the biggest difference to ending the damage of Brexit.

A hung parliament gives far more powers to the back benchers. Even as the present government seems to seek to sideline parliament in the EU Withdrawl Bill, the back benchers to whom the General Election transferred power are able to come into their own. Right now, there is a real prospect of the government being defeated over withdrawing from the Customs Union, and it is something which will remain in discussion.

The irony of this is that it is how most European parliaments work. In the process of trying to leave the EU, and going against the instincts of the more vocal Tories, reality is showing how European the UK has become. It’s not too late to recognise that reality.

A bizarre postscript

On the same morning that Jeremy Corbyn gave that speech, the Today programme covered a story that Winston Churchill might have had an affair. In a sense this is a non-story: does it matter? But purient interest in a famous figure is a great distraction.

Wilfred Bion suggested that two of the ways in which a groups handle anxiety is to get interested in an the actions of an individual (a leader) or a pair. One of the things the aristocracy do is to provide a constant stream of pairs to carry these projections. In those terms, Churchill having an affair sounds very much like a “bad pair” to demonise, just as the false allegations against Corbyn sound like an attempt to make him a “bad leader”. That says a lot for the dysfunction of the political system at the moment, as Brexit wreaks havoc with the collective unconscious as well as the economy.

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