We’re between the devil and the deep blue sea

I’ve spoken to ordinarily calm, cool-headed people whose palms grow clammy as they work through the scenarios, says Jonathan Freedland

October 30, 2019 18:10

The timing of a pre-Christmas election shouldn’t bother too many JC readers. When it comes to preparing for the holidays, December is hardly Jews’ busiest month. Even so, the prospect of an election in the season of nativity plays and mince pies will, I suspect, be filling Jews with a special kind of dread.

For if we accept that, ultimately, a Westminster election is a binary choice that will see either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, then many Jews will reckon they’re being presented with two options that are both painfully hard to stomach.

Take the first scenario: the Conservatives return to office in sufficient numbers that Johnson gets to drive through his hard Brexit deal. That’s a dispiriting thought for a community that voted by a margin of two to one to remain in the European Union.

Of course, Jews will have a range of opinions and motivations on every topic, just like any other group of voters. But, on Brexit, there are some specifically Jewish sensibilities at play.

Arguments that remainers have struggled to make to the wider public find a more receptive audience among Jews. Jews don’t need to have it spelled out that Europe has a long and bloody history, and that the longest period of European peace in a thousand years has coincided with the lifetime of the EU.

Damaging a body that has played that role — and Brexit would certainly make the EU weaker — seems recklessly cavalier given that history.

Jews were always bound to be wary of a project fuelled by a nostalgic longing for a long-ago Britain laced with a nativist wariness of outsiders. Plenty of Jews look at the Britain that, say, Nigel Farage yearns for and wonder where exactly they’d fit in.

So much for the first scenario. What about the alternative? It might not even require Labour to gain an overall majority. Indeed, it could come through a new hung parliament, in which the only conceivable government is some combination of the SNP, the Lib Dems, Labour and others to be headed by Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.

Now, it’s worth stressing that the Lib Dems insist they won’t countenance any such an arrangement. Luciana Berger told this paper that Jo Swinson had assured her on that score and neither she nor the likes of Chuka Umunna left Labour only to put Corbyn into Number 10.

Lib Dems further note that when there was Westminster talk of assembling a government of national unity, even Ken Clarke was ready to install a Corbyn-led administration, but Swinson was not. She knows her party needs to win votes in Tory-held seats, where enabling Corbyn would not be forgiven.

Besides, Lib Dems were badly burned by the experience of coalition and do not want to make the same mistake twice.

So what would they do if they hold the balance of power? Swinson has chosen her words carefully. She says she won’t put Corbyn into Number 10, which is not the same as saying she won’t provide the numbers to install a Labour government so long as Jeremy Corbyn and his circle are no longer in charge.

But what if the numbers work out differently? I’ve spoken to ordinarily calm, cool-headed people whose palms grow clammy as they work through the scenarios. The prospect of Corbyn in front of that shiny black door makes them shudder. Again, we hardly need to spell out why. Jews have developed a shorthand for discussing Corbyn’s record. Say “the mural” or “English irony”, and most will understand exactly what you mean.

If this were all in the past, maybe some British Jews — especially those horrified by Brexit — would be prepared to look past it. But the way Corbyn’s Labour party has handled antisemitism within its ranks has only deepened the alarm.

Witness the fact that Labour under Corbyn has become the first UK political party since the BNP to come under statutory investigation for racism by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (with its report expected in the spring).

Recall the BBC Panorama programme which found that the leader’s inner circle repeatedly interfered with antisemitism cases, “mainly so they could let their mates off the charge”, as one whistleblower, driven to the brink of suicide, so memorably put it.

The thought of the man at the centre of all this becoming Britain’s prime minister — and the notion that their fellow citizens might shrug at that prospect or consider it a price worth paying — has Jews deeply panicked.

And yet many Jews also fear a hard Brexit under Boris Johnson. They look at the choice confronting them and worry that they are being asked to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Last week’s JC poll gave a striking picture of how most would resolve that dilemma: it found that 78 per cent of British Jews would prefer even a no deal Brexit over Corbyn in Downing Street.

Some will reject the binary choice altogether, voting for the Lib Dems — and hoping that a strong Lib Dem contingent in a hung parliament could demand Corbyn’s replacement as the price of its support. But only one thing is certain: British Jews will approach the coming election with a trepidation they have rarely known before.

October 30, 2019 18:10

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