It was in 1940 that the great novelist and journalist George Orwell sat down to write the essay called My Country Right Or Left. In it, he described how, after the 1939 pact between the USSR and Germany, he realised there were only two options in relation to Nazism – to give in to it, or to stand and fight. And he added that he also knew this was partly a matter of patriotism; that for all his radical contempt for many actions of the British state, when his country took up arms against Hitler, then he would support it, and would have little patience for those on the left who advanced fancy reasons for not doing so.
And as Britain’s Brexit crisis deepens – and its links with the current lurch to the far-right across Europe and the United States become steadily clearer – it’s hard not to feel a certain sympathy with Orwell, and his journey to the point where he had to square his pacifist, socialist and anti-establishment principles with support for a new war. We are not, thank heavens, in anything like the position that Britain faced in 1940, with the UK in imminent danger of attack and invasion; although it is interesting how often extreme Brexiteers invoke that moment, in their ridiculous efforts to portray the EU as a new Third Reich.
We are, though, in a situation where those who want to combat the rising tide of racism, xenophobia, institutional collapse and jingoistic brutalism across the West now have to shape up, pick their side, and put an end to pointless disputes about who, among the opponents of Trump, Brexit and all that they bring in their wake, has the best claim to perfect political virtue. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” says Shakespeare in The Tempest; and all our futures may depend on our ability to see that new times also demand new alliances, and a willingness to stop being distracted from the main task by increasingly irrelevant arguments.
At the moment, these irrelevant arguments tend to come in three sorts. The first is the noisy disaffection of some still nominally on the left, who have clearly now, for all effective purposes, changed sides. This group includes Labour “rebels” like Kate Hoey, who on Monday evening voted at Westminster to support a Government Customs Bill which included the wrecking amendments put down by the far-right European Reform Group. The second kind of irrelevant argument has to do with traditional party structures and divisions, which are surely now being rendered obsolete by the new political landscape that has evolved since 2016. This week in the Commons, for example, the outstanding speech attacking the idea of a no-deal Brexit from the left was made by the Tory MP Anna Soubry, who accused “people on these benches with gold-plated pensions and inherited wealth” of thinking the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs a “price worth paying” for a no-deal Brexit.
Yet although at least half of the parliamentary Conservative Party probably agreed with her, only 14 voted against the Government on Monday night; nor have the other Westminster parties who would prefer a soft Brexit to a hard Brexit, or to the no-deal catastrophe now threatening the UK, managed to put together a working alliance with Tory Remainers that could defeat the hard Brexit option – not least because Labour, the biggest opposition party, is both confused about its own position, and unwilling to talk to the SNP, the third largest party. The persistence of these tribal divisions is a disgrace, given the scale of the crisis we now face. And that observation also goes for those SNP purists who think that the party should refuse to co-operate with other soft Brexiteers at Westminster, in the forlorn hope that a hard Brexit crisis will finally deliver Scottish independence, when in fact, history shows that a catastrophic blow to the Scottish economy, caused by a no-deal Brexit, is more likely to set back the cause of independence by decades. And the third and most insidious form of increasingly irrelevant argument is the one on the left about whose fault all this is; the “Obama was as bad as Trump” line, which suggests that Trump simply does in plain sight what Obama – or Hillary Clinton, or any other centre-left hate-figure – did under a veil of “liberal” hypocrisy. Yet even if we accept the evidently false proposition that Trump’s actions are no worse than Obama’s, there is still a major difference between politicians who try to downplay such acts, and politicians who advocate an ideology that actually glorifies them. In particular, there is a difference between politicians who do wrong, but leave in place the institutions that might hold them to account, and politicians whose entire project involves seeking to discredit and destroy those institutions, as both Trump and the Brexiteers do; encouraging their supporters to reject the views of parliament, judges, the media, expert opinion, and international bodies, and to dismiss those people as “enemies” or “traitors” whenever they contradict their own myth-based prejudices.
And very soon, now, everyone on the British left, from Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn to the most unassuming activist, will have to decide which side they are on. They will have to choose between the flawed but hard-won institutions of democracy and international co-operation, which at least give us a chance of winning a better future by peaceful means; and the forces of destabilisation and destruction which may finally produce a victor on one side or other, but which always destroy millions in the process. It’s not the choice any of us wanted, any more than Orwell wanted the choice he faced, back in 1939.
Yet if we fail to choose wisely, to make new alliances, and to step up to the mark in the coming political battle, then there will be victims; and not, of course, among the Trumps and Boris Johnsons who deliberately unleash political and economic chaos, but among the vulnerable, the ordinary and the less well off, who always pay the highest price for any great crisis, and have the smallest chance of reaping any benefit at all.