On the Today programme yesterday Justin Webb asked Yvette Cooper: [do] “you think Jeremy Corbyn will keep this country safe?” (1’57” in).
From one perspective, the question is utterly absurd, because what is jeopardizing the country is not Corbyn but austerity. It’s plausible that this is killing tens of thousands of people by underfunding health services, driving some to suicide and contributing to a health crisis in deprived areas. And this is not to mention the underfunding of flood defences and the police that threaten harm to thousands.
Security policy is not the only way in which a government keeps its citizens safe. It also does so by health and welfare policies. Under the Tories, the latter are jeopardizing the country. To the extent that this is the case, Corbyn will increase the country’s safety by relaxing austerity.
In this sense, the question Webb should have asked is: is the country safe under the Tories?
Why, then, was his question even remotely plausible?
A benign possibility – which gains credence from the context – is that Webb was considering only external threats such as from Russia; he just forgot to add these words to his question. Maybe this exculpates him in this case. But I’m not sure it applies to everybody whose asking similar questions. The fact is that far more Britons’ health and safety are being threatened by austerity than by Russia or Islamist terrorists.
Perhaps there are two other things at work here.
One is a form of reification, which regards “the country” as an abstract entity comprising something other than its inhabitants. On this view, even minor attacks from outside threaten “the country” more than policies which kill thousands because they undermine the integrity of the nation.
It’s this reification that has allowed the right for decades to present leftists as unpatriotic. The fact that the left wants what it believes to be best for British citizens is not regarded as patriotism. Instead, its refusal to subscribe to myths of our glorious history (for example questioning the morality of the British Empire) and its reluctance to go to war are seen as attempts to undermine national pride. (In truth, the left has often not helped itself here).
But there’s something else. For centuries, talk of “the country” has excluded the poor. C.B Macpherson wrote of 17th century puritan attitudes that “the poor were not full members of a moral community...They were in but not of civil society.” (The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, p226-27.) We see echoes of this today. When Tories tell us that “the country can’t afford” high welfare spending, they implicitly exclude welfare recipients from their perception of “the country.”
Such talk helps to equate the national interest with the interests of the rich: it is very easy to convince oneself that ones’ own interests are also the public good. Once you’ve done this, it follows that Corbyn is indeed a threat to the national interest and a traitor. Conversely, the fact that the Tories take thousands of pounds of Russian money does not at all bring into question their patriotism because, in defending the rich the party also defends “the country.”
The idea that Corbyn is unpatriotic or worse whilst the Tories are patriots rests upon a very questionable conception of what is ”the country”.
Another thing: Being neither a military man nor a newspaper columnist I am unqualified to speak of the merits or not of Corbyn's defence and security policies. Let's suppose though - arguendo - that these are weaker than the Tories. We then face a choice between thousands of deaths under the Tories or (barring talk of catastrophe which I find implausible) a handful more Skripals. If we are to be faced with this sort of trolley problem, I favour the latter.