The Crisis of British Politics

Suzi Weissman interviews Daniel Finn

SUZI WEISSMAN INTERVIEWED Daniel Finn, deputy editor of New Left Review for Jacobin Radio last July. Finn has written for the London Review of Books as well as Jacobin. His book, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA, will be published by Verso Books this November.

Suzi Weissman: On July 10 the British Ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, resigned after his secret diplomatic cable messages about Donald Trump were leaked to a British tabloid and Trump reacted with intense criticism. The immediate cause for his resignation was that apparently Boris Johnson, then the far-right leading candidate to be prime minister, made clear that he had to step down. Can you explain Johnson’s motivation?

Daniel Finn: It was quite a revealing moment because this wasn’t the first time that people from the permanent government, if you like, in Britain — senior civil servants, ambassadors, diplomats and others in charge of managing the state on a day-to-day basis — have been openly at odds with the leadership of the Conservative party.

The Brexit crisis really brought that to a head. A number of people who have recently retired from top levels of the civil service, and therefore have the freedom to speak more freely in public, are trashing Theresa May and trashing Boris Johnson. A former head of MI6 — the foreign intelligence service in Britain — came out openly and said that the leading candidates for the Conservative party leadership don’t have the requisite skills.

So it’s not surprising that you would see people from the Foreign Office and the diplomatic corps taking a similar line. The majority of people who aren’t infatuated with Boris Johnson see him as a political lightweight and an opportunist.

He is an intelligent man who’s put on a sort of persona of being a bumbling, clumsy sous, but that’s an act. He is highly educated, but in terms of basic political skill and conviction, has been consistently self-serving. His handling of the Brexit crisis illustrates that perfectly.

In the spring of 2016 Johnson almost flipped a coin to decide which position he would take in the Brexit referendum campaign. He wrote two columns for the Daily Telegraph: one arguing the case for remaining in the European Union, and one arguing the case for leaving. He decided which would be more advantageous for his political career, which would help him ascend to the leadership of the Conservative party, and decided to go for Leave.

After the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum surprisingly won, he was appointed foreign minister by incoming Prime Minister Theresa May. That was to ensure he would bear some responsibility for the Brexit negotiations. But his handling of the post was utterly flippant. Britain didn’t have a lot of goodwill from the other European states going into the talk’s process, but they squandered whatever good will they had through the actions of people like Johnson.

So this act of sacking the Ambassador Darroch is in that vein. Trump, at the moment, is about the only political ally whom Johnson can count on. After all Johnson has antagonized people in Europe and various other parts of the world.

Johnson and Trump are political bedfellows in many ways: they share a common rightwing and racist outlook. Of course they have a different political style, but the basic prejudices and the style of trolling people are quite similar.

There’s another similarity between the two. Johnson got his leg up in politics from World Live Entertainment. For Trump, it was being on “The Apprentice.” Johnson was a panelist on various topical comedy shows. He was built up as a lovable rogue: the Tory who could crack jokes. And he leveraged that to launch a campaign to become mayor of London. But while mayor he did very little of substance, good, bad or indifferent. He used that post as a launch pad for his career in national politics.

So he’s spent his whole time going around finding good opportunities — posing in a Hi-Viz jacket at the opening of some building or other, cultivating friendships with bankers, property owners and people who could fund his political ambitions at a later stage — before he went into politics. At every stage, Johnson has been seen as a bit of a joke, which has led people to underestimate him.

Having played a crucial role in one of the seminal political events in Britain since 1945, Johnson also was pivotal in making a mess of the negotiation process following the Brexit referendum. So now, when we have already passed the deadline, Johnson is the one entrusted by the membership of the Conservative party to manage the final step.

The deadline was meant to be several months ago, but having negotiated a deal, Theresa May couldn’t get her deal through the House of Commons. She went back to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and the other representatives of the European Union and asked for an extension. So now the deadline is the 31st of October.

As one of the senior EU negotiators said at the time: don’t waste this time, we’re giving you a few extra months. Use it profitably, use it productively.

What’s happened since then? It’s been April, May, June, and all that’s happened is that Theresa May tried to get her deal through again and again. It failed, she resigned, and then the charade of a Tory leadership contest, where the people who are making this decision are a tiny, tiny fraction of the British population. And these are the people who have some extremely rightwing and racist views.

It’s a remarkable imbalance! Over the last few years there’s been talk about so-called leftwing extremists joining the British Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. There’s been all kinds of stories, lurid stories, holding them under the microscope, and presenting them as some kind of sinister threat to British democracy. Meanwhile the Tory membership is composed of people who are completely out of step with the majority British opinion.

Opinion polls reveal that the Tory membership holds profoundly rightist views. They see Muslims and Islam as a threat to the British way of life, whatever that might be. They have all kinds of reactionary opinions on social, economic and cultural issues. And they’re gravitating towards Johnson because he shares those views, or at least he’s willing to pander to people who share those views.

