‘If the world is increasingly divided between fire fighters and arsonists then Britain has, for centuries been a fire fighter. This is no time for Britain to join the ranks of the arsonists and there should be no doubt that Brexit would be an act of arson on the international order.’
So wrote recently David Miliband, one time British Foreign Secretary, and former candidate for the leadership of the British Labour Party when it went into opposition.
Arguably, had he won that ballot against his less politically effective brother, there would be no referendum on Britain exiting the EU on 23 June. David Miliband would be Prime Minister having seen off one feckless Conservative referendum on Scottish exit from the UK from Opposition and then, by winning the main poll, canned the second.
Miliband’s passionate article went to the significant role played by Britain in contemporary global and European regional crises; the threat to the salience of the Anglo-American alliance that withdrawing the British role in European councils would pose; the confusion at a time of economic fragility that would result from a complex uncoupling. These are compelling arguments. What isn’t arguable is that if there isn’t a solid pro-European turn out of the Labour Party base, then a loss on June 23 will be a certainty.
Controversial Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was an early euro-sceptic. In his youth he voted against Britain joining. His leadership is mocked by the conservative establishment, business and political, and is tearing apart his Caucus. In the case of the latter, the most pro-European element is against him. They all understand they depend on him now.
The issue is on the table because of weak internal Conservative Party management unwilling to face down a divided parliamentary and constituency party. This poll is a product of governmental cowardice. The cost for Labour will be further scepticism about the Party among a section of the British working class who have long been unenthusiastic about Europe.
Labour has been here before during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. It shouldn’t have been conducted or alternatively, should have included a third option on autonomy. The government should also have permitted a broader vote from Scots living outside Scotland.
A fortnight out from that vote a howl went out for Labour to save the kingdom. Labour, led in the fight by former British PM, Gordon Brown, defeated it. Labour’s credibility among Scottish workers collapsed. In the subsequent general election Labour lost all but one of its Scottish members. This failure has been followed in the last fortnight by its fall to third place in the Scottish parliament. To rub salt in the wound, David Cameron’s outright victory in the general election was in part due to his engendering fear of the election of a Labour minority government being beholden to a Scottish National Party Westminster Parliamentary Group.
One can foresee a successful defence of British membership now fracturing a part of the Labour Party’s English base. It’s likely that some of their support would divert either to the more Eurosceptical Tories or UKIP, a party devoted to pulling Britain out of Europe. The two outcomes would be an unprecedented political reward for British conservatism’s two most feckless acts.
That Corbyn is in this decisive position is partially related to the outcome of local and regional elections in Britain a fortnight ago. Labour was expected to do badly, in part a product of dissension over Corbyn’s leadership. It didn’t do well but that’s relative. The success of Labour’s London Mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, the first directly elected Muslim leader in any major European city, was so spectacular it papered over everything else. It even obliged Donald Trump to say that his ban on Muslims entering the United States wouldn’t apply to Khan—a condescension Khan properly rejected.
Corbyn is still a tenuous prospect to lead Labour at the next election. But for now his Labour opponents want him to lead the fight to keep Britain in Europe. He has stated his opposition to Brexit on a least-worst option basis. However some feel his past scepticism enhances, ironically, his standing in this debate. Getting him on the hustings, though, is a struggle. He urges his supporters to blame not the EU but the Tories for problems of insecure jobs, low pay, unaffordable housing and stagnating living standards.
David Cameron alternatively hopes for a united defence behind a positive picture of European membership. He has only himself to blame for his Labour colleagues’ somewhat tepid rallying cry. Bitten once in Scotland, Labour doesn’t want to be bitten again. Corbyn’s argument is that Britain should support Labour working with European allies to advance workers’ rights and democratic accountability. The Governor of the Bank of England is warning British workers that exiting Europe could produce a recession. Certainly most of British business fears complications in accessing the European market. The city of London worries about losing its leading status. Never, it seems, has capital depended so much on the efforts of an anachronistic old socialist.
Australia has a real interest in sustaining Britain’s EU membership. If Britain leaves we will have to re-focus from London to another point of entry. The French submarine comes one way, and we go the other. But Britain is an important ally. Our interests won’t be advanced by seeing a weak Britain, probably without a Scottish component, and a very introverted polity as it tries to establish a new identity. All strength to the old socialist.