It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Or do I mean, it would be tragic if it weren’t so funny? The political condition of post-Brexit Britain is what I’m talking about: the national mood. Sick with fear and fastened to a dying animal, we know not what we are.
Things, though, have taken a turn, perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse, with Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise announcement at the end of August that the Labour Party will reverse its position on Brexit and back continued membership in the European Union single market beyond March 2019, when departure from the union was meant to be done and dusted. Why the Labour Party hasn’t been full-bloodedly opposing Brexit from the word go is a matter for another article.
Go back over who said what in the course of last year’s referendum — we are still doing little else in this country — and the most startling, if not the most decisive, moment came when Mr. Corbyn declared his support for remaining in such a dispirited and halfhearted fashion that it could easily have been mistaken for an argument for leaving. Asked on television to rate his enthusiasm for the European Union on a scale of one to 10, he stumbled to seven, then appeared to add a half, and then appeared to retract it. If Labour voters wondered which side he was on, you cannot blame them.
Few politicians look as compromised and conscious of being wrong-footed as Mr. Corbyn does on TV. He is at home only in gatherings of the faithful, where he doesn’t have to hide what’s in his heart because it’s in theirs as well. Throughout the referendum campaign, he came across as out of sorts, queasy and there on sufferance only.
On one side of him, senior Labour politicians were lauding the European Union for all it had done for labor legislation and the protection of workers’ rights. On the other, no-less-senior colleagues were arguing for the free movement of labor, which was a cornerstone of the union’s philosophy and to which no socialist, surely, could take exception. And there, in the middle, sat Jeremy Corbyn giving it seven and a half — or was it seven and a quarter? — and, according to reports, quietly ordering his party to temper its Euro-enthusiasm.
Mr. Corbyn’s difficulty was that as a Labour man of the old school, he saw the European Union as a club for capitalist cronies and had never wanted Britain to belong to it in the first place.
Mr. Corbyn has been around a long time and has ideological skeletons in his cupboard. He saw a little too much of the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams than he should have at a time when the party’s paramilitary wing, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, was busy bombing English cities. He got on a little too well with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that the European Union continues to blacklist as a terrorist group. And he’d been no friend of the European Union. No surprise, then, that every time he was asked a question about where he’d been politically for the last half-century, he looked like a burglar caught with a sackful of silver.
But we see what we want to see, and that, evidently, was not how he appeared to everyone. The lackluster Mr. Corbyn is now a force in the land, thanks to Theresa May’s botched general election, a favorite of the young, the hottest turn at the summer’s rock festivals, where his addresses are greeted with the Shelley-inspired chant “For the many, not the few.”
No one really knew what June’s election was about. Mrs. May called it ostensibly to strengthen her hand with her own party and put her in a stronger negotiating position with the European Union. Since she declared herself weakly for staying in the union before the referendum and then declared herself strongly for leaving it afterward, it was never entirely clear who in her own party, never mind the union, she wanted to put herself in a stronger bargaining position with. That she campaigned with such extraordinary feebleness — making Mr. Corbyn’s seven and a half look like a masterstroke of decisiveness — might just be attributable to the confusion in her heart. The consequence, anyway, was that a ruling Conservative Party meant to romp home to decisive victory was returned to government with no overall majority — and a resurgent Mr. Corbyn.
Absurd in itself, the election has released an absurdism into the country already made to look foolish in its own eyes, never mind in others’, by a referendum that should never have been called and a resolution in which nothing was resolved. Tragedies like the recent terrorist attacks on Manchester and London and the fire at Grenfell Tower have drawn attention from this, but on the lips of anyone not a confirmed Brexiteer or Corbynite the word most often heard is “farce.” No one is in charge. No one says what he means. No one knows what’s going to happen or why things have happened as they have. Jeering has taken the place of debate. The mood is ugly.
Although Mr. Corbyn’s resurgence can easily be attributed to Mrs. May’s acting as his recruiting officer, it is also the consequence of a young electorate with no historical memory growing fuddled about who, in the matter of Brexit at least, supported what. Despite Mr. Corbyn’s having done so much for the Leave side by the manner in which he opposed leaving — think of the millions of Labour voters he might have persuaded to remain had he given seven and a half to the Leavers — research shows that more than 50 percent of voters who had backed Remain voted Labour in June. And of that group, a sizable proportion had switched from voting Tory.
Thus, though Mr. Corbyn had no appetite himself for remaining, as opposed to Mrs. May, who once had no appetite for leaving, it was he to whom Remainers turned for comfort and safe harbor. Not to reverse the referendum — not enough people as yet have the courage to press for that — but to make the exit less painful.
Little more than a week ago, this rump of the Remainers looked foolish in their hopes indeed. Bereft of historical recall, misinformed by social media, driven by dreams, they were putting their money on a loser. Yes, the chances are that when the next general election is called (most likely in 2022), Mr. Corbyn’s Labour will defeat a raggle-taggle Tory Party, decimated by Europe yet again. But the Mr. Corbyn they will get, a man revered for the steadfastness of his principles, will no more be able to forget his opposition to the European Union than he will his opposition to Britain’s imperialist past.
I say “a week ago,” but we all know how long a week in politics can be. Now Mr. Corbyn has changed tack, proposing a four-year transition period during which Britain will keep its full membership in the customs union and the single market, presumably ensuring that the free movement of labor continues, at least temporarily. It’s unlikely that Mr. Corbyn is hoping that this transition period will enable a greater change of heart in relation to the European Union altogether, but some in his party might — including the very people Mr. Corbyn sacked from his team only recently for supporting a softer Brexit approach along the lines he’s now suggesting.
So, we descend further into shambles. How will this new policy play with Labour voters in the northeast of England who voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union and want it done expeditiously and “hard”? Will they see this softening as betrayal? And if they do, will they swap loyalties and vote Conservative?
And what about the devoted young for whom Mr. Corbyn was a man of honor among knaves, who has never changed his mind in 50 years and whom you can rely on not to change it now? How lies the land with them? Impervious to the argument that unswerving principle is admirable only so long as the principle is worth not swerving from, will they change their minds about Mr. Corbyn and admire his newfound capacity for apostasy?
Meanwhile, some among the Tories, alarmed that Mr. Corbyn might have pulled another rabbit out of the hat, are growing convinced that the only way to counter softening on the one side is to promote further hardening on their own. To that end, talk grows of replacing Mrs. May at the earliest opportunity with an arch-Leaver, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Mr. Rees-Mogg is a media-savvy High Tory in the self-consciously preposterous, overprivileged Boris Johnson mode, only without the boyish incorrigibility. When accused of electioneering in a Bentley, Mr. Rees-Mogg proclaimed his innocence of such insensitivity, insisting it had been a Mercedes. When he is not providing unintentional comedy, Mr. Rees-Mogg views any backtracking on Brexit as a betrayal of the very people it is hard to believe he gives a damn about. But in this, he is not much different from politicians on all sides who think the will of the people, no matter what percentage of the overall population Leavers actually represent, is sacrosanct.
And here, we return to the initiating absurdity. For the will of the people is not sacrosanct. Democracy is not a god; it is a servant. Not a servant to be treated with contempt, but where it persists in an error that can be shown to be detrimental to those it exists to serve, a servant that can and should be asked to think again.
We are sick with fear and fastened to a dying animal. The dying animal is not the European Union. It is this misbegotten “will of the people.”
Howard Jacobson, the author of more than a dozen novels, including The Finkler Question and, most recently, Pussy: A Novel, is a contributing opinion writer.