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The English are masters of irony – just look at Jeremy Corbyn

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo/Getty Images

It was recently revealed that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that Zionists “don’t understand English irony”, which is kind of ironic.

What are the English most proud of? Not their history, their culture or their global achievements. In these days of postcolonial reappraisal, all that is tarnished, compromised or, at the very least, not something to boast about. No, the one national characteristic that is guaranteed to swell English hearts is that of irony.

The English like to think of themselves as masters of the slippery form. Yes, the Germans may make reliable cars, the Italians stylish clothes and the French fine wine, but they don’t have our ironic way of seeing the world.

Yet even seasoned connoisseurs of the outlook are beginning to struggle under the weight of ironies piling up, like some huge motorway accident, on the British political scene.

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The most conspicuous of these was Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn being confronted with a speech he made in 2013. Back then, he was still a backbencher who looked like a bearded geography teacher at a folk club, and he told a meeting of Palestinian activists that Zionists “don’t understand English irony”. This revelation came after he had been caught defending an avowedly anti-Semitic mural and had been filmed laying flowers at a ceremony to commemorate, among others, leaders of the group that ordered the Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes.

Corbyn’s 2013 statement has several striking ironies. The first is that Corbyn is the least ironic Englishman ever to come to public prominence. He is a congenital literalist who doesn’t have the imagination to say anything other than what he means. And what he meant was that Zionists – that is, people who support the Jewish state of Israel – don’t understand a key English trait despite, as he put it, “having lived in this country for a very long time”. In other words, these “Zionists” weren’t properly assimilated to English culture.

The second irony is that Corbyn sees himself not just as an anti-racist but as the greatest anti-racist ever to set foot in Parliament. Many other ironies flow from this, but the chief one is that Corbyn is now viewed by a hefty chunk of the Jewish community in Britain as an anti-Semite. What’s more, the Labour Party he leads is riven by accusations of anti-Semitism, a charge more traditionally aimed at the far right of British politics – and, indeed, Corbyn has received the backing of the former leader of the fascist British Nationalist Party. And he wasn’t being ironic.

Corbyn’s rallying cry that has brought a surge of popular support since he was elected Labour leader is all about equality and justice. “For the many, not the few” is his slogan. But as the Jewish novelist and commentator Howard Jacobson memorably put it, that has been transformed into “for the many, not the Jew”.

The Labour leader insists he’s been misunderstood and his opposition to Israel does not mean he’s anti-Jewish, just as his paid work for the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV does not mean he’s in favour of the Iranian regime. He means it as well.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has been quietly organising his bid for leadership of the Tory party by informing the incumbent that her Brexit plan is a “suicide vest” wrapped around the British constitution. This came after he announced his impending divorce from his long-suffering wife, who apparently chucked him out after yet another extramarital affair.

What Johnson has done with his lover, it’s been rightly noted, should be of no concern to the voters. But what ought to concern us is that with his Brexit campaign, he’s done the same to the country. As we say in England, how ironic.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.