Why Jeremy Corbyn is not part of the Clement Attlee internationalist tradition within Labour

May 15, 2017

A shorter version of this article appeared on Capx.

A noble tradition of liberal internationalism has pumped blood to the heart of the Labour Party since its foundation and is an essential part of the Labour story. As a biographer of Clement Attlee, I can testify to that skein running through Labour history like an arterial vein. It was the British Labour Party that was most enthused by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points of January 1918 which aimed to put progressive, democratic and ethical aims at the heart of international affairs. At its pinnacle, socialist internationalism even went so far to envisage a “world state” that would eradicate war and want. While this proved unattainable, without such visionary thinking we are unlikely to have ever had the United Nations.

It was the post-war Labour Party, too, that put much of the meat on the bones – making sure that internationalism was given the ballast that it had lacked in the interwar era. The Attlee government did more than any other to make good on the notion of “collective security”, which had failed with devastating consequences in the 1930s. It did so through firm and decisive action, leading the way on the formation of Nato but doing so with the closest possible cooperation with the United States; and even, when the rules set by the UN were flouted, sending British troops to the Korean War as part of an international force. These were not easy choices – the cost of rearmament caused great division within the government, and ate into the budget of the NHS – but the UK proved its mettle in building the post-1945 order. In the business of international relations, Attlee and Ernie Bevin understood, platitudes, passivity and plausible twaddle only go so far.

Jeremy Corbyn has never been part of this tradition, or anywhere near it. Nor, for that matter, has John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, or Seamus Milne, Labour’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications. In fact, the current sect at the top of the Labour Party represent a direct threat to the survival of Labour’s internationalist soul. Their foreign policy offering is not only incoherent; it is disingenuous because they are failing to tell the public what they really think – both about the West and its binding institutions (such as Nato), and also about those whose “resistance” against the West they have lauded so often in the past.

What Labour says does matter, even in the event of a large Conservative majority. There is an important role for Her Majesty’s Opposition to play in discussions about national defence. In an article for The Guardian, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, has promised the public a new approach to international affairs, which purports to put human rights at its core, and invokes former Labour’s former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and his idea of an “ethical foreign policy”. Twenty years after Cook announced this policy, Thornberry lauded his stated intentions to make Britain “a leading partner in a world community of nations”, countering “the Tory trend towards not so splendid isolation”.

There is much to commend in Cook’s vision, notwithstanding its limitations. It rested on some justifiable criticisms of the Major government’s foreign policy which had led, among other things, to deterioration in US-UK relations. But Thornberry’s version is a poor imitation, big on pieties and short on practicalities. The Corbyn team’s foreign policy is doctrinally anti-interventionist whereas Cook, notwithstanding his opposition to the Iraq War, was an advocate of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Thornberry’s article was also contradicted, in substance, by Corbyn’s own attempt to articulate a “more independent” foreign policy, in a speech at Chatham House. Whereas Thornberry claimed that it was Labour’s intention to “root our national security in the Nato alliance”, Corbyn mentioned Nato only in passing, preferring to stress the importance of working with the United Nations. This was no simple oversight.

Corbyn’s opposition to the renewal of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is well established, and he has made no secret of it. It is not inconceivable, if slightly embarrassing, that a leader can maintain a personal difference with the agreed policy of his party (which is to support Trident’s renewal). As such, Labour’s leaked manifesto contains the reassuring caveat that a Labour government would be “extremely cautious” about the use of such weapons.

While the British people can understand personal dissent on a matter of conscience, however, they are more likely to object to deliberate obfuscation. Corbyn has made it abundantly clear in the past that he sees Nato as a source of evil in international affairs rather than, as his Shadow Foreign Secretary suggests, a bedrock of national security. Typical of this attitude was a 2014 article in the Morning Star in which he wrote disparagingly about Labour’s starring role in its formation: “Nato was established to cement a transatlantic anti-communist alliance centred in western Europe and strongly supported by the British Labour foreign secretary Ernie Bevin. For all its magnificent achievements on the domestic front, the Attlee government was pursuing neo-colonial wars in south-east Asia, cracking down on growing independence movements in African colonies and secretly developing its own nuclear weapons.”

After the Russian incursion into Ukraine in 2014, he commented that “the hypocrisy of the West remains unbelievable” and laid the blame at the door of Nato: “It operates way beyond its original 1948 area and its attempt to encircle Russia is one of the big threats of our time.” During his first leadership election in 2015, Corbyn went so far as to say that Nato “should have been wound up in 1990 along with the Warsaw Pact”. Since he became Labour leader, he has repeatedly evaded the question of whether, as Prime Minister, he would act if Article 5 was invoked (which holds that an attack on one Nato member is an attack on the rest). Corbyn may not want to hold Donald Trump’s hand. But his distancing from the White House is a useful smokescreen for the fact that he far outstrips him in his view that it is time to dispense with the international order that Labour did so much to build after 1945.

Since the end of the Cold War, Corbyn has also complained “Nato has been very adept at endlessly reinventing itself as some sort of force for peace.” The very same adage might be applied to the Labour leader. As he insisted in remarks at Chatham House, he is no pacifist. This is certainly true. It is sometimes said that he bears a passing resemblance to George Lansbury, the white-haired bearded pacifist who led the party from 1931 to 1935. But the similarities end there. There is a world of distance between “conscientious objectors” – such as Attlee’s older brother, Tom, who went to prison for his views – and the “fellow travellers” – that George Orwell thought were all too common on the left – who traded in equivalence, equivocation and special pleading.

If Corbyn is to be believed, he has spent his life working for a “peaceful world” through dialogue and negotiation. But the criticism of a “bomb first, talk later” approach is one which he has only been prepared to make of Western foreign policy. It is not a standard that either her, nor some of his closest allies, have sought to apply to the Provisional IRA, Hamas or Hezbollah. There are many criticisms to make of Western foreign policy. But it is odd to make a virtue of almost anything that grinds in its gears, from Ba’athism to Putinism; nor is it in the spirit of Robin Cook to wave away any prospect of acting with respect to concepts such as “responsibility to protect”.

The Labour Party remains more divided on foreign policy than any other policy area. The biggest parliamentary rebellion against Corbyn’s leadership to date came over the vote on airstrikes against Daesh in Syria in December 2015. While his MPs can live with a radical manifesto on the domestic front, it is the puerile placards of the Stop the War Coalition that make many of them squirm on the doorstep; and it is on national security that the distance in public trust between Corbyn and Theresa May is most pronounced. His speech at Chatham House will have done very little to close the gap.

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