Henry McLeish: Corbyn must now take up the fight against a hard Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn's support for the Remain camp during the Brexit referendum has been described as lukewarm. (Picture: PA)
Jeremy Corbyn's support for the Remain camp during the Brexit referendum has been described as lukewarm. (Picture: PA)
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Labour leader has to realise Britain desperately needs to change course, writes former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish.

There was never a case for Brexit but now it’s crumbling. The cheap patriots who led the Leave campaign are in a state of panic and the shambolic negotiations with the EU remain stalled as the Tory civil war intensifies. In sharp contrast, Westminster now seems to be strengthened in its resolve to derail and fatally damage the most insane decision Britain has made in the post-war period.

Now is also the time for Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn to abandon ambiguity and ambivalence – maybe politically useful at some point in dealing with Brexit, but now a political liability – and embrace the wishes of both his party and the country, who are moving towards rejecting Brexit, especially the hard-line version, supported by the ideologues and the delusional in Theresa May’s Cabinet.

Sadly and tragically, a hard Brexit could still become a reality because of her failure to distinguish between party politics and practical realities.

Corbyn has been a consistent opponent of EU membership. Labour history includes post-war mistrust of moves to create a new Europe with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952. Concerns about the future of the Commonwealth, worries about British sovereignty, opposition from the mining unions and the views of Prime Minister Clem Attlee ensured little appetite for such ambitious plans – a position then at odds with sister Socialist parties in Europe. The high point of Labour opposition to European integration was in the Tony Benn years and the Labour manifesto of 1983 included a pledge to leave the then EEC!

But most in the Labour party have now put this attitude to Europe behind them.

READ MORE: Scotland to ‘step up’ links with other EU nations after Brexit

Corbyn should take his lead from the members of what is now the largest political party in Europe after he helped persuade huge numbers of people to join. As an obsessive advocate of the power of the party, he must recognise that there is overwhelming support to remain in the EU, from young people, constituencies, trade unionists and affiliates, and individual members. Many voters and party members believe that Labour’s weak, confused, and ineffective EU referendum campaign allowed Brexit to triumph. They now look to Labour and Corbyn to make amends.

This is nothing less than a battle for the future of Britain and Labour cannot be seen to be remotely linked to the possibility or reality of a hard Brexit and some of the madness that goes with the dismantling of Britain’s credibility at home and abroad.

Corbyn’s decision to support a new Customs Union with the EU is to be welcomed, but this doesn’t go far enough. Staying in or around the Single Market, based on the Norway model, is the next bold step. That could destroy Brexit and allow us to establish a new relationship with Brussels, holding out the prospect of later regaining full membership.

The idea of a “people’s vote” on the outcome of the EU negotiations is something I would support, but I can also understand Corbyn’s reluctance to commit. Concerned about the number of Labour areas who voted to leave, especially in the north of England, Corbyn should ponder the notion that the EU referendum was an abuse of democracy and was a commentary on the state of Britain, not the EU. After the 2008 economic crisis, people are understandably angry and have many grievances. But like Trump voters in the US, Brexit voters in the “rust belt” areas of Britain will gain absolutely nothing and will probably be much worse off after we leave the EU.

READ MORE: More EU nationals choosing to live in Scotland despite Brexit

Labour and Corbyn need to tackle the real issues that these voters are protesting about. These are British problems, not European! On a more positive note, the EU has led on policy areas close to Corbyn’s aspirations – employee protection, social and fundamental human rights, environmental safeguards, and tackling climate change are areas where progressive EU ideas have served Britain well, especially in times of Tory Governments.

Labour, working with other progressive parties and politicians, is key to delivering a new approach to the EU. Labour is an internationalist party, a pro-European party, a party of partnership and cooperation, a party committed to fight economic nationalism, isolationism, racism and xenophobia. That’s why the Labour leader must rethink his position and withdraw, in any form, his support for Brexit.

Britain has already paid too high a price, even before a tsunami of social and economic consequences wash over our country and undermine social cohesion.

In Scotland there is no escape from the constitutional question. It is inextricably linked to the politics of this new age. Brexit will reignite the independence issue as Scots see their relationship with the UK and the EU permanently altered. The closer Labour remains to the EU, the more difficult it will be for the SNP to exploit Brexit. Time is running out for Westminster to take seriously Scotland’s growing impatience with the way Britain is being run. Scotland’s Parliament has devolved powers over certain policy areas, but no shared political or constitutional power!

Northern Ireland and the whole of Ireland will take a massive constitutional hit if a hard Brexit happens. Only the inclusion of the UK in a Customs Union will solve the border problem, despite the fantasies of “maximum facilitation”.

Finally, a lurch into an isolationist foreign policy, creating an intensified Anglosphere with the US, makes no sense in an unpredictable world. We shouldn’t be looking into dark and dangerous places to salvage a post-Brexit trade deal or acquire new and dubious friendships, when we have the stability, security, and prosperity of the EU.

Corbyn must see that a once-great Conservative party is being hollowed out by weak political leadership, treachery, and the consequences of a poisonous 30-year civil war over Europe. Brexiteers asked Britain to look backwards and called it the future. In the Commons and in the country, the Labour leader must catch the mood of a Britain that desperately needs to change course.