There’s also a sense among the Tories that he’s their greatest political asset. They think he’s the guy who can work a bit of populist magic: he’s got the gift of gab, he’s got charisma, and he’s got media gravitas so he can dig them out of their hole.

Now, there’s good reason to think a lot of the shine has been rubbed off of Johnson in the last few years, compared with when he was mayor of London. Then he had good personal relations for a politician, because he really hadn’t done anything at a national level that would antagonize people or make them think ill of him in any particular way.

But since then Johnson’s gone into national politics and done things that polarize public opinion. His reputation has been tarnished. The skill set that you need to be the prime minister, especially in a moment of crisis like this, requires a bit of savvy, a bit of political analysis, the ability to build coalitions and win people over. He’s demonstrated very little of that in his career to date.

SW: How does Jeremy Corbyn’s quest for an electoral victory for Labour fit into this picture? How do the politics of Brexit affect Corbyn and Labour’s chances?

DF: It’s a very difficult issue for Corbyn to navigate because Brexit splits the Labour Party’s electoral base, going back to the last two general elections: in 2015, the year before the Brexit referendum, and in 2017, the year afterward. In both Labour’s electoral base split roughly 2-to-1 between people who voted Remain and people who voted Leave.

While the greater number of Labour voters support Remain, and would prefer to stay in the EU, in 2015 Leave got 30% of their vote and within two years that increased to 40%. If you antagonize people at either end of the spectrum it’s going to be difficult for the Labour Party to win an election. That’s one factor behind their policy and Brexit.

There is also a wider consideration: What is the most desirable outcome from this process? Labour did campaign for a Remain vote back in 2016. Corbyn campaigned on the slogan “Remain and Reform.” The idea was that the EU is deeply flawed. He was very critical of many aspects of the EU, in particular over the recent treatment of Greece, but felt it was better to stay in the EU and try to change it. At the least, leaving under the leadership of people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage wasn’t likely to advance any progressive cause.

That was the argument that Corbyn and other Labour politicians made — but it wasn’t successful. The Remain camp, as a whole, was unsuccessful.

The passage of the referendum created a completely different political context. It wasn’t a credible or democratic position to turn around and say “we should ignore the result.” People did say, in defiance of political reality, “Oh, this referendum wasn’t legally binding, it was just advisory.” Strictly speaking that is true; the British constitution doesn’t have any place for referendums. In theory the House of Commons could have said the day after the referendum, “Oh, that didn’t work out the way we were planning, let’s just forget about it.”

But that was never going to happen. All the major parties, with the exception of the SNP, had agreed to hold this referendum, and agreed that the result would be binding. They didn’t require any special conditions like a supermajority or a quorum. So it wasn’t a credible position for the Labour party, after June 2016, to say we’re going to ignore this.

The position that Corbyn developed — and which was agreed by others in the party who weren’t his ideological co-thinkers by any means — is that we accept the referendum results. However we will not give a blank check to Theresa May and the Conservatives. It doesn’t mean that they have the freedom to negotiate any kind of Brexit deal they want. We’re going to hold their feet to the fire; we’re going to insist that we don’t want a Brexit deal which results in a deep economic recession.

We don’t want the opportunity for a bonfire on social rights, which is what some of the more rightwing Tory Brexiters were openly calling for. We don’t want it to be used as an opportunity for the hard-nationalist right to smuggle in all kinds of quite reactionary ideas.

That was the position Labour took. And it did match public opinion. During the 2017 election a slight majority who had voted Remain the previous year said that they thought that the referendum results should be accepted.

What has become difficult for Labour in the last six months or so is that position has become more and more difficult to hold. As a result of Theresa May and the Conservatives’ botched handling of the negotiations, the idea of a Brexit deal that wouldn’t be calamitous is no longer possible. The so-called “Soft Brexit,” that might not have a harmful effect on everyday life, seems to have disappeared as the Tory right wing refused to accept Theresa May’s deal.

Nigel Farage’s new party, the so-called Brexit party, wouldn’t even accept that, saying, “This is still a betrayal of the 2016 referendum, we’ll settle for nothing less than the hardest possible Brexit deal, or even what’s known as No Deal Brexit.” Basically that means leaving without any sort of formal agreement. While the Leave camp has moved to a hardened position, the Remain camp has polarized in the other direction. It’s more and more difficult for Corbyn to steer a middle path.

SW: The Brexit discussion, as you’re indicating, has put Jeremy Corbyn in a difficult situation as he tries to bridge the various positions. But I want to move into the second way that Corbyn’s chances for winning the next election have been nearly derailed — and that’s by the smear campaign that paints him and his followers as anti-Semitic. There’s been a media frenzy about this. It seems that the whole of the British establishment, including the mainstream media and even the liberal Guardian, have been trying to use anti-Semitism to bring Corbyn down. How has this campaign played out, and how has the electorate been affected by it?

