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Tuesday 24 September 2019

Foreign Policy

Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘journey’

Has the Labour leader’s stubborn worldview quietly shifted?

By Giles Whittell






Jeremy Corbyn’s Journey 9’53

A standard summary of Jeremy Corbyn’s worldview goes something like this: as a follower of both Marxes – Groucho as well as Karl – he has been consistently opposed to capitalism and everything it needs or supports. Whatever it is, he’s against it. He has sympathised with the Iranian revolution, lionised the elective dictatorship of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, argued for the abolition of Nato and blamed the United States for Russian incursions into Ukraine.

Above all he has cleaved to a worldview formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s that rejected the post-war Pax Americana in favour of the unconditional pacifism of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which he joined at 17 while still at school. This week he he the ring at his fifth Labour conference since winning the party leadership in 2015. Before that he spent more than 30 years marking his territory as a hard-left foreign policy contrarian. So is he still that person?

The signs are that he is digging in. Labour is in turmoil, as the first two days of its conference has shown. The party’s debates about party management, Brexit strategy, even economic policy are far from settled. But on foreign policy, Corbyn has asserted his control. From arms sales to Saudi Arabia to recognition of Palestine, a sympathetic stance towards Moscow and an open suspicion of Washington, Labour’s world view is, increasingly, its leader’s.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero

It would matter less if his party had fully quarantined his foreign policy positions as the product of an eccentric hobby – which in a way they are – but that hasn’t happened. According to the foreign affairs writer Steve Bloomfield, the remarkable thing about Labour’s internal foreign policy debate “is that there is actually very little debate: Corbyn has won.” The party has come to him, not the other way round.

When Hillary Benn, as shadow foreign secretary, dared to speak out in the House of Commons against Corbyn’s position and in favour of military action against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, he was sacked. That was three years ago. Since then most shadow cabinet contenders have fallen into line, including shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who has said Corbyn is “on a journey” with his views.

Corbyn’s old confrere George Galloway, now leader of the militantly pro-Palestinian Respect party, has called him “a pacifist who’ll speak to anyone”. “Anyone” has included Hezbollah and Hamas. It has included the leaders of Sinn Fein, whom he invited to the House of Commons a few weeks after the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing. Nowadays he denies being an out-and-out pacifist. There are signs that he has given some thought to when he might approve the use of force, but his anti-Americanism is reflexive. He regards Nato as a tool of American imperialism (1990, he once said, would have been the obvious year for it to be wound down) and he sees Israel as an outpost of that empire.

Ken Livingstone, Gerry Adams and Jeremy Corbyn walking across Westminster Bridge in 1983

Many prefer to explain Corbyn’s attitude to Israel in simpler terms – as an outgrowth of anti-semitism that has poisoned the Labour Party and blinded its leader so that he cannot see it even if he does not share it. Two years ago he was invited to a dinner to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that paved the way for Israel’s creation. He declined, issuing a statement instead that it was time to recognise the state of Palestine. “In terms of saying something positive about Israel existing, he wasn’t even going there,” says James Sorene, a former spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who now runs the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

But even BICOM, which pays close and not disinterested attention to the evolution of his views, decided in 2017 that his comments since becoming leader and his party’s positions in its latest manifesto were “more moderate than those to which he subscribed previously”. So has he really been on the journey Thornberry describes? There is some evidence of movement, but not much.

A Palestinian uses a slingshot to throw stones in response to Israeli forces

In conference debates and three foreign policy speeches he has reluctantly accepted the need for Nato’s continued existence, and has even backed the renewal of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. But he has refused to say whether he would ever use it, or to guarantee that he would authorise the use of force to help a fellow Nato member.

Military force can only be “a genuine last resort,” he says. Diplomacy is always preferable, however messy. Applying this logic to his country and his lifetime he says Britain has not been involved in a just war since 1945 – not in Iraq, Libya or Syria, but not in Kosovo after Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing or Afghanistan after 9/11 either.

A British soldier keeps watch in a location south of Basra, 2003

But Corbyn applies the same logic less consistently to Russia. After some internal nudging he has criticised the Kremlin for its role in the destruction of much of Syria, but he cannot bring himself to blame Putin for meddling in Ukraine. That would be to ignore the hypocrisy of the West as a provocateur in Kiev.

So his “journey” has been short, if not circular. Far from moving to the mainstream he has dug in his heels wherever he can. “I don’t think he’s changed at all,” says