Many Remainers assume that they are on the side of progress, human rights and compassionate internationalism. Brexiteers, by contrast, are regarded by them as hopeless anachronisms beholden to nostalgia, selfish conservatism and retrograde nationalism.
This assumption has manifested itself in recent days, in the wake of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s edict to his party to vote to trigger Article 50. This sparked a grassroots rebellion and series of resignations in the party, and by Saturday evening a critical open letter to Corbyn had been signed by 2,000 members in constituency parties nationwide. The letter accused Corbyn of a ‘betrayal of your socialist values’ and said leaving the EU would hurt working people. In the end, on Wednesday, 47 Labour MPs voted against triggering Article 50.
Corbyn is often caricatured as a fossil whose politics haven’t changed in decades. And on the EU this was true for many years, until he abandoned his opposition to it and campaigned for Remain in the months before the referendum last June. While he’s either derided as belonging to the out-of-touch metropolitan left or mocked as a crypto-Marxist dinosaur, it’s important to remember that he belongs to a third category: Old Labour.
One of the defining aspects of the Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s, the era in which Corbyn’s politics came to formation, is that it had a deep suspicion of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). It was Conservatives, especially those with connections to business and the City, who were most enthusiastic about the EEC. Labour recognised that the EU in gestation was a club that primarily served capitalism and had scant interest in democracy. Corbyn’s politics today remain faithful to the spirit of Tony Benn, so the word that he remains anti-EU, if more privately than in the past, isn’t difficult to believe.
Little has changed about the EU since Benn warned of its trajectory in 1975. The institution has been long run by free-market fundamentalists. There were many, particularly on the left, who would have liked to see the British state rescue Port Talbot steelworks last year. Except it couldn’t. EU doctrine forbids it. Free-market EU law also makes it impossible fully to renationalise Britain’s railways, another cause dear to many on the left.