Conferences of crocodiles

From Jeremy and Corbyn, Chapter Seven – order now on Kindle

Following the announcement of the referendum, Corbyn added his name to an open letter asking the Prime Minister to call a European-wide conference tasked to ‘agree debt cancellation for Greece and other countries that need it.’

He signed the document without consulting Jeremy, which annoyed his friend, and when Jeremy saw the letter published in The Guardian, it led to a falling out between the two.

The letter was signed by, among others, John and Diane, the general secretary of the TUC, and the general secretaries of both the Unite and GMB trade unions.

It explained that debt reductions were to be ‘funded by the banks and financial speculators who were the real beneficiaries of the bail-outs’, that austerity was causing ‘injustice and poverty in Europe and across the world’, and urged the United Nations to create fair rules for dealing with the debt crisis and to send a signal to ‘the banks and financiers that we won’t keep bailing them out for reckless lending.’

After reading the letter, Jeremy told Corbyn he thought he was foolish. That one might appeal to the Prime Minister, Britain’s champion of austerity, to call for an end to austerity in Greece! He might as well call on a conference of crocodiles to discuss the merits of vegetarianism.

What’s more, he argued, such a debt conference already existed, and had been in existence for many years and was fully backed by the Prime Minister. It was called the Troika.

Corbyn did not understand why Jeremy was so offended. It was an entirely reasonable demand with historical precedent. The London debt conference of 1952 agreed to write-off half of Germany’s war debts, including some still left over from the Treaty of Versailles, and on very favourable terms.

It was a misleading comparison, said Jeremy, and the same old argument he made about the British debt. After World War Two Britain had a far greater debt than today, twice what the entire economy could produce in a year, yet it was paid off without the austerity currently in place. In fact, the Labour government created the NHS at the same time.

But what Corbyn always omitted, said Jeremy, was that the USA profited so much out of the Second World War that it managed to accumulate half the world’s gold reserves in Fort Knox, and was therefore quite prepared to bankroll Britain and Western Europe against the Soviet Union. It bore no resemblance to the present situation.

Today the Americans were just as much in hock. And what about the little fact of the post-war boom? Twenty-five years of historically unprecedented growth and full-employment? World War provided the ‘creative destruction’, as today’s economists so delicately put it, of factories and people that 1930s capitalism demanded. For them, the war’s most important role wasn’t the defeat of Fascism, but the destruction it caused and the creation of profitable fields of investment as a consequence, leading to the long and virtuous post-war upswing.

Jeremy conceded that if Britain was making money hand over fist and so was the whole world, then capitalism could probably burn away the debt without the need for austerity. But that was not the case, and Corbyn would just have to face up to reality. Besides, it was not his job to provide solutions for capitalism. Surely it was his job to overturn it?

Corbyn countered. If the Greek people vote against the austerity in the coming referendum, then the EU would be forced to convene such a debt conference.

But the EU had no respect for direct democracy, said Jeremy, one only had to look at the Treaty of Lisbon to understand that.

In any case, what most annoyed Jeremy was that by signing up to this useless letter, he was reinforcing the mistaken idea that if Cameron, Merkel, Schauble and all the rest of them were willing to offer debt relief, then it could be done. As if it were a matter of personalities, or even policies, when the truth was that all they could do was represent their masters will.

If they were to act to the contrary, Jeremy explained, they would provoke such a stampede among the poor that it would completely undermine their allies in southern Europe, who had just spent the last five years shoving austerity down their people’s throats.

It was Utopian, Jeremy told him. Just like all his talk about the cuts being ‘ideological’ – as if the crisis was just the product of the Tories’ vindictiveness toward the workers, and not a worldwide consequence of the contradictions of capitalism.

If he had wanted to write an effective letter, he might have made a good start by posting it to the right address. Rather than Downing Street, or those eunuchs at the UN, he should have addressed it to the Maximus Mansion in Athens, pointing out to Tsipras that he did not need a referendum; that he already had a mandate which he should have acted on months ago.

‘He needs to take over all the monopolies,’ said Jeremy, ‘and big companies, and put them into the hands of the people in the name of democracy – real democracy, that does not loiter at the threshold of the economy, but overruns it and takes control of it.’

But Corbyn had written the letter, he was not going to write another. That would only cause confusion. The conversation finished abruptly.

Soon after their conversation, Corbyn took to bed. The same off-colour feeling he had experienced during the June 20th demo seemed to take hold of him, and in the days following Tsipras’ announcement of the referendum it developed into a fever.

Laura made Corbyn a bed on the living room sofa next to Jeremy, so that he could keep up with the news. He found it most frustrating. There were so many hustings and trade union conference to attend, as well as the many Greek solidarity demonstrations that were being called.

But whenever he felt like he might be on the mend, he quickly fell back, and Jeremy had to go on without him.

From Jeremy and Corbyn, Chapter Seven – order now on Kindle

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