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Corbyn and May haunted by Ramsay MacDonald and Robert Peel

by Hugo Dixon | 17.01.2019

Ramsay MacDonald split Labour in the 1930s. The party’s first prime minister is viewed by many as a traitor for running a national government with the Conservatives during the Great Depression – and he was eventually expelled from the party he helped found.

Robert Peel split the Tories in 1840s. He joined forces with the Whigs, the forerunner of the Liberals, to repeal the Corn Laws after the terrible potato famine in Ireland. The Liberals dominated British politics for the rest of the 19th Century. It is now part of Conservative lore that nobody should ever split the party again.

We are now facing our worst peacetime crisis since the Great Depression. And many of the same issues that troubled the Conservative Party in the 1840s – such as free trade and Ireland – are back with a vengeance. One might therefore have thought that party leaders would reach across the chamber and do a deal. But MacDonald’s and Peel’s ghosts will probably stop Corbyn and May doing one.

Attempts to find common ground got off to a terrible start after the prime minister suffered a crushing defeat in Parliament on Tuesday. Although she said she wanted to consult senior MPs in other parties, she didn’t in the first instance offer to meet the leader of the opposition.

Yesterday evening, after surviving a vote of no confidence, the prime minister did ask to see Corbyn. But he said he wouldn’t meet unless she first ruled out crashing out of the EU with no deal. While that’s a totally reasonable demand, it’s not clear he should have made it a precondition for talks.

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Customs union blind alley

But even if the two leaders do meet, it’s doubtful they can make common cause. The one form of Brexit that might just find a majority in Parliament, even though it’s deeply flawed, is to stay in the customs union permanently. It is a bad idea because it would mean we had to follow EU trade policy without a vote on it; and it would do nothing for our services industries which account for 80% of our economy.

But in any case, the prime minister has already ruled it out. You can see why. 118 Tory MPs rebelled against her deal on Tuesday because of fear that the notorious “backstop” could keep us in the customs union permanently. A deal that said we would do that – without any caveats or “ifs” and “buts” – could provoke a bigger revolt. The hardliners are already warning her of repeating Peel’s errors.

But let’s imagine that May did offer Corbyn a customs union on the grounds that it is Labour policy. He wouldn’t take up the offer. He would argue that there weren’t guarantees that workers and environmental rights moved lock step with whatever our EU neighbours decided. He’d say it didn’t give us a say on EU trade policy – or allow us to subsidise our industries.

If May agreed to the first condition on rights, even more of her MPs would have her guts for garters. If she agreed to the last two, the EU wouldn’t agree. Why would they let us vote on their trade deals if we had left their club? And why would they let us shovel state aid to our industries, and compete unfairly with their own?

But the problem isn’t just that Labour’s EU policy is another cake-and-eat-it fantasy. Corbyn knows it’s not in his narrow political interest to do a deal. While he wouldn’t mind us quitting the EU, he does not want to share the responsibility for the damage it will inflict. And he certainly won’t want to be called Ramsay MacCorbyn.

So don’t expect anything to come from the prime minister’s belated and half-hearted attempt to reach across the political divide. The only way to solve this crisis is to ask the people if they still want to leave the EU.

4 Responses to “Corbyn and May haunted by Ramsay MacDonald and Robert Peel”

  • As a retired history teacher I have already warned my MP, Suella Braverman, of the Peel scenario as it is the ERG which is causing all the trouble in the Tory party; she was the chairperson of this group prior to Mogg. After 1846 the Tories did not hold meaningful power again until 1874 when Disraeli was the PM. Peel split the Tory party but his decision to repeal the Corn Laws was humane and economically correct. He showed the courage and conviction that May lacks and put country before party.
    I have had a letter from Ms Braverman today in which she says that as thing stand she is happy to leave the EU on WTO rules. It is crazy. Here we have a small group of 50-60 hardliners who are wagging the rest of us and no one has the courage to face up to them.
    Corbyn, sadly, also lacks courage and is scared to death of splitting his party. Miners turned photographs of Ramsay MacDonald around to face the wall in the 1930s. But I shouldn’t think many of us have photos of Jeremy hanging up so perhaps he will not suffer the same fate.! The fact that he is a Eurosceptic militates against him calling for Brexit to be cancelled or, at the very least, back a second referendum. He is pussy footing the country towards disaster.

  • The most depressing thing about both those stories, is that both the so called villains remain mythologically condemned by their party faithful for putting their country before their party. By the standards of the rest of us, those who are not the party boneheads who dominate both political and historical debate in this sadly benighted country, with its poisonous political culture, they did what was both right and necessary at the time, and were right to do so. But who is prepared to credit them for doing so and to challenge the mythology of those who repeat the mantra that they were some sort of traitor?

    Traitor to what? Which should come first? Which should command the highest political loyalties? Party, faction or public good?

  • Couldn’t agree more on both opinions. We live in a nation where pig headed obstinancy and stupidity from many of our politicians override the need to sort out a self inflicted mess.

    How can any serious politician simply think that the UK will be fine falling back on WTO rules? The WTO is in deep crisis.

    It is so typical of right wing politicos like Braverman to reduce complicated technical issues to simplistic normative processes in which if we just do A, B and C everything will just be fine.

  • Brexit is of course a supra party issue for both Cons and Labour and requires unprecedented statesmanship to “resolve”
    May has lost the confidence of so much of her Parliamentary party
    Corbyn never had the confidence of his Parliamentary party
    So we need to resolve this conundrum by having a Govt of national unity
    Sadly, pigs can’t fly, so representative democracy is failing the electorate and the Executive is cornered
    Yes, we need a 3rd european referendum (’75, ´16, ´19)
    As a Swiss (and British) national, I see the merits of a Peoplés vote
    Bring it on, but do not stint on the info package that should be sent to all electors. Ignorance ie we did not know what we were voting for/against is not an excuse