What did you do this weekend? It seems a significant number of Jeremy Corbyn supporters spent it talking about a hat. The claim that Newsnight photoshopped a picture of Jeremy Corbyn so that he looked ‘more Russian’ has gone viral, earning tens of thousands of shares across Facebook and Twitter.
The BBC actually photoshopped Jeremy Corbyn's hat to make it look more Russian for this smear on Newsnight.
Let that sink in.
— John Clarke (@JohnClarke1960) March 16, 2018
The BBC has had to deny photoshopping Corbyn’s hat to make it look bigger, which is a strange denial even for these rather feverish political times. But even if Newsnight producers had wanted to mock the Labour leader up as a Soviet stooge, why would this quick parody matter?
Corbyn surely has bigger problems than the size of his hat when it comes to his foreign policy, including his own refusal to condemn Russia for its involvement in the Salisbury attack, and the view of his spokesman, which he repeated in a newspaper article, that British intelligence cannot be trusted. And that’s before we get onto the historic comments that Corbyn and his spokesman, Seumas Milne, have made about Russia. It’s unlikely that the hat – so regular a feature on Corbyn’s head that the Spectator has several cartoons of it – would really have been the catalyst for people suddenly noticing what Corbyn thinks.
But this is why the hat matters to Corbyn’s supporters: it is an incredibly useful device with which to prevent any legitimate scrutiny of the Labour leader’s foreign policy. Forget the fact that Corbyn not only opposed interventions which have become increasingly controversial, such as the Iraq War and later Libya, but also opposed those that were intended to prevent further ethnic cleansing such as Kosovo (the intention in Libya was also to prevent a genocide by Colonel Gaddafi in Benghazi, but Corbyn argued that there should be more consultation before military action).
Forget also that he seems uncomfortable with so many of Britain’s long-standing allies, and would rather the government gave a more sympathetic hearing to Russia, to Hezbollah and to Hamas. These stances are far more important than the size of a hat, and therefore it is convenient if everyone focuses on that hat, rather than on the question of whether the man seeking to be Prime Minister has a grasp on foreign policy that voters would really be comfortable with.
The hat not only distracts from these questions, but it also belittles them. It suggests that every reference to Corbyn’s foreign policy is a smear by Tories or BBC producers (often interchangeable insults in the Corbynista’s mind), rather than something perfectly legitimate.
Even mentioning Hamas and Hezbollah (Corbyn did say in 2016 that he regretted using what he called the ‘inclusive language’ of ‘friends’ in reference to these two militant groups) in a piece like this is risky because Corbyn’s supporters have succeeded in painting all mention of his foreign policy as being part of the Tory smear machine. The Tories have made it even easier for the Hard Left to pursue this line of argument by waving around wild claims about Corbyn being an informant for a Czech spy, or shouting about the IRA constantly during the 2017 election campaign. The implausibility of the former and the overuse of the latter make it nigh-on impossible to point out that Corbyn is generally deeply suspicious of the West and did, without question, have sufficiently sympathy for the IRA to invite two of its convicted members to Parliament two weeks after the Brighton Bombing (as one example). Those two serious points about the Labour leader’s stance towards Britain, its foes and its allies are now somewhat lost, and those waving the hat around are hoping that they will be able to achieve the same outcome when it comes to Corbyn’s views on Russia and this country’s security.