Summary: The UK Labour Party should look to the moral courage of Hume and Mallon to effectively oppose Johnson’s debased government
At the start of the play King Lear, the villainous Edmund contemplates how he plans to ruin the life of his decent brother Edgar. It won’t be too hard, he reckons, because Edgar is a “brother noble, whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty my practices ride easy.” In other words, Edgar is so innocent he will never be able to believe that someone could be so shameless with the shenanigans that Edmund plans to unleash in his bid for power.
This line struck me again after seeing a report of Ed Miliband of all people, following in the footsteps of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, advising the British people to “embrace Brexit.” This wholesale purchase of Boris Johnson’s shameless Big Lie by the British Labour leadership must have Johnson rubbing his hands in glee. Just as the disaster of Brexit in terms of reduced revenues and collapsing businesses begins to become apparent, Labour, without Johnson even having to ask, has surrendered to him the most favourable political terrain upon which the next election could be fought. And just like that, like innocents, they blunder into his trap.
Few con-men in history can have been so gifted with luck as Johnson. His practices run easy on Labour’s foolish honesty. Starmer and his team may wish to be statesmen and stateswomen endeavouring to do what is best for their country. But what is needed from them first is that they be an opposition, because Johnson has no such patriotic inclination. Johnson remains only interested in Johnson. So Labour must bide their dreams of good government until they actually win an election over the exposed lies of Johnson’s cabal. But that is a possibility that is forever diminished by their acquiescence in Johnson’s most fundamental grift.
I did not grow up politically in the British Labour party. I grew up during the Troubles in the North of Ireland. I learned politics from John Hume and Seamus Mallon. They were men who had their disagreements and differences in approach. But there were more important things that united them and made them such a formidable political partnership.
One of these things was that they repudiated the Big Lie. They did not accept that a polity gerrymandered through the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was worthy to be considered a democracy. They did not accept that violence could ever heal a divided society. They accepted neither the mealy-mouthed justifications of the British state nor of the Irish paramilitaries for the carnage they wrought. Over 30 brutal years they helped turn their commitments to those truths into a workable peace process, in the face of odds which to many seemed insurmountable. Too many English politicians now seem to take this peace so easily for granted that they dismiss the importance of its roots in Ireland’s and the UK’s common membership of the European Union.
People often made jokes about Hume’s “single transferrable speech”: the one he delivered year in, year out from Derry to Dublin to London to Washington and Brussels. In it he unfailingly demanded peace, power-sharing and respect for each other’s traditions and identities.
But whatever the jokers thought, Hume knew something important that he learned as a teacher. Repetition works. Eventually the basic facts – of French grammar, or Irish history, or the fundamental elements of a peace process – could with patience be drummed into even the most obdurate of brains.
Mallon spoke a similar truth. Sometimes observers would be amazed to see him telling constituents to keep their potential votes rather than pander to their prejudices, and be dishonest about his most deeply held principles.
Mallon showed a class of moral courage which is rare in general. It is even rarer in the current British Labour party which ties itself in knots in its efforts to pander to the perceived prejudices of the Tory voters in its former “Red Wall” seats. Unfortunately it seems they have come to believe that this demands they give Johnson a free pass on his most outrageous lie: that there are benefits to Brexit.
Labour’s leadership may be decent people, but their nature is such that they do not properly conceive of the harms that Johnson so casually wreaks upon them. History is happening to them, and they lack the steel of a Hume or a Mallon to bend its arc back towards justice.