In the summer of 1969 Josef Frolik, a Czech spy who had defected to the United States, told the CIA he was “90 per cent sure” John Stonehouse, a Labour MP and junior minister in Harold Wilson’s government, was a Czech agent. When the Americans passed this information to their British counterparts, MI5 debriefed Frolik too. Now he downgraded his assessment. He was “not sure that Stonehouse is an agent”, only that his colleagues in Czech intelligence had made an approach to him. A person of interest, perhaps, but not necessarily an agent.
The Security Service’s report to Wilson concluded that “There is no evidence that Mr Stonehouse gave the Czechs any information he should not have given them, much less that he consciously acted as an agent for the [StB, the Czech intelligence agency]”. According to Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian, “On the evidence available in 1969, that was a reasonable conclusion. It was, however, incorrect. A decade later another StB defector provided convincing evidence that Stonehouse had indeed been a Czech agent. Had that information been available in 1969, Wilson would have been faced with an intelligence scandal worse than the Profumo affair.”
As Andrew argues, at least until the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, “the StB residency in London was often more successful than the KGB in approaching British politicians and trade unionists, who tended to be both less suspicious of Czechoslovaks than of Russians and sympathetic to a people betrayed by the West at Munich in 1938.”
This being so, it can hardly be thought astonishing – though it remains noteworthy – that a Czech intelligence officer, operating under diplomatic cover, should have approached Jeremy Corbyn in the 1980s. As reported by The Sun this week, these contacts came to little. Corbyn, a backbencher a long way from the front-bench and in a party even further away from power, had little to offer beyond his general impressions of the political situation. His sympathies, however, were noted. In 1986 Corbyn was, according to the Czech files, “positive” in his attitude towards Warsaw Pact countries and “supporting the Soviet peace initiative”.
No persuasive evidence has emerged that Corbyn was a Czech agent. His supporters, as has become customary, denounced the Sun’s scoop as a “smear”. Even so, it seems worth noting that the Labour party is led by a man who, even if he proved useless to them, was considered a potential target by foreign intelligence agencies during the Cold War.
Little, if any, of this will have much impact on Corbyn’s electability. We are in a different place, now. The Tory assault on Corbyn’s past failed to catch fire last year and there is little reason to suppose it will do so now. There are many, many Labour supporters who have little truck with their leader but see no plausible alternative. This should not surprise, given that many, many Conservative supporters view Theresa May’s leadership in the same way. Confronted by an impossible alternative, even your sub-optimal leader seems just about palatable.
Corbyn, who spent years talking about little except foreign policy, now says almost nothing at all about the matters that were once the defining issues of his parliamentary career. And why would he? There is little evidence the British people, collectively, have any great interest in the outside world these days.
You may think this exacerbated by Brexit but, in truth, it began long before that great national reckoning. A weariness with foreign policy was surely one of the many tributaries that fed into, and swelled, Corbynism. The near-universal realisation that the Iraq war was a ruinous, never-to-be-repeated mistake played a large part in this exhaustion. What’s more, Corbyn’s status as a steadfast opponent of that conflict has been used to give a veneer of additional respectability to a worldview that, absent that, might be considered something of a liability.
A sceptic might insist that even if Corbyn was proven right on Iraq, he was right for all the wrong reasons, his opposition being rooted in a reflexive anti-Americanism more than in any dispassionate considerations. That sceptic’s view might be supported by Corbyn’s long association with the Stop the War coalition who, as British troops fought to pacify Iraq following the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, called for an end to the occupation and hailed “the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends”.
Corbyn’s consistency has been remarkable. The Afghanistan campaign – provoked by 9/11, it now seems necessary to remind some people – was a terrible mistake. So, of course, was Iraq. So was Britain’s role in the intervention in Libya which helped topple Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. But Nato’s role in Bosnia and Kosovo was also a grievous error and while it may be regrettable that Russia has invaded Ukraine twice in recent years, it has been provoked into doing so by, in part, Nato expansion.
In the Western hemisphere, the same certainties apply. Cuba is a plucky, indomitable, outpost battling against American imperialism; Venezuela is a shining example of the power of the socialist ideal. An inspiration to us all. And when Venezuela collapses, does Corbyn say anything? No comrade, he does not. The failure of the revolution does not prove its shortcomings. Its heart was in the right place and that, in the end, is all that matters. The struggle continues and no fellow-traveller can be left behind.
In each and every instance, Corbyn chooses his side by aligning himself with whomever is opposed to the United States, the United Kingdom, Nato, and the broader Western world. At some point even credulous citizens must accept this is more than a series of coincidences.
Again, the importance lies less in the individual cases – many of which are indeed complex and liable to competing, but equally viable, interpretations – but in the what we might term the whole body of work. How Corbyn arrives at what he thinks is as interesting, and revealing, as what he actually thinks.
Hence his decision to ally himself with the IRA and Sinn Fein (and not with the constitutional nationalism espoused by the SDLP) owed much to his interpretation of the Irish struggle as one of liberation from colonial oppression. At the very least, this was a reductive analysis.
But it was – and remains – typical of Corbyn’s style. He has no truck with the idea that foreign countries in the here and now are responsible for reactions to circumstances for which they were not, historically speaking, responsible. They lack agency. Other countries are always given the benefit of the doubt, the United States and the United Kingdom never are. It is a one-note worldview that sees every problem in the world in monocausal terms.
Few sensible people claim that American or British foreign policy has an unblemished record. Only credulous citizens think that policy must always be righteous simply because it has been our policy. But the reverse applies too. Only fools can think western policy must always be mistaken simply because it is western policy.
It remains remarkable that one such fool leads the Labour party and more remarkable still that he may yet end his political career in Downing Street.