What Should Labour’s Defence Policy Look Like
by Christopher Winch
Defence, like the foreign policy which it serves, has always been difficult terrain for the Labour Party. It will continue to be a challenge for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Labour has inherited a tradition of imperialism, with an admixture of pacificism when thinking about defence matters. But realism about defence and foreign policy has nearly always been in short supply, often with disastrous consequences for our reputation overseas. Ernest Bevin and to some extend Harold Wilson can be seen as exponents of this approach, but it has not been evident in the party for many decades. One reason why Britain continues to make such mistakes is that defeats and humiliations abroad do not have the same impact as defeats at home, where the British civilian population is directly affected. But disasters abroad are no cause for celebration and a wise political class would learn from them.
We have argued in this journal that the security of our borders and seas should be our defence priority, but should be best guaranteed through collective security arrangements with the rest of Europe and Russia. We should not spend money on defence against countries which are no threat to us. We should cultivate good relations with all countries wherever this is possible, when they are not themselves a threat to regional or world peace. We should thus keep well clear of the foreign entanglements of the United States and the aggressive behaviour of Israel in the Middle East which threaten to damage our interests in those regions.
Labour’s defence policy over the last 30 years has been abysmal. Partly through the influence of ‘liberal humanitarianism’, partly through a base desire to curry favour and influence with the United States, we have either supported or engaged in calamitous interventions overseas. These include the breaking up of Yugoslavia (a multi-national socialist state) in the early 1990s, the destruction of the Iraqi state between 1990 and 2002, the long and pointless agony of intervention in Afghanistan from 2001, which like the Iraqi intervention, ended in humiliation for British arms, the destruction of Libya in 2011 with all the woes that have flowed from that and the attempted destruction of Syria, which was rescued by Russia, albeit at a huge cost in death and misery for its people. This is a truly dreadful record of which Labour should be thoroughly ashamed. The one mitigation in all this is that Labour stood against overt intervention in Syria, which probably helped the country from complete destruction by preventing the United States from carpet bombing that unhappy country. But little constructive has emerged from Labour to help promote peace and reconciliation in the region. One should also add that much of the Parliamentary Labour Party has also been party to pointless aggression and posturing against the Russian Federation, a country which is no military threat to us whatsoever and not even a trade rival. This again is a pathetic attempt to curry favour with the United States, which cannot abide any independent power in the world acting contrary to its own wishes and also an attempt to exert moral hegemony over the European Union.
At the time of writing, there is little ground for optimism that Labour will change. The July-August edition of Labour Affairs reported a House of Commons debate on defence policy. It was no surprise to learn that the current government still intends to conduct an imperialist foreign and defence policy way beyond the country’s means and irrelevant or even harmful to her interests. Sadly, it was no surprise either to find the Labour Defence spokeswoman, Nia Griffiths, not only supporting this policy but criticising the government for not spending more on defence, particularly in view of the Russian ‘threat’. We are sure that this is not Jeremy Corbyn’s view, but he is to a large extent a prisoner of his parliamentary party on this issue. Only a change to the composition of the PLP is likely to remedy this situation.
However, Labour’s problems with foreign policy and defence go deep. They affect both the right and the left of the party with few exceptions. The right of the party is deeply affected by the messianic neocon approach to exporting democracy anywhere and everywhere, regardless of the needs of peoples and nations. To do this requires a ‘Tier One’ defence policy based on the capacity to intervene all over the world, in concert with the United States. ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ is the excuse used in all the disastrous interventions from Yugoslavia to Syria. The late Jo Cox MP was a prime example of this mindset in action, but there are many more like her in the PLP. A ‘bleeding heart’ concern for the plight of others leads to the destruction of nations and the immiseration of peoples, usually on the basis of false claims about the actions of the governments of the states targeted for intervention. The left of the party is often little better. On the one hand there is the pacifist tradition which has little going for it intellectually and even less politically and which is more of an emotional reaction than a coherent defence policy. On the other hand, is the left’s infatuation with identity politics, which leads it to condemn the actions of governments overseas, either for oppressing self-publicists like Pussy Riot or for refusing to allow the same latitude to homosexual proselytization as is customary in the UK. These reflexes play into the hands of the neocon right of the party who can always fabricate a cause overseas with which to get the left joining the clamour for intervention.
There is one other difficulty for the Labour Party. Much of its trade union support is based in the defence industries which, obviously, have a strong interest in producing arms and ammunition, which if they are used, bring more work to their members. The unions in the defence industries will resist any attempt to cut defence spending back and will see a non-interventionist foreign policy as threatening to do just that. When Labour has sorted out its defence policy it will have a huge job to do in persuading unions to adopt policies that gradually wean British manufacturing away from some of its reliance on defence procurement. Labour proposals to revive manufacturing in the north of the country will need to take account of the need to create and sustain good jobs for the existing workforce, as well as creating new ones. Sadly, it will have an even greater job weaning the British working class from its militaristic traditions. There is a strong jingoistic strain to ‘humanitarian intervention’ which allows the imperialists to drum up quite deep support for disastrous policies, over and over again.
Amazingly, although Jeremy Corbyn comes out of the left-wing world of pacifism and identity politics, he has consistently been realistic about the limits of British military power. He has spoken against all the disastrous interventions mentioned above and has actually had the audacity to ask for evidence of Russian intervention on British soil, to the fury of the imperialists in both the Conservative and the Labour Parties. He has the distinction of making correct predictions on these issues which, if they had been heeded, would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and saved Britain’s reputation in many parts of the world. He is in many respects, despite his pedigree, a defence and foreign policy realist who is prepared to stand up for his beliefs, while those around him, who should know better, like John McDonnell, quail at the media and parliamentary onslaught on a non-aggressive defence policy. Britain needs a defence policy tailored to an appropriate foreign policy. As we argued in Labour Affairs in June, a British foreign policy should concentrate on promoting and defending national interests and in keeping international conflict to a minimum. For our part of the world, collective security arrangements with Europe and Russia are the best option, combined with the capacity to defend the homeland and our coasts from immediate threats. This entails a modest but real defence policy and expenditure. The nuclear deterrent has no role to play in such a policy, neither does a navy capable of intervention anywhere in the world apart from our immediate surrounding seas. Getting the Labour Party and the country to see this will, however, be a monumental challenge.