Like football, politics is a game of space and movement. Whoever controls the space has room to move. As matters stand, the Conservative party has ceded control to Labour. The Tories, consumed by Brexit, have opened the door to the very thing they fear most: a ‘socialism for the 21st century’, as Jeremy Corbyn put it in his conference speech this afternoon. The laws of unintended consequence are sardonic statutes, right enough.
Who knows, if, at some point, Corbyn forms a government and if he then implements the agenda he hinted at today (an agenda better hinted at than stated openly, it is true) then perhaps, just perhaps, some Tories will look back on Brexit and wonder if it was really such a good idea; if it was really worth it.
Some, of course, will. The true believers perceive no possible downside to Brexit. For them it is both national liberation and national reclamation. This is a point of view, albeit a minority one. But for others of a more moderate disposition I wonder if there may come a time when they sense within themselves something strange: a faint pang of nostalgia for the European Union.
Because whatever else may be said about it, the EU constrains governments. Which is one reason why Jeremy Corbyn dislikes it so very much. Markets require rules and rules must be enforced which, in turn, means there must be an enforcement agency tasked with ensuring everyone is playing by the rules. An agency that would look rather like the European Commission. Much, though admittedly not all, of the red-tape British politicians complain about is actually market regulation. It might be inconvenient or even annoying at times but those are the rules. And they are little different in kind to the rules which will one day apply to the UK’s own internal market.
The EU is indeed a kind of trap. It is, as Corbyn has recognised throughout his political life, a capitalist club. That limits the ability of member states to pursue socialism in one country. In that respect, if in no other, the EU is a kind of shield, limiting governmental freedom.
This comes at a price. When eurosceptics on left and right complain about the EU’s lack of democratic legitimacy they have a point. But there is another point to be held in mind. Modern society is characterised, at least some of the time, by a tussle between democratic ‘legitimacy’ and the sensible restraint of government. Too much of one destroys any trace of the other.
And it is clear that a Corbyn government would be an unconstrained government. This goes beyond capturing whatever remains of the economy’s commanding heights; it would, rather, be the governing principle behind everything a Corbyn government did. His government would know no boundaries, recognise no sensible or proportionate limits, accept no compromise. Like the Tory Brexiteers, Corbyn recognises that the EU makes achieving this more, not less, difficult. Those pesky rules!
As Rafael Behr observes in a magisterial Guardian column today, ‘if Corbyn is shopping for a system beyond the leftmost frontier of EU rules, he must be looking at something altogether more drastic’. There is a reason Corbyn’s track-record is stronger and longer on Cuba and Venezuela than it is on, say, Sweden. Every time a Tory complains the EU will not permit us to do this or that, he or she might also remember it would not allow Corbyn to do his this or that either.
Radicalism opens the door for further radicalism. This is something upon which moderates, in whatever party, might care to dwell. Brexit has made all things possible; all futures imaginable. By demolishing almost half a century of accepted foreign, diplomatic, and trade policy it has created a great and gaping hole which needs to be filled by something. Corbynism is one possible filler.
That’s one consequence of the Conservative decision to shed themselves of what we might term a Tory disposition or sensibility. A conservative, as Michael Oakeshott put it, ‘has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered, or shipwrecked’. Brexit may a voyage made with a rough idea of some final destination but it is one attempted without the aid of a compass or a chronometer. (Which is why, in some senses, the Liberal Democrats are the closest thing British politics has to a conservative party right now.)
European countries, burdened by their often unhappy twentieth century, have a keener understanding of this. The EU offered safety and protection; above all it insisted upon the rule of law. And without the buttress of law, markets collapse. Italy, for one, was happy to transfer currency policy to Frankfurt; other countries likewise saw the security of a continent-sized enterprise that would place sharper controls on the ability of individual governments to mismanage their internal affairs.
Here too, Britain viewed matters differently. Given our history, that was unsurprising even if it was also unsurprising that europe was seen as one answer to the great nagging problem of the post-imperial era: what to we do now? The EU proved an unsatisfactory replacement, however, not least because of the manner in which it made Britain a member of a club over which, although it had influence, it had little to no psychological dominance.
If Brexit is an opportunity for free-trading Tories, it stands to reason it is also an opportunity for their polar opposites. Brexit allows Corbyn to be Corbyn in ways that would have been scarcely credible, let alone possible, if the UK remained a member of the european club.
There is something, as Tories are supposed to recognise, to be said for modesty and incrementalism. Something to be said, too, for restraining governments of any stripe. Something, just perhaps, to be said for the EU’s ability, indeed need, to do so. And that is something to ponder if and as the prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn looms ever larger.
A funny old game, right enough.
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