6 February 2020

Richard Burgon’s Peace Pledge may be Labour’s stupidest idea yet

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Labour in office has accomplished vital things for Britain’s national security. Out of government, its record is more patchy and it’s had its share of fools.

Writing in 1938, the former party leader George Lansbury wrote: “[T]o live, Germany needs peace as much as any nation in the world. No one understands this better than Herr Hitler… When I came away [from meeting him] it was my sincere belief that if negotiations could be started at once accommodation might be found. The threat of war was only a silly illusion which would soon dissipate if I could arrange a meeting between Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini with somebody as chairman with a sense of humour…”

Now Lansbury, who was forced from the leadership in 1935 because of his ineffectuality in the face of international crisis, has his counterpart. It is Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary and a candidate for the deputy leadership. Yesterday Burgon announced what he called a “plan for a Labour Peace Pledge. This will change Labour’s constitution so our Party never again backs military action abroad without the explicit backing of party members, except in a national emergency or where there’s UN backing.”

In the decades I’ve been watching Labour politics, this is the single stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. Apparently stung by the immediate derision, Burgon took to social media in the early hours of this morning to complain about how unfairly he was being treated. “What certain responses to this policy show,” he wrote in oblique response to the educationist Sam Freedman (whose father, Lawrence Freedman, is incidentally one of the great academic authorities on war), “is the contempt some have for ordinary people to shape their own lives”.

With this immense and unevidenced non sequitur, Burgon presumably believes he’s won the argument. To almost anyone else, it will be intuitively obvious what’s wrong with an arrangement where British military action would depend, when Labour is in government, on the say-so of people who represent no one and are entirely unaffected by it. But let me labour the point anyway.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the greatest atrocity committed in Europe since 1945. In July 1995, some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered in an act of genocide by Bosnian Serb forces in the UN-designated safe zone of Srebrenica. We know for a fact that cumbersome arrangements (a “dual-key” system between the US and its European allies, and UN officials who favoured neutrality) prevented a military response that might have saved them. Some officials in the administration of President Clinton saw the danger when Serb forces seized Srebrenica and witnessed the ghoulish television pictures of Ratko Mladic, the Serb general, systematically lie to refugees about their safety.

Had the US threatened air strikes if the Serbs did not release their captives and leave the area, perhaps it might have worked. Certainly, Bosnian Serb forces ceased to shell civilians and melted away as soon as Nato belatedly began a three-week bombing campaign the following month. As it was, the Srebrenica genocide happened as photo-reconnaissance satellites whirred overhead capturing the horror. Dutch soldiers acting as UN peacekeepers had even turned away some of the victims seeking refuge at their makeshift base.

When Labour was in government in 1999, it was instrumental in preventing a reprise of this nightmare. Serb forces had already expelled 300,000 Kosovan Albanians from their homes. A 78-day bombing campaign from the air by Nato forces halted a humanitarian catastrophe.

Mr Burgon cites the Iraq War as a reason for his “peace pledge”, so let me stress that the Kosovo campaign was very unlike this. It was not fought for regime change in Belgrade or even to secure Kosovan independence from Serbia. It was fought for the sole and specific aim of preventing the genocide of a Muslim population on our continent. The action would certainly, under his plan, have required Labour Party members (including, as we know, Trotskyists and anti-Semites) to agree to it, as it was not a national emergency and it didn’t have UN authorisation, for Russia would have vetoed it.

I can’t fathom the sort of mind that sees acquiescence to a deranged genocidal campaign of aggression as some sort of progressive political stance. This “Peace Pledge” is a guarantee of inaction in the face of barbarism.

It is easy to laugh at Burgon, and to note the historical irony that he sits for the same constituency (Leeds East) represented for many years by Denis Healey, who was one of the most formidable intellects in British public life. In his five years as an MP, Burgon has gained a reputation for not being on top of his brief and saying crass things, and his latest policy idea is indeed a joke. But it really isn’t funny.

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Oliver Kamm writes for the Times