One of the things I find odd about the American discourse about slavery is how rarely Americans think about slavery as an institution which existed outside America. Not only did slavery exist in the ancient world in a pre-racialised way–in which many slaves were white, and many masters were people of colour–but it also existed in many other places during the period in which it existed in America. In many of these places, slavery was abolished not by violence but by ordinary politics. Yet this is rarely acknowledged or discussed, and it is increasingly common for Americans to frame our history largely in terms of the slavery question. We don’t often ask why slavery was more contentious in the United States than in other places. That’s what I want to think about with you today.
Last week, I went to one of the debates at the Cambridge Union about whether or not Britain ought to have a second referendum on Brexit. It struck me that the way this argument works is very misleading. The two sides pretend to be arguing about whether it would be democratic to have another referendum, and frame their arguments around procedural fairness and democratic legitimacy. But that isn’t really what the argument is about. There’s a much deeper disagreement, about whether Brexit is an acceptable outcome in the first place–if it’s the kind of result which, by its very nature, invalidates the process which led up to it.
It’s been more than a month since British Prime Minister Theresa May told the British people that her deal was the best they were likely to get, and they still don’t believe her. In theory, Brexit can end one of four different ways:
4A: May extracts further concessions from the EU, increasing British policy independence while retaining economic access to Europe.
4B: A general election produces a Labour government, and then Jeremy Corbyn extracts further concessions from the EU, accomplishing the same result as in 4A.
The problem is that #4 is not possible in either its A or B form, but nearly everyone in British politics operates under the delusion that it is.
It’s been a little while since we’ve talked about the situation in Britain. For Jeremy Corbyn, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s increasingly clear Theresa May does not have a Brexit deal that can pass the commons and is unlikely to get one. On the other hand, May is determined to delay a vote on this deal until there is no time for there to be a general election followed by further negotiations. These two conditions–combined with the fact that most Labour MPs, party members, and voters want a second referendum–put Corbyn in a very sticky situation. Let’s run through the logic of his position.