Jeremy Corbyn and the Value of Scepticism

Sky News Debate 20/07/2016

In the final run up towards EU referendum day as the Leave/Remain campaigns reach their rhetorical apex, a voice criticised for its conspicuous absence from mainstream Brexit debates made itself heard in a Sky news referendum special. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, was on Monday June 20th interviewed by Faisal Islam and a live studio audience of under 35’s (one third Leave voters, one third Remain and the rest undecided) in Sky’s London studio and asked to state his case for Remain.


Jeremy Corbyn on Sky News EU Referendum Special.

The performance was very much what one has come to expect of Corbyn in any public appearance: his words unrehearsed, without the soundbite snippets we have become used to in political oratory and especially during the Brexit debate. Corbyn’s oratory is as pared back as his ‘look.’ Tie-less Corbyn’s rhetorical (and sartorial) style evokes the sense of a roundtable discussion rather than a debate chamber. It’s a style that worked for him during his campaign to become Labour leader, but one which has been challenged by the tradition and formulae of Parliament and, memorably in the case of the tie by the Prime Minister, but in this debate it served him favourably not least by positioning the interchange as an ideological ‘show and tell’ of his opinions on continued EU membership rather than facing the ire and argument of the audience as in recent Brexit TV debates.

For a programme intended to aid the decision of the undecided, Corbyn wasn’t persuading so much as explaining his stance on the major issues, namely the Brexit big three Sovereignty, Immigration and Economy, the NHS and European humanitarian crises were also extensively discussed, and answers were peppered with memorable idioms such as ‘we cannot combat humanitarian crises from behind national frontiers.’  Indeed, that was but one of Corbyn’s subtle inversions of Leave rhetoric: where Johnson and Gove talk nationalism, he talked internationalism, borders were framed as restrictive not protective, the stability of control rendered in Corbyn’s words precarious, isolating, dangerous. But perhaps the biggest difference in the Labour leader’s delivery compared to the in/out big political hitters – whether Johnson or Cameron, Harman or Stuart – was his apparent lack of passion. Not passion in the sense of conviction, (like him or loathe him), Corbyn’s indefatigable, principled ethos remained very much in-tact – sic. ‘My head doesn’t get turned’ – what was most striking and, arguably, most effective about the frame of his argument was his lack of enthusiasm for the institution he was supposedly defending. He said:


‘I am not a lover of the European Union, I think [voting to Remain] is a rational decision and we should stay in order to improve it…’


In the British media, the jury’s out as to whether this was a rhetorical ploy on behalf of the Labour leader or a dose of his ‘straight, talking, honest politics.’ Nevertheless, whichever way you look at it, Corbyn’s readmission of his seven-to-seven-and-a-half out of ten desire to stay in Europe was a true demonstration of the value of scepticism in political debate. Both audience and Twittersphere was abuzz with a sometime perplexed agreement with Corbyn from across party lines – variations on the phrase ‘I’m a Tory but I agree with Corbyn….’  ricocheted around social media a total of 170 times within just five minutes of his comment. Just like Bertrand Russell’s Sceptic, Corbyn’s lack of oratorical flourish instead allows him to ‘hold [his opinions] calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly,’ quite aptly summing up Corbyn’s lack of hyperbole. Indeed, Russell’s sceptic does so in full knowledge of the potential for his own unpopularity – yet another parallel to Corbyn’s sceptical stance.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 11.41.45It is true that Corbyn has always been a eurosceptic. He voted against Common Market membership in the 1975 referendum and against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 along with most Labour MP’s and he has said that he arrived at the decision to remain this time ‘after a lot of process.’ Corbyn is not a proselytiser either for the EU or his own point of view, but wearing the mantle of the rational sceptic has proved popular – perhaps because it chimes with the scepticism of the voting population on both sides – but popular enough to sway public opinion and so late in the game?

Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s vote, like a true sceptic, Corbyn absolved himself of the blame for a possible Brexit, that democratic responsibility, he says, is for the people and we must all work with that choice.

You can see the full Sky debate here.


By Seren Nolan


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