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04.03.16

We are locked in a Dad’s Army politics of the left and right

As Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis since World War II, our prime minister tours the continent talking tax credits. The puniness of David Cameron next to the magnitude of events, the narrow, inward focus of his preoccupations, means that if he were a film he’d be a Dad’s Army remake.

Why, Peter Bradshaw not unreasonably asks in his Guardian review, do we need this film?

The answer, Uncut suspects, is involved with an observation previously made by Bradshaw’s Guardian colleague, Jonathan Freedland: “We have turned 1939-45 into a kind of creation myth, the noble story of modern Britain’s birth”. Basking in this myth is preferable to the grim reality of Europe’s shared contemporary challenges.

During World War II, Freedland argues, “we were unambiguously on the side of good. That, of course, is a key difference between us and our fellow Europeans, for whom that period is anything but simple or unambiguous.” The war has inculcated a sense of Britain, separate and special. This is reinforced as consistently on the printed pages of the Daily Mail as the Kardashians feature in its digital edition, wildly popular in the US. Soft porn celebrity, soft porn history.

While it is to be hoped that no one invested in Dad’s Army anticipating box office on the continent, some jokes amid the myth do little harm. It is our myth, our humour, our film. Let’s not expect it to pack Berlin cinemas.

Entertainment is one thing; politics is another. Politics ought to be more than myth peddling. But that is what Cameron provides when he claims that tax credit collection by citizens of other EU countries in the UK is the big issue now facing us and the rest of the Europe.

“The UK’s immigration policy has become one of the most hard-line in the developed world,” notes Phoebe Griffith in fantastic set of essays published at the end of last year by the Fabians. The changes to tax credits that Cameron seeks would make it harder still. Net migration for the year ending June 2015, as Griffith observes, was a record for the UK. As much as a more contributory welfare system, a goal that Labour should support, is not inconsistent with the kind of changes to tax credits that Cameron seeks, it is hard to believe that these changes will substantially impact the flow of people toward the UK.

The numbers of those arriving in the UK dwarf those departing to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We agonise over what imperfection is revealed about our society by those leaving the UK without pausing to celebrate what the arrivals indicate about the attractiveness of British life. In so doing, we undersell ourselves and misconceive our place in the world.

This is a place that Labour, sadly, is doing little to enlighten. “Two events have cast long shadows,” writes Mark Leonard in the Fabian collection, “the electoral defeat of 1983 and the Iraq war of 2003.” Fear of a 1983 outcome, Leonard argues, sustains Labour support for Trident, while aversion to Iraq-style calamities colours Labour attitudes to intervention. Yet, claims Leonard, “neither prism does much to help us understand the dilemmas in the global disorder of 2015.”

As much as the comic potential of a cameo from the man himself is vast – “What’s that about Lenin?” “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” – there’s no Dad’s Army character like Jeremy Corbyn. But the party that he leads remains shackled by foreign policy dispositions that are, in their own way, just as insular as a Dad’s Army rehash or an approach to the EU that privileges the small beer of tax credits.

Corbyn recently nicked an idea from Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, and took the press on a tour of Calais. Farron is struggling to achieve the foreign policy salience held by previous holders of his office, such as Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. Nor is the bigger picture truly illuminated by Corbyn going to Calais and shouting, “Panic! Panic!”

“While 200,000 people landed in Greece and 110,000 in Italy during the course of 2015,” Griffith notes, “only 5,000 have reached Calais.” The Italian and Greek figures pall next to the number of displaced people in Lebanon and Jordan, small states put under immense strain by the Syrian crisis.

Calais is the tip of an iceberg of human misery largely driven by a conflict that Corbyn, like many of us, remains content to categorise as, “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

“When war eventually came,” Jean Seaton reminds us in her Fabian essay, “Neville Chamberlain the appeasing prime minister fell from office not because the Tories were dissatisfied with him, but because Labour adamantly refused to work with him.” Perhaps the cast member that is most absent from Dad’s Army would be less likely to quote Lenin and more in the mould of Ernest Bevin.

Honouring Bevin’s legacy requires overcoming the two threats to active internationalism identified by Jo Cox for the Fabians: “an increasingly nationalist and isolationist right … a government that has withdrawn from global leadership. And … those on the left who might show great personal solidarity with international causes but tend to think the British state has no role to play.”

For now, however, these threats predominate, locking us in a Dad’s Army politics of right and left. Don’t panic!