Sowing Peas in March

If Corbyn is to have a chance of leading Britain towards greater fairness, he must position himself to take charge before it is firmly committed to dropping out of the existing trading arrangements with Europe.

A few days ago, New Zealanders learnt that Jacinda Ardern, their prime minister, is to have a baby in June. Being a PM is a very tough job, but many women successfully combine bringing up a family with pursuing their careers.  There is no reason why Jacinda cannot do the same!

As a British citizen trying to produce all the vegetables we eat, I like the thought that we might have a prime minister who continues to cultivate his/her allotment and makes his/her own jam. Communing with nature provides a refreshing pause for the kind of fruitful (or, perhaps I should say, down-to-earth) reflection that is so vital but tends to be crowded out by the hectic schedules now imposed on people in high office.

Nowadays, it seems that presidents and prime ministers are expected to tweet an instant reaction to every new development – and so they communicate with their citizens mainly by Twitter. Few will be respected for their oratory. If the present incumbent of 10 Downing Street is remembered for her utterances, it will be for her repetitive use of mantras, such as “Brexit means Brexit” which can mean anything to anyone but which she seems to find self-assuring to the point that she claims, even as she wobbles, to offer us “strong and stable” government.

The “constant gardener”

We don’t have a television at home, so I don’t feel that I really know how Jeremy Corbyn talks or walks and conducts himself with others. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that he an easy person to engage in conversation, who has few airs and graces, and treats those he meets, especially if they are less exalted than him, with respect. I suspect that he is non-confrontational by nature but still firm in sticking to his principles when challenged.

Indeed, Corbyn’s greatest strength is his consistency. While other politicians, vividly exemplified these days by Gove and Johnson, are driven by undisguised personal ambition and opportunism, JC, like his mentor Tony Benn, has consistently stood up for his beliefs about social justice and the futility of war, putting these ahead of any aspiration for high office. What is interesting is that, with the passage of time, he is being proved right. The invasion of Iraq and the assumption by private businesses of many of the functions of the public sector are now being seen as disastrous. The fact that he has always had the courage to speak out against the majority views of his own party when these have conflicted with his principles is a sign of strength that shows that he has what it takes to be a leader.

I always find it strange how the word “pacifist” is so often used derogatively; it somehow implies that there is virtue in war and that those who crave for peace lack the moral fibre that some see as a trait of true British nationalism. My wife and I have huge respect for our parents’ courage in two world wars that created the basis for the peace in Europe which has lasted for most of our lives. We share a deep desire to see our children also live the whole of their time on earth in peace, and so we find it easy to admire Corbyn’s commitment to nurturing peace through dialogue rather than sabre-rattling. He is strongly criticised for his contacts with IRA members and Palestinians – to the point of being accused of anti-semitism – but I know, as he does, that brokering lasting peace can only be successful if reconciliation is based on the engagement of conflicting parties on an equal footing and on building mutual trust through frank and open dialogue. Interestingly, the EU has been successful in promoting peace in this way, not least in Ireland.

Having spent much of my life working in developing countries, several affected by civil wars, I am convinced that the main driver of future conflicts, both within and between countries, will be the widening gap between rich and poor – a gap that may have been easy to disguise or ignore in the past, but which is now so visible because of the vast improvements in communications that we have witnessed in our life-times. It is natural, therefore, that a “pacifist” should also subscribe to the goal of creating a more equitable sharing of a nation’s wealth. Interestingly, even the OECD, the richer nations’ club, now recognises that reducing inequity may lead to accelerated economic growth.

It seems to be becoming fashionable for members of the establishment to criticise Theresa May’s ineptitude but yet to support her staying on as prime minister simply on the grounds that the alternative would probably be a strongly left-wing Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn: they claim that he would launch a wave of re-nationalisation of public utilities and bankrupt the economy in the process. Put bluntly, the propping up of May is about keeping Corbyn out of Downing Street.

The challenge that the establishment now faces is that the liberal economic management system, espoused by successive Conservative and centrist Labour governments, is showing signs of having passed its best-by-date and is rapidly losing credibility.  One rescue from bankruptcy after another places impossible demands on scarce tax-payers’ funds and thousands of workers face pension losses while their bosses enjoy golden handshakes. A prolonged period of austerity has eroded public services and the benefits of economic growth have failed to trickle down to those most in need. The fire in Grenfell tower highlighted the perils of unfettered deregulation and the impotence of poor families in getting their local council to protect them from the hazards they recognised. No wonder that many people want to see change.

Although I suppose that, by the good fortune of birth and of education, I would be seen by Corbyn as a member of the establishmentI can well understand the disdain and contempt in which he – and so many people around the country – holds this informal nexus of people who have held sway over Britain almost continuously since the end of World War II. It is a loose elitist alliance of aristocracy and those who aspire to living in “higher circles”, successful businessmen including bankers, press barons and rightist politicians acting usually in the name of British nationalism and backed by a respectable but aging middle class. The EU referendum campaign highlighted their tendency to look down their noses at what they perceive as lesser mortals, including the young and, especially, foreigners unless they are millionaires or film stars.

Little time to lose

Jeremy the gardener knows the critical importance of timing of planting crops to secure a year-round supply of fresh vegetables – when, for instance, to sow his peas to plug the gap between the winter’s Brussels sprouts and the tomatoes and cucumbers that reach maturity in summer. Timing is also critical in getting his jams to set!

Whether he can defeat the current Tory government and trigger an election that he can be certain of winning is also a matter of getting the timing right. For the moment his priority must be to consolidate a wide-spectrum Labour party that stretches from the far left with whom he feels most comfortable to the more right-wing young who are disillusioned with the self-seeking behaviour of Tory leaders. Like May, Corbyn faces a difficult balancing act in holding his diverse party together, but he has the advantage that most members find it easy to jointly subscribe to the idea of a fairer society. Armed with a single sense of purpose, he must choose the right moment to emerge as the statesman who can offer voters the opportunity to create a Great Britain in which all citizens can benefit from prosperity and greater social justice.

Given the growing delusion with the incumbent government, this should already be a vote-winning formula, with or without Brexit. However, it is abundantly clear that it will be much easier to deliver on this agenda if Britain’s economy is growing robustly. All the indications are that, for this to happen, the UK must, at the very least, stay in the single market and customs union so that it can continue to trade in goods and services without friction with our European neighbours. Corbyn must realise this but is presumably waiting for the right moment to say so.

The present government aspires to stay in place until 2022, overseeing the country’s exit from the EU, with potentially disastrous effects on the economy and possibly also the environment. If Corbyn is to have a chance of leading Britain towards greater fairness, he must position himself to take charge before it is firmly committed to dropping out of the existing trading arrangements. This means allying himself with like-minded parties (duly listening and responding to their concerns) and some Conservative dissidents to defeat the government and trigger an early election. The probable return of the EU Withdrawal Bill from the Lords to the Commons could provide an opportunity for proposing a winning amendment for retaining membership of the single market and customs union. If not, another false step by May could open a new window,

Corbyn is probably now preparing the ground in his allotment to be able to sow peas in March. Coincidentally, this might be the right time for him to offer to lead Britain’s negotiations on its future relations with Europe, based on the existing trading arrangements, while not ruling out continued EU membership if he senses that this is what most British people – especially the young, who will face the consequences for the rest of their lives – really want.

Between now and then, on every suitable occasion, he must press Theresa May to divulge the Treasury’s analyses of the economic impact of the hard Brexit scenario to which she is stubbornly committed. Whether she reveals them or not, the public suspicion will be that she is knowingly driving us into a self-harming destiny so that she can continue to chant “Brexit means Brexit”.

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