There is something oddly endearing about the reigns of Charles X of France or Franz I of Austria. Inefficient, sclerotic and corrupt as their regimes undeniably were, I must confess to finding their utterly futile attempts at holding back the tides of social change wrought by the French Revolution somewhat magnificent, albeit in the sense commonly associates with the Charge of the Light Brigade. Between their rejection of railroads (on the grounds that it promoted mobility and hence dissent) and a severe addiction to protocol and ceremony, both men appear to us as ossified survivals from the ancien regime in a rapidly changing world. The rigid conservatism and suffocating orthodoxy represented by both governments has reappeared in the 20th century in various guises. Perhaps the most notable of these was Antonio Salazar’s regime in Portugal from 1932 to 1968, who deliberately sought to trap his country in poverty for the sake of stability and security.
It is nevertheless surprising that such conservative obduracy survives into the present in one of Europe’s most dynamic and innovative societies. Perceptive readers might already have guessed who I am referring to here – Jeremy Corbyn, savior of the British Left and prophet for the 21st century. Mr. Corbyn represents one particular strand of the Labour Party, the strand that has ‘forgotten nothing and learned nothing’ from the history of the past 75 years. His pledges to reopen coal mines and redevelop Britain’s heavy industry betray a tragi-comic level of economic illiteracy and an apparently limitless ability to engage in wishful thinking. His foreign policy shows all the nuance that might be expected from a five year old – in his worldview, any opponent of America is deserving of sympathy and support. Substituting ‘America’ for ‘liberalism’ would have been an apt summary of Franz I’s foreign policy. As a self-professed champion for the underprivileged and oppressed, it is somewhat odd to see Mr. Corbyn denying the Kosovo genocide and holding up an endless series of justifications for Hamas, Hezbollah, Putin and a variety of other unsavoury characters who do not bother to hide their intolerance for those who do not fit neatly into their agenda. Much of his policy platforms come straight out of the 1980s – unilateral nuclear disarmament, leaving NATO (and probably the EU as well), nationalisation of key industries and punitive levels of taxation – yet Britain has changed dramatically since Mrs. Thatcher left 10 Downing Street. His intention to tackle inequality, alleviate poverty and increase social mobility is both commendable and necessary, but it is difficult to see how this can be achieved with an economic programme lifted straight out of the immediate post-war era. The dark satanic mills associated with the Industrial Revolution are no longer a feature of Britain’s landscape not because of capitalist greed or Conservative heartlessness but because of the rise of off-shore production. The coal mines of South Wales or the shipyards of Belfast would have withered away even if Mrs. Thatcher had never taken office – as Marx himself recognized, fundamental economic trends are beyond the control of individual politicians or parties. Mr. Corbyn is in truth a reactionary, one worthy of Charles X or Salazar in his sheer ignorance of modern economic realities and dogmatic refusal to evolve with the times. It is thus doubly ironic that many, though by no means all of his most fervent supporters are youthful idealists who evince a near-visceral hatred of the Conservative Party and all it stands for.
The truth is that Mr. Corbyn, like reactionaries of all stripes, has successfully tapped into a deep wellspring of fear and resentment. Fear of a changing world where index-linked pensions, lifelong employment and job security are no longer within reach of all but a privileged minority. Resentment of a global economy which has given rise to ever greater inequality, one in which material rewards are disproportionately awarded to those who are the best-connected, not those who work the hardest. The appeal of a state-socialist platform to those who feel left-out of today’s prosperity is evident – Britain under Harold Wilson was a lot grayer and far less prosperous, but arguably more equal than the Britain of Tony Blair and David Cameron. In the long run though, adopting the failed solutions of the past to tackle the problems of the present is a path towards catastrophe. Subsidies for cottage industry and absurdly high tariffs against British imports did not alleviate the agricultural depression that befell Southern Germany and Austria in the 1830s. Likewise, renationalizing the railroads, imposing punitive taxation and scrapping tuition fees cannot address the fundamental causes behind rising inequality or low wages. Contrary to popular belief, Britain cannot simply choose to seal itself off behind the Channel and ignore global economic forces, and any attempt to do will merely generate economic disruption and chaos. 19th century clerics desperately attempted to ward off the tide of liberalism through censorship and ever more strident public warnings to absolutely no avail, and their spiritual successors in today’s Twitterati can scarcely hope to perform any better. That so many people have opted for Mr. Corbyn’s agenda is a tragedy for both the Labour Party and British democracy.
There can be no doubt that the European centre-left is deeply in trouble – to put it bluntly, it has failed to come up with meaningful answers to the major issues of our time and practical solutions to a seemingly endless series of crises. The Labour Party lost the last election by an unexpectedly large margin because its policies failed to inspire its working-class base, yet came across as too radical for wavering voters in the middle, many of whom had once supported the Liberal Democrats. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have all come up with plausible programmes for the party to adopt in the next five years ahead, programmes that should appeal to different demographic groups who defected from Labour in this election. Alone of all the candidates in this leadership election, Mr. Corbyn has opted for the politics of protest. That alone is a large part of his appeal – many of his youthful supporters have little stomach for the compromises which form an inevitable part of governing. Yet those who most fervently desire a party purged of Blairites and ‘Tory-lites’ are rarely those who are the worst-off in this country. Many of them are in fact members of powerful public sector unions which have tried their best to derail the government’s ambitious and genuinely radical reforms. In a country which has always been rather less egalitarian than most of its continental counterparts, it is heartening to see the proportion of state-school pupils applying to and entering top universities increase every year since 2010. State schools in Britain, long a source of despair for parents and experts alike, are being revamped through decentralization and greater accountability. As uncomfortable as that might be for entrenched public sector employees, this cannot but benefit their pupils and the country as a whole.
Democracies function best when the government is effectively brought to account for its actions and policies. The Conservatives are not perfect, and David Cameron has made mistakes in the past, some of which he has to his credit admitted in public. When one party abdicates that role in favour of armchair criticism and ideological purity, it commits a grave disservice to the public as a whole, one that will not and should not be readily forgiven. Portraying the Prime Minister as some ungodly mixture of Enoch Powell, Louis Philippe and Metternich might be great fun, but is hardly what the British public wants or needs. Labour has made this mistake once before – it owes it to the country not to repeat it a second time.