Don’t flatter yourself Corbyn, Obama didn’t want to insult you, he didn’t even want to talk about you

As a nation, we still jump to catch even a crumb of attention dropped from the lap of a US President – and this manufactured political row proves it 

Kate Maltby
Tuesday 27 December 2016 19:18
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Obama was asked if he was worried about the “Corbynisation of the Democratic Party"
Obama was asked if he was worried about the “Corbynisation of the Democratic Party"

Tis the season for manufactured political rows. The 25th is for turkey and the Queen. The 26th is for dissecting everything Uncle Clive said to Aunty Veronica on the 25th. But by the 27th, we’ve begun to perk up from sloping sofas in search of richer opportunities for combat-voyeurism. Unfortunately, the five or so surviving UK politicians whose conflicts have consequences are still cocooned in Maidenhead, Humberside or – if they’re Boris – Chevening. In the case of Boris, having recently claimed the Cabinet’s prime Christmas real estate in a Brexiteer Battle Royale, I imagine he’s unlikely to re-emerge from its hard-won luxury a moment before he needs.

That’s the only explanation I can imagine for the prominence given in today’s papers to an interview with outgoing President Obama, or more specifically, to a brief quotation in which he appears to condemn Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as detached from “fact and reality”. Corbyn’s team have risen to the bait. “Both Labour and US Democrats will have to challenge power if they are going to speak for working people and change a broken system that isn’t delivering for the majority”, says a Labour statement that goes on to imply that Obama himself is part of “the establishment” for which Corbyn’s ideas “are dangerous”. Corbyn’s team counter that by contrast, “for most people in Britain, they’re commonsense and grounded in reality”.

Barack Obama doesn't think the US Democrats will 'disintegrate' like Labour

But did the Commander-in-Chief really have much to say on the subject of Jeremy Corbyn? Have a listen to President Obama’s cosy, hour-long CNN interview with his old colleague David Axelrod. Axelrod brings up the subject of British politics, asking his former boss if he’s worried about any “Corbynisation of the Democratic Party... there is an impulse to respond to the power of Trump by, you know, being as edgy on the left.” Obama brushes the subject away, returning the conversation to the struggle between Democrats and Republicans. “I don't worry about that, partly because I think that the Democratic Party has stayed pretty grounded in fact and reality. Trump emerged out of a decade, maybe two, in which the Republican Party, because it had to say ‘no’ for tactical reasons, moved further and further and further away from what we would consider to be a basic consensus around things like climate change or how the economy works.” Obama isn’t claiming that the Democratic Party is better grounded in “fact and reality” than its British political equivalent. Ever focused in the country he’s actually living in, he’s making the point that the Democratic Party still offers US voters a more convincing mastery of the facts on the ground than their Republican competitors.

Don’t believe me? Keep listening to the tape, as Obama doubles down – it’s Axelrod, the interviewer, who keeps trying to bring the conversation back to Corbyn and Obama who bats it away. Obama isn’t particularly interested in comparing Bernie Sanders to a struggling politician in a minor European country. He’s interested in comparing Sanders to the people they’re both up against, the Republican Party. After a gruelling defeat for the Democratic Party machine, Obama’s priority is to pick up the pieces – and it looks like this will involve unifying his own soft-left faction with the Bernie brigades.

It is easy, then, to dismiss today’s headlines. Easy to ignore the whole story as irrelevant, unnewsworthy. There’s nothing as contemptuous as a manufactured news story.

But you’d be wrong to think this latest storm entirely unworthy of our attention. At its heart – at the heart of our overreaction, of Corbyn’s press release – is a deeper disquiet. As a nation, we still jump to catch even a crumb of attention dropped from the lap of a US President. For Corbyn’s supporters and detractors alike, a flicker of interest, a mention from the American leader jubilantly confirms the international relevance of each Momentum v Progress deselection battle in the council wards of Walthamstow. How cruel, then, that the record shows a ringing statement of disinterest.

Obama has never been particularly interested in the special relationship between Britain and America. He came to power at a moment when America’s economic interests were turning to Asia. Obama has always grasped instinctively the implications of a multi-polar world. Old Cold War alliances matter less.

In the era of Donald Trump, on the other hand, the issue of Britain’s relationship with America looms large. Remember how often we were told, during Vote Leave, that Britain could look with optimism towards a greater economic bond with our sister nation – bright, promising America? In turn, Trump loves to praise the fighting spirit of the Brexiteers, wrongly crediting Nigel Farage with the Vote Leave victory. But this week, his pick for US commerce secretary was reported to have encouraged Cypriot financiers to steal business from Britain during the “period of confusion” caused by Brexit renegotiations. So much for having our backs.

How relevant do we want to be to Trump’s America? Already, his promise to introduce “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” has instigated serious discussion within the British secret services about the ethical consequences of remaining as partners in the Anglophone “Five Eyes” data sharing agreement. Do we want we want our MI6 to be acting upon US-based intelligence obtained by torture? To be blunter: Donald Trump has come to power as a fascist, and shows every sign of governing as one. Perhaps, in that case, slipping away from his embrace is no bad thing.

In this oddly dependent nation of ours, how obligated are we to resist fascism on American soil? Merely stop buying music from anyone who performs at the White House, or go the whole hog and start offering asylum to American Muslims? (I’d love to hear Nigel Farage’s take on that.) But the truth is that there’s little that British progressives can do to make Donald Trump take notice. After all, even President Obama wasn’t interested in us.

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