The headline on the 24 June on ITV and in many new sources was: Jeremy Corbyn has said Article 50 – which triggers Britain’s formal exit from the EU – must be invoked now . What he actually said was taken out of context and has been used to argue that Corbyn was really and covertly a supporter of the Brexit position all along.
This has also been used to support a claim that he did not campaign hard enough during the referendum. There is considerable evidence that this is false. But I am not going to go into that here. My purpose is to examine the claim that Jeremy Corbyn insisted that Article 50 should be invoked as a matter of urgency. And to demonstrate how political debate can easily be reduced to a post-truth ping-pong.
The source of Jeremy Corbyn: invoke Article 50 now is an interview on College Green in Westminster at about 7.30 am on the 24 June 2016. David Dimbleby asked Jeremy Corbyn:
“How do you see the future now? Are you an enthusiastic Brexiter now?”
To which Corbyn responded:
“The British people have made their decision. We must respect that result and Article 50 has to be invoked now so that we negotiate an exit from European Union. Obviously there has to be strategy but the whole point of the referendum was that the public would be asked their opinion. They’ve given their opinion. It is up for parliament to now act on that opinion. Quite clearly negotiations must take place. There must be the best deal possible in order to ensure strong industries in Britain stay strong and strong industries that have big export markets to protect to retain those export markets. But we are in some very difficult areas. That’s obvious to everybody.”
What has been quoted from this response is Article 50 has to be invoked now. This then was morphed by a number of sources into Corbyn demands immediate Brexit.
Corbyn’s approach in interviews is unorthodox. The usual practice of politicians is to offer a prepared soundbite e.g. It’s a disappointing result, the people have spoken, we have to move on from here, and then off they go. What Corbyn does is to offer a live discussion of the context and process. For example, he was recently asked about reselection of MPs and his response was a detailed explanation of the process of reselection and in the context of possible boundary changes. He was reported as saying Corbyn demands mandatory reselection. The words might have been in what he said but that’s not actually what he said.
Similarly, Corbyn’s response to the EU referendum result was not an immediate demand to invoke Article 50, but a narrative and explanation of what happens next. To leave, Article 50 has to be invoked, but there has to be a strategy, parliament have to debate and act and there must be the best deal possible, ensuring strong industry, protecting jobs etc. What it wasn’t was a soundbite. Furthermore, Jeremy Corbyn has recently gone on record confirming that he did not call for the immediate invocation of Article 50 and with some humility said he may have used different words.
Now I am aware that there are people in the Labour Party who do not support Jeremy Corbyn and there are people who feel very aggrieved about the way the EU referendum went. The former are looking to challenge Corbyn, the latter are looking for someone to be held to account. I accept and acknowledge this. But what I don’t accept is lazy argument, argument that is based on a partial reading of the evidence. This is what has happened here, a careless and possibly emotional interpretation of decontextualized data supported by an uncritical use of a wider narrative. It is misrepresentation supported by rumour or what has come to be known as post-truth.
All would probably agree that we need to move on from the appalling post-truth politics that was deployed in the EU referendum and evident in the presidential campaign in the US. Disagree with philosophy, policy and politics all you like, that’s healthy democracy. But don’t be lazy with your analysis, make sure your argument is sound and make sure you don’t engage in the post-truth game. On the case in point, Corbyn could be accused of presenting a nuanced view that might come over as ambiguous, but there is little evidence to support the claim that he demanded the immediate invocation of Article 50.
Let us have robust debate about what we want and what we should become, but resist the post-truth squabble.