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Jeremy Corbyn at a CND rally in February: The Labour leader’s near-silence on the question of EU membership is a dereliction of duty (CC BY-SA 2.0)


George Orwell considered the English left-wing intelligentsia to be in both thought and taste fully Europeanised. “They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow,” he mused, recognising the way that they sought cultural refuge on the continent to elevate themselves above the parochialism and introspectiveness of an island mentality. “It is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.” Writing at a time of war, Orwell wondered whether it was possible for “patriotism and intelligence” to “come together”. As Britain heads towards the European referendum, it is worth posing that question again now in order to consider whether an intelligent and mainstream left-wing Euroscepticism can rescue the debate from the grip of Tory factionalism.

If one briefly considers what the EU has become, it is clear that the left-wing case for leaving Europe is much more compelling than any argument from the Right. Even the most assertive left-wing pro-Europeans struggle to defend the EU’s current lack of democratic accountability, the tight grip of the Troika, and its botched and inhumane handling of the migrant crisis. There are a few outers on the Left raising their voice but with only seven out of 230 Labour MPs declared in favour of Brexit and the Eurosceptic party leader muzzled, there is little hope that a robust campaign can be mounted.

Euroscepticism runs as deep on the Left as it does on the Right; indeed, Europe has always been a source of division for Labour as much as the Tories. Clement Attlee was as wary of the growing Franco-German trading partnership as any union leader. Harold Wilson, like David Cameron today, hoped that a plebiscite would generate the right result to heal divisions within his party. He secured victory but not unity. Within six years, the key Europhiles had left to establish the SDP, while the Eurosceptic Michael Foot led the Labour party into the 1983 election with a “suicidal” manifesto, including an outdated and hopeless-seeming Brexit pledge.

It seems obvious, but perhaps necessary, to say that as the aims and ethos of the European project have changed, so have the political parties’ enthusiasms for it. Both sides have, in the last 40 years, veered from viewing Europe as the route or obstruction to their domestic political goals. During this referendum campaign we are led to believe that MPs, free from the party whip, are speaking from a point of unadulterated conviction. But now, as before, political expediency reigns. Europe has always given rise to the lowest form of opportunism and grandstanding among Britain’s ruling class, particularly in the last decade when it has become conflated with Britain’s age-old obsession with immigration. If there has been one consistency in our relationship with Europe, it has been the level of inconsistency by political parties on the matter. To this end, it is worth considering that Boris Johnson’s flip-flop is nowhere near as dramatic as Margaret Thatcher’s or Neil Kinnock’s U-turns on Europe.

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An Gíogóir
April 6th, 2016
10:04 AM
"... its botched and inhumane handling of the migrant crisis." It has certainly been botched, in that the crisis has been allowed to continue. The only 'solution', if there is one, is to follow the Australian example. Declare that no-one arriving by boat will be accepted. Intercept them and return then to Turkey and North Africa.

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