In his speech at the conference of the Labour Party in Wales on the weekend, the party’s leader told delegates that the real divide in Britain isn’t between Leavers and Remainers but between rich and poor, and that “The first question is what kind of society do we want to be”. In principle, I’d agree with all of that, but I’m not so sure that it is that easy to separate the two issues. For me, Brexit is also largely about what sort of society we want to be, and pretending that it isn’t, or is in some way just an economic issue (the infamous “jobs-first Brexit” which he talks about regularly) is ignoring the reality of the motivations behind Brexit.
Do we want to be looking outward to an increasingly interconnected world, or do we want to be insular harking back to the ‘glory’ of the past? Do we want to co-operate with our neighbours in sharing resources and building common prosperity, or do we want to compete with them by undercutting them on standards and regulations? Do we want to be open and welcoming towards others, or do we want to pull up the drawbridge and keep others out? Do we want to be internationalists with a firm footing in our own roots and culture, or Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all insisting on the uniqueness and exceptionalism of those who just happen to live on a small group of offshore islands? These are all illustrations of the ideological divide between those of us who want to be part of a wider Europe and those who want to stand alone against the world.
To ask “what sort of society we want to be” in the current context without understanding the huge gulf between the answer given by Brexiteers and that given by Remainers is to completely miss the point. Of course, the EU isn’t perfect and there is much which needs to change, and of course being ‘European’ in outlook doesn’t necessarily translate into being an enthusiast for all aspects of the EU. But it’s a much better starting point for building the sort of society that I want us to be than opting out and trying to turn the clock back. The way the question was posed simply underlines that Corbyn is himself a dyed-in-the-wool Anglo-British not-nationalist-at-all.