DF: The whole controversy of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is best seen as a symptom of the general hostility towards Corbyn’s leadership. It includes the right-wing faction of the Labour Party, which is out of step with the membership but which still has a strong position in the parliamentary Labour Party at Westminster and in the wider media. The great bulk of media outlets and media commentators in Britain are aligned either with the Conservatives or the right wing of Labour.

Public sector broadcasters — in theory they’re meant to be neutral and nonpartisan — but really, their understanding of what it means to be nonpartisan is to have the consensus position, by which I mean the opinion of the Tories and the Labour right. Ever since Corbyn became the Labour Party leader in 2015 all those elements have been casting around for whatever lines they could use to attack him.

There was a brief pause after the last general election because Labour did surprisingly well. It was their best performance since the early days of Tony Blair, and they had a big increase in their vote. It really took the media by surprise. There were a few weeks of journalists saying “Oh, we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and rethink some of our assumptions about Corbyn and the movement behind him.”

But once that period of paying lip service was over, they redoubled their hostility to Corbyn. Now that he was seen to be an effective political leader, now that he had the potential to win an election and become prime minister, it was all the more important to oppose him.

Previous lines that have been tried out over the years — from calling him a stooge of Vladimir Putin, a supporter of the IRA to calling him a misogynist. They had a fairly short shelf life although they’d be revived in a year or two. But this accusation of anti-Semitism has been most persistent.

One of the traps that people have fallen into is that when Labour MPs who support Jeremy Corbyn are asked “Do you accept that the Labour party has a problem with anti-Semitism?” The nature of this problem is not stated.

Is this a major problem or a minor problem? Is it on the margins or is it something that pervades the whole party? Is it something that is tolerated, encouraged and abetted by the leadership, or is it something that they actually discourage and try to root out?

Every objective examination of the evidence shows that the prevalence of anti-Semitic views in the Labour party is small and marginal. It’s less common than it is in British society as a whole; it’s less common than in any of the other major parties.

The Labour leadership has also made very significant efforts to revamp its disciplinary process to deal with some genuine cases of anti-Semitism. But that hasn’t reduced the controversy at all because for the most strident critics it has never really been about concerns of anti-Semitism.

SW: So this is really about criticism of Israel, which they’re trying to equate with anti-Semitism? Is this really about Corbyn’s foreign policy agenda? Are critics worried that he won’t be a toady to Washington?

DF: Yes, that’s the main reason for the hostilities. It’s not the domestic economic program. Labour has a social democratic economic program, which would make a real difference in people’s lives if the party came into office. It’s not revolutionary by any means, it’s certainly not a program to abolish capitalism.

But it’s Corbyn’s foreign policy that the elites really dislike and find threatening. Frankly nobody has ever been this close to power in Britain who has such a consistent track record of opposing the foreign policy consensus in relation to Latin America and the Middle East.

If you look at Labour’s program, Corbyn has had to compromise. Formerly he called for withdrawal from NATO, for Britain’s nuclear arsenal to be scrapped — that’s not part of the party program. But even within those limits there’s still quite a bit of freedom of maneuver for a prime minister, especially when it comes to an international crisis. It depends on the leader’s basic beliefs and instincts.

Since Corbyn became leader the traditional British Labour stance — especially but not just under Blair — of subservience to Washington has been scrapped. Corbyn has been consistently critical of Trump’s would-be coup in Venezuela and war threats against Iran. In particular, he’s been very critical of Britain’s support for, and participation in, the Saudi war on Yemen.

Much of the British foreign policy consensus, like the American foreign policy consensus, relies on people not challenging it. It’s so brittle and indefensible when held up to the scrutiny of daylight that it’s best just left unsaid, unspoken. Everyone agrees as long as we don’t talk about it; it’s like the elephant in the room.

When you have U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar confronting Elliot Abrams on the Foreign Policy Committee, asking, “Why should we listen to you when you’re responsible for genocide in Central America?” the reaction is as if she’d suddenly started cursing and swearing. But once you challenge someone like Abrams, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. We’ve seen a similar story with Corbyn.

Dislike of Corbyn’s outlook on Israel is a proxy for the dislike of his wider foreign policy. And those who tend to be question the uncritical alliance with Israel don’t stop there. They tend to critical of dodgy alliances across the board. They tend to be critical of the alliance with Saudi Arabia, for example.

SW: I’m sorry we’ve run out of time, but I want to thank you so much for your analysis. We will be looking for your article in the New Left Review 118, “Cross Currents: Corbyn, Labour, and the Brexit Crisis.”

September-October 2019, ATC 202