Jeremy Corbyn made headlines last Friday. In addition to his party’s pledge to put to a referendum any deal they strike to leave the EU against the option to remain, he said that as Prime Minister he would adopt a ‘neutral stance’ on the two options. He later justified the decision as ‘a sensible way forward that can bring the country together’.
Somewhat predictably, Corbyn’s proposed neutrality was lambasted by leading members of the UK’s other major parties. Almost every criticism had a common thread. The Conservative Party’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock accused Corbyn of ‘decid[ing] to be indecisive’ on the ‘critical question of our times’. Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson described Corbyn’s decision as ‘astonishing’ on the grounds that he is failing to take a position ‘on the biggest issue faced for a generation’. The Scottish National Party’s leader Nicola Sturgeon, and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, accused Corbyn of showing a lack of leadership on, as Farage put it, ‘the defining issue of our day’.
There are legitimate criticisms one can make of Corbyn’s proposed neutrality. This is so, even if one appreciates the unenviable position he finds himself in as leader of a party unambiguously split on Brexit. One could, for instance, demand that he be honest with voters that at least among the considerations behind the proposed neutrality is a desire not to alienate either the remain-supporting or Brexit-supporting wings of his party and the wider electorate (though perhaps this is so obvious it needs no expression). One could also point out that strategic neutrality seems an ad hoc move, rather than a principled one, chosen after being called out for effectively refusing to say which side he would support in his party’s proposed second referendum.
I suspect, however, that the actual criticisms above are on shakier ground. In particular, they all seem to rely on the conflation of how important a decision is with how unreasonable it is not to endorse one of the options. The underlying principle being invoked is something like ‘the more important a decision is, the less reasonable it is to fail to advocate for one of the choices’. But this looks like a pretty implausible principle. To see why, we can run a simple thought experiment.
Suppose, foot stuck under a boulder, lost in the wilderness, and with one flare left in your gun, you hear something distant that could be a party of hikers or just a herd of deer. Shoot the flare and you may be saved, but you may waste your last chance at salvation; refrain, and you might have another opportunity to attract attention, though you may not. Should you use your last flare? Maybe. Maybe not. But if the available evidence about which option was all things considered best were inconclusive, and you decided to flip a coin to overcome the impasse, it would take a pretty petty or demanding person to accuse you of failing to take responsibility for the ‘defining issue’ of your present life. We can also confect cleaner, if more artificial, cases: an evil scientist gives you two buttons to press; one will destroy all humanity; the other will set you free; you must choose. Again, a coin toss or similar seems like a perfectly reasonable heuristic for choosing, despite the fact that the very future of the world hangs on the decision.
But these cases aren’t analogous to Corbyn’s, you protest! No, they’re not—not perfectly anyway—and nor are they designed to be. They are merely analogous to Corbyn’s situation with respect to the significance of the choice he and his party faces. With that similarity alone, they demonstrate why an unavoidable decision’s being important—monumental even—does not entail that neglecting to advocate for either is unreasonable. Indeed, there may be no interesting relation between the importance of a decision and that of taking a stance on it at all, though I won’t pursue this point here.
Once one adds into the mix the responsibility a democratic leader has to respect as far as is feasible the autonomy of those she represents; that there is more or less parity between support for the two options; that there was a democratic process in which probably the worse of the options was narrowly but clearly chosen; that the mood has shifted in the interim, although precisely how remains unclear; that what exactly the Brexit deal Labour would secure looks like also remains unclear; then a deliberately neutral stance begins to seem not only reasonable but perhaps even commendable, whatever its motivations.