Talk of contacts with Czech Intelligence has generated some entertaining headlines but it hasn’t done Jeremy Corbyn much harm. According to a YouGov poll, only eight per cent of voters think less of him. Nearly two-thirds (some of whom, I suppose, may have already thought that he was a Commie spy) are apparently left unchanged in their opinion and six per cent seemed somewhat impressed. We shouldn’t be surprised. The unelectable, unthinkable Corbyn swept to the leadership of the Labour Party and then led his unelectable party to an almost unthinkable result in the general election. Nearly nine months later, this unelectable party is ahead at the polls: a lead that has grown since Jan Sarkocy started to reminisce.
We do not know what, if any, Cold War skeletons may yet emerge from Corbyn’s cupboard, though it should be stressed that there is, so far, no convincing evidence that he was recruited as an agent or did anything other than have meetings with a representative of a foreign government. But even if there were to be any revelations, it’s difficult to see what difference they would make. After all, there are horrors enough out there as it is: they range from Corbyn’s involvement with (let’s be polite) Irish republicanism to a politically and psychologically disturbing series of fanboy infatuations with thugs, goons and hard men overseas. That some of them are on the hard Left is unsurprising, given Corbyn’s always adventurous interpretation of “democratic” socialism, but it says something – and nothing good – that others appear to be united by little more than their distaste for the liberal West, a liberal West that includes the country that Corbyn would like to lead.
Corbyn, secular and socialist, has praised the revolution that led to Iran’s klepto-theocracy. He once called for “political compromise” with ISIS, and has marched rather too closely in step with a Kremlin that in reality, if not always in imagery, has long since left the red flag behind.
Large numbers of Labour voters are aware of at least some of this, and quite a few are aware too that there is plenty more – hatred of Nato, say, or a degree of sympathy for Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic – bubbling in the sewer from which Corbyn’s enthusiasms emerge. Yet they still vote for him and his party. They would thus be unlikely to be too concerned by accusations of Cold War skullduggery from over 30 years ago, even, I suspect, if it turned out that “Agent Cob” had handed the Czechs some gossip he felt might speed up the march to Utopia.
Such insouciance is a worry, but not much of a mystery. To no small extent, Corbyn has been let off the hook by nothing more complicated than time. It’s been more than three decades since his alleged Czech encounter, and, for that matter, since he invited two convicted IRA terrorists to a meeting in parliament shortly after the Brighton bombing. The Troubles were ended by the Good Friday agreement and the Cold War by the collapse of the Soviet empire. Memories of both conflicts have faded and so have the passions they once aroused. Time can be too good, and too forgiving, a healer. It is also an accomplished gravedigger. Many of those able to understand the significance of Corbyn’s past behaviour are no longer around to explain.
Later generations have been taught a version of the past that has also been helpful to Corbyn. The Left won the history wars: Corbyn’s Irish entanglements are often excused, with more success than his contemporaries might have expected – or the IRA’s victims deserved – as freelance peacemaking. His embrace of socialism’s rougher variants and with it, a certain fondness for the other side of the Iron Curtain, is regarded as evidence of a heart in the right place. The Soviet experiment was built on a noble ideal, you see. Or so the lie goes.
The broader history of Britain’s 1970s and early-1980s has been rewritten in a way that emphasises the twilight of the pit village rather than the winter of discontent. The focus is on the harshness of Thatcher’s economic medicine, not the deadliness of the disease it was attempting to cure. The remarkable recovery that followed is reduced to a caricature – big hair, big phones, and sharp elbows.
Under the circumstances, Corbyn can be portrayed not as the revolutionary turned relic that he was, but as a former dissident, a prophet, a fighter for fairness, an eccentric, kindly, truth-teller, an image that owes a great deal to his grizzled grandad appearance and almost nothing to the truth.
There are those who are excited by dark tales from Corbyn’s time in the wilderness, seeing it as a promise of what the future might bring. They are not wrong. But those who tell themselves that the old boy has mellowed are fooling themselves. And those who tell themselves that what Corbyn might have muttered to a man from Czechoslovakia (the original “faraway country” filled with people of whom the British were said to “know nothing”) is an irrelevance, of no more importance today than some of the other unsavoury company he has more provably kept in the past, reveal only what they don’t know or, maybe, don’t care to know. They are either ignorant of, or have decided to ignore, Corbyn’s extensive track record of support for causes and regimes hard to reconcile with parliamentary democracy, a record that – as demonstrated by his cynically delicate waltz around the anti-Semitism running through a segment of the Labour party, or his threats against the press after the Czech story broke – is by no means played out.
Perhaps this blindness, willing or otherwise, is just the complacency of those who live in a country where, whatever they may claim to the contrary, most believe that things cannot go that wrong – “Venezuela, here? Impossible”. Comforted by that illusion, an illusion made credible by not having no clear memory of the 1970s, many on the centre-Left, and even the centre, will be prepared to take a risk on a Corbyn-led Labour.
Buying a place to live is beyond the reach of many of the young, wages have stagnated, and the government is busy blundering its way to a Brexit which will be loathed by far more than the 48 per cent. What’s to lose? Quite a bit, as it happens, as Britain may one day discover.