Brexit and the lessons of Habsburg

Jeremy Corbyn is obviously not a great student of history. Had he been one he would not have been a lukewarm campaigner for Remain, he would not have ordered the three-line whip in support of invoking Article 50, and in the midst of the Brexit chaos he would not have agreed to a new election when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act protects his party, and democracy, against undue exploitation of the tides of popularity. Mr. Corbyn’s failing is both tactical and a complete misunderstanding of the role of the EU in reigning in national elites.

The European project is in the final analysis an attempt to build a benevolent multicultural and multi-national empire. It is a project of peace-building and creation of broad prosperity.

How an empire can work towards prosperity for all is, perhaps ironically, illustrated best by the Habsburg empire of Maria-Theresia and Joseph II. Whilst the Habsburg empire, like all dynastic systems, suffered from the ’bad emperor’ risk (Francis I), it demonstrated nevertheless how empire can be a tool for the disenfranchised to overcome the oppression by regional elites – the feudal local nobility. Time after time peasants resisted nationalistic ambitions by the nobility for more freedom from Vienna, because they saw the emperor as the protector against ravenous local lords.

What is truly depressing is that Jeremy Corbyn, surely an idealistic man, has not understood that his Eurosceptic attitude is delivering his flock, the working class, to the animal spirits of a local English elite whose opposition to the EU has much less to do with sentimental longing for a glorious past than with a hankering for the elimination of the protections of workers and citizens imposed by Brussels. The British working class has been much helped by EU membership, even if it has also brought painful economic dislocations. Germany, the Nordic countries, France, have made sure that economic liberalism has been tempered by strong solidarity measures, and even if more needs to be done in this respect it is without question that having Germany, Sweden, France on the side of the British worker is far more effective than the British worker facing unbridled liberal economics protected by Labour only.

It is a disconcerting that two Conservative prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher, understood the British working class much better than Mr. Corbyn. They understood that British workers are deeply conservative and they understood that this could be exploited for elite interests. The task of Mr. Corbyn was to shake the British worker out of their conservative reverie and explain to them that their interests are with the European workers, not with their national elites. Now it will be a loss-loss situation. The British elites will find themselves much poorer by leaving the EU and the British worker will in return be exploited much more. All the elements of a Greek tragedy are in place, and it is increasingly becoming unavoidable!

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