Harold Wilson once noted that a week was a long time in politics, and the current Leader of the Opposition may well agree with him. On Sunday 29th November Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC not only that he opposed proposals for Britain to participate in coalition air-strikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, but that he alone would decide Labour party policy, implying that MPs would be denied a free vote in the Commons and would be subjected to a three-line whip:
Within 24 hours Corbyn was forced to back down in the face of a revolt within the Shadow Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Commons debate on Syria on Wednesday 2nd December experienced the bizarre spectacle of the Labour leader and the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, arguing the case (respectively) against and for committing the RAF to air operations over Syria.
For Corbyn’s defenders in the party, the Syria rift demonstrates the treachery of right-wing backsliders in exploiting a foreign policy crisis to oust their leader. For his critics, it is an example of the inflexibility of his opposition to military action regardless of context, and his failure to reassess the threat of IS terrorism in the aftermath of the Paris atrocity of 13th November. The televised encounter between Corbyn ally and Shadow Secretary for International Development, Diane Abbott, and ‘Muzna’, a Syrian refugee, also highlighted the humanitarian dimensions of this intra-Labour quarrel, to Abbott’s apparent discomfort. While she claimed that bombing Syria would lead to more civilian deaths and more refugees, Muzna’s retort reflected the views of party members like Kate Godfrey, highlighting the enormity of the human suffering inflicted on the Syrian people by IS and Bashar al-Assad.
Labour’s dilemma over Syria needs to be seen in its historical context. Throughout the party’s existence disputes over the use of force and questions of national defence have frequently been the source of bitter internal feuding which combine conflicting interpretations of morality with more hard-headed strategic calculations. To take two examples, these were apparent with appeasement in the 1930s, or the controversy over its adoption of unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. The essential source of these quarrels can be found in the party’s ideology, and two competing views of international politics within it.
Labour’s founding ethos emphasises internationalism and pacifism. Morgan Philips, the party’s secretary from 1944 to 1961, once observed that Labour owed more to Methodism than Marxism, and its interpretation of international affairs reflected an instinctive distaste for war, and for the principles of realpolitik which emphasise that nations should act in their self-interest. Labour’s preference for multilateralism and for diplomatic solutions to international disputes is reflected by its strong rhetorical support for the United Nations, and the belief within its ranks that Britain should never use military force without the UN’s sanction.
Labour’s founding ideology also stresses that money spent on the armed forces and weaponry is better spent on fighting poverty at home, and as Denis Healey noted in his memoirs there is an institutional suspicion that the military’s chiefs are pro-Conservative. A similar suspicion has traditionally separated the party from senior diplomats and intelligence officers; the Zinoviev Letter affair of 1924 led Labour politicians to conclude that MI5 and SIS were institutionally hostile towards them, and prepared to resort to dirty tricks to keep them out of office. The party’s tradition of anti-imperialism also means that its MPs and members are often inclined to take the underdog’s side if a militarily powerful Western state (or a coalition of them) go to war against a weaker one, even if (as was the case with the Labour left over Kosovo) the latter is led by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic.
However, there is a more hard-headed school within Labour arguing that idealism often provides a poor guide to the conduct of foreign, defence and security policy. With the rise of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the 1930s the pacifism of George Lansbury (the party leader from 1932 to 1935) led to an internal revolt at the Brighton Conference in October 1935; a furious speech by Ernest Bevin and the condemnation of other senior trade unionists forced Lansbury resignation, and his replacement by Clement Attlee, who subsequently served as Deputy Prime Minister in the wartime Coalition government. It was Attlee’s Premiership from 1945 to 1951 – and Bevin’s service as Foreign Secretary – which created the strategic framework that still shapes external policy today. These include the ‘special relationship’ with the USA (including its intelligence ties), the establishment of NATO, and the establishment of the British nuclear weapons programme. In June 1950 a Labour Prime Minister sent British forces to fight alongside the Americans in Korea for much the same reasons as Tony Blair committed troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; to reinforce the alliance with the US. As John Bew points out, Attlee’s approach to international relations is therefore one that is fundamentally opposed by Clare Short, Owen Jones, and other cheerleaders of the so-called ‘Spirit of ‘45’.
The split over Syria is presented by Corbyn’s supporters as a left versus right quarrel, but in the past questions over conflict and military policy defied such easy depictions. Robin Cook did resign as Leader of the House of Commons over the imminent Iraq war in March 2003, but had been prepared to back military action over Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan; Cook did not believe that war was never justified, he simply did not agree that this was the case with regime change in Iraq. Aneurin Bevan became the darling of the Labour left when he resigned from Attlee’s Cabinet in April 1951 over its rearmament plans, which he believed would starve the NHS and the welfare state of funding. Six years later, he outraged his erstwhile supporters with a fervent defence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent delivered at the Labour party conference in Brighton. Michael Foot had no hesitation in supporting Margaret Thatcher’s government during the Falklands War of 1982, arguing that Britain had the right to defend its citizens from aggression even in an overseas territory 8,000 miles away from the UK, and rejecting Argentina’s territorial claim on the Islands.
The row between Corbyn and his peers over whether to let the RAF strike IS in its Syrian heartland therefore has clear precedents in Labour’s history. One crucial difference is that compared with every party leader since Attlee, the current Leader of the Opposition is absolute in his opposition to the use of force in any context whatsoever, and is not even prepared to consider any decision to go to war as one that may be justifiable in the last resort. Corbyn’s convictions may be the polar opposite of Blair’s increasing resort to military intervention as Prime Minister, but the two leaders have something in common. Their absolutist responses to international politics have caused turmoil within the Labour party, and have also alienated the wider electorate. While the British public’s attitudes to war have been sobered by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, the electorate has traditionally punished at the polls parties seen as being ‘soft’ on defence and national security, particularly in periods where popular opinion sees a clear threat to state and society; be it Nazi Germany, the USSR, or IS currently.
Like Bevan and Foot, Corbyn may adjust his political beliefs accordingly. Or, like Lansbury, he may belatedly discover that his ideological rigidity loses him the support of his party. A third possibility is that he may end up presiding over an irreparable rift in Labour. Whatever the outcome, the Syria controversy could well become as pivotal a moment in the party’s history as Iraq was twelve years ago.