Jeremy Corbyn was a disastrous Labour leader and one reason was his inability to hide his true beliefs.
Asked on Times Radio yesterday by John Pienaar whether he admired the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, Corbyn refrained from giving the obvious answer. Instead, he proffered the non sequitur that he had ‘never met him’. To the overwhelming majority of public opinion, an elected president of a nation valiantly resisting Russian aggression, and who refused any suggestion of being given safe passage out of his country, is a heroic figure. Corbyn doesn’t share this view and preferred to evade the question rather than state an untruth.
I’m one of many longstanding Labour voters who found it impossible to cast a vote for the party in 2019 under Corbyn’s titular leadership, and this exchange exemplifies why we were right. It would be redundant to condemn Corbyn for his position on the great moral issue of opposing a brutal imperialist war when he manages to condemn himself perfectly adequately without any external assistance. What I want to do instead is explain the worldview that he expresses and identify the misconceptions from which it derives.
By his own lights, Corbyn is an anti-war campaigner. Asked by Pienaar whether he still holds to his view that Nato should be disbanded, he gave a convoluted answer that I abbreviate but do not distort:
‘I would want to see a world where we start to ultimately disband all military alliances. The issue has to be, what’s the best way of bringing about peace in the future? Is it by more alliances? Is it by more military build up? [….] And ask yourself the question, do military alliances bring peace? Or do they actually encourage each other and build up to a greater danger?’
The questions are intended to be rhetorical but they do have answers, depending on the type of alliance. Since its founding 73 years ago (in part through the vision of Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary), Nato has been immensely effective in maintaining peace in Europe by deterring aggression and, in Kosovo in 1999, defeating a campaign of aggression by the Serb regime of Slobodan Milosevic. It is a voluntary alliance of free and sovereign nations.
This makes it different from the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, disbanded in 1991, which was an instrument of aggression and control by the Soviet Union. It was under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact that Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring and overthrow the liberalising government of Alexander Dubcek.
In short, military alliances are not all alike. Whether they are defensive or aggressive depends on the underlying politics of the arrangement. There is a longstanding position on the left that fails to make this vital distinction and instead sees a threat to peace in the very existence of weaponry and alliances. This tradition is part, though only part, of what animates Corbyn’s campaigning. It is not in itself discreditable but it is seriously mistaken.
Leonard Woolf, the Fabian theorist, wrote that the Labour Party ‘inherited its foreign policy from Cobden and Bright through Gladstone Liberalism’. It’s a very hardy notion that war arises from militarism, chauvinism and armaments, which supposedly inspire an equal and opposite reaction from an adversary. As the economist JA Hobson, whom Corbyn has cited admiringly, wrote in his treatise Democracy After the War (1917): ‘If we look to the trend of British politics and industry in the years before the war, we shall see the same drive towards militarism that we have seen in France and Germany. For the same impelling motives were at work.’
But it wasn’t true then, and isn’t true now. The idea that war results from military preparations and arms races was behind diplomatic initiatives in the inter-war years that we now know were futile, such as the Locarno Accords and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (which supposedly outlawed war, and won the US Secretary of State Frank Kellogg the Nobel Peace Prize). More damagingly still, it persuaded democratic governments and public opinion that unilateral initiatives of arms restraint would stimulate international accord. This was the position of the Labour and Liberal parties at the time. When the government proposed a slight increase in air power in 1934, Labour complained that it had ‘had its hands forced by the wild men like Mr Churchill’.
What changed the minds of politicians and voters was the terrible experience of dictatorship and war. Arms races do not necessarily result in war, and losing an arms race to an aggressor is the surest route to inviting an attack. Hence the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee resisted the expansionism of Stalin and strove to tie together the defence of Western Europe and North America. For every British government since, the Nato alliance has been the bedrock of national security.
Labour has been resolute in government but not always in opposition on the issue of defence. In the 1980s, in common with the German Social Democrats, Labour succumbed to the false notion that deploying Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe to counter Soviet intermediate-range nuclear forces was a dangerous escalation of the arms race. It was in reality a vital means of deterring aggression and nuclear blackmail, and reinforcing the US commitment to European defence. Fortunately conservative governments in both Britain and Germany understood the stakes, defied a fraudulent Soviet propaganda campaign depicting the missiles as an aggressive US move, and proceeded with the deployments.
Such is the tradition recognisable in Corbyn’s critique of Nato. It’s an outlier in political debate and it’s outside Labour’s postwar traditions. It might have done great damage if voters had heeded this message in the 1980s or indeed when Corbyn was himself presented by Labour as a potential prime minister. But there is something else, far worse, in his approach to issues of international aggression.
A stubborn tendency on the left makes excuses for aggressors and denies their crimes. Corbyn himself did this, as I’ve laid out elsewhere, in condemning Nato’s intervention to stop Milosevic’s genocidal assault on the predominantly Muslim population of Kosovo. He signed an early-day motion in 2004 referring to ‘fraudulent justifications for intervening in a ‘genocide’ that never really existed’. You could see the same impulse in his ludicrous response to the Salisbury poisonings in 2018, holding out the possibility that the culprit may have been someone other than Vladimir Putin.
Hence we are where we are. A politics that supposedly cares for the casualties and victims of war ends up exonerating the perpetrators of barbarism. It is a stance that would now deny to the people and armed forces of Ukraine the means of defending themselves against aggression. It is immoral, and I’m thankful that Labour will no longer have anything to do with it.
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