The great 18th century democratic revolutionary, Tom Paine, wrote: - “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” Jeremy Corbyn is now challenging the received wisdom over a whole range of issues. He is making people think.
Corbyn is also forcing the country’s politico-media elite to engage in debate on issues which they have effectively kept off the public agenda for decades. They will find it increasingly hard to dismiss challenges to the status quo by simply dismissing the people making them as flaky, mad and extreme. They will be forced to engage with the actual arguments.
Corbyn is a twenty first century equivalent of those brave people who challenged the consensus of their own day that slavery was acceptable, that it was right that only rich men could vote, that women were second class citizens, that non-white races were inferior, that gays should be locked up.
A good example of what Corbyn is doing is the issue of whether the Trident replacement is a good idea for our country. Should Britain retain an “independent nuclear deterrent”?
In the last election campaign, the Tory and Labour front-benches were united in favour of replacing Trident. The media were supportive. There was no real public debate except in Scotland, where the weapons are based and where the SNP are opposed to them.
Those in favour of renewal of Trident have generally taken the attitude in public that the case for renewal is so obvious that they would not waste their time engaging with those who are too naïve, foolish or pacifist to see it.
Corbyn faces opposition from both inside and outside the Labour party. David Cameron’s response has been to say that Corbyn’s views show that he is “unfit for office”.
Now that Corbyn is leader of his party, Cameron and others are unlikely to be able to close off debate by name-calling. They will be forced to engage.
People will judge the issue on the arguments. Whether people are ultimately persuaded by them or not, Corbyn has plenty of arguments that cannot be dismissed as mad or dangerous.
Here are some of them.
1. Can the weapon system really be used independently of the USA? If so, the two countries are not always in step. They were not in 1939 or over the Falklands. What if there is a President Trump?
2. Why do we need these weapons for our security when the vast majority of countries in the world do not?
3. These weapons are useless against terrorists. Post-Cold War, is there any at all likely scenario in which they could be of any practical use?
4. Do these weapons in fact make us less safe against IS type terrorism, as there is always the risk of a security breach?
5. The weapons always carry the risk of accidents.
6. The SNP is against having nuclear weapons in Scotland. Would people in the South East of England feel differently if the weapons were based there?
7. If the £100 billion cost of the new weapons was all kept in the defence budget, could it not be spent more productively to ensure our security? There are people in the military who think the money would be better spent on conventional weapons.
8. If, alternatively, some or all of the £100 billion cost was used outside the defence budget, it could make a significant difference to the prosperity and well-being of the country.
9. The moral arguments against using WMD against civilian populations.
10. Should we ignore the words of former Tory Defence Minister, Michael Portillo? Earlier this year, he said: - “You're probably familiar with these men who are worried about their own virility and buy large sports cars, and this I think is a case in point. [As the army and navy] have become smaller, so the status symbol of having nuclear weapons becomes more important, at least to some people. Our independent nuclear deterrent is not independent and doesn't constitute a deterrent against anybody that we regard as an enemy. It is a waste of money and it is a diversion of funds that might otherwise be spent on perfectly useful and useable weapons and troops. But some people have not caught up with this reality.”
And what about the famously bellicose Tony Blair? In his memoirs, he said of Trident: “The expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use.” He said he could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought that giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.
Maybe it is all about concerns over virility/status and not really about defence, as claimed, at all. Or maybe we really do need to keep nuclear weapons because without them we can never be safe. Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, we will now have a proper debate. That’s progress.