Historians will ask: how did a pro-European party elect a Eurosceptic as leader?by Robert Saunders / February 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
When the time comes to write the history of Brexit, the historian will face a familiar question. What drives historical change? Is it deep, structural forces, boiling away beneath the surface of society? Or accident and contingency: small moments which, like the switches on a railway line, need only a touch to set the train of events speeding to a different destination?
It’s a recurring dilemma. The English Reformation, the First World War, the fall of the Berlin Wall: all had powerful, long-term causes. But what if Henry VIII had been blessed with less active loins? What if Franz Ferdinand’s car had taken a different route? What if an East German official had not misunderstood his orders and opened the crossing by mistake? Or, to return to Brexit: what if the largest pro-European party in Britain had not accidentally elected a Eurosceptic as leader, less than a year before a referendum on membership?
“Accidentally”? In one respect, yes. The election of Jeremy Corbyn had its own structural dynamics, but they had little to do with Europe. For those who cheered his victory in 2015, Corbyn’s views on Europe were an irrelevance; but their effects have been among the most profound of his leadership.
Like his mentor, Tony Benn, Corbyn had been a Eurosceptic since the 1970s. He voted against membership in 1975, opposed Labour’s pro-European turn in the 1980s and condemned the creation of the European Union in 1993 as “a bankers’ Europe” that would “endanger the cause of socialism”. He viewed the EU as an undemocratic, capitalist project that aspired to a “European empire”; a “military Frankenstein” that was “subservient to NATO,” governed by “an unelected set of bankers”. Together with John McDonnell, Denis Skinner and Richard Burgon’s Uncle Colin, Corbyn was one of only 10 Labour MPs to vote against the Lisbon Treaty on its third reading in 2008. Even during the leadership contest in 2015, he refused to rule out voting to Leave. Since 2015, Corbyn and McDonnell have staffed their offices with Eurosceptics like Seamus Milne, a critic of the EU’s “brutal authoritarianism”, and James Meadway, who once wrote that it was impossible “in good conscience” to support “an institution so manifestly and comprehensively opposed to democracy”.
Yet Corbyn’s Euroscepticism differed in one important respect from that of Benn: its intensity.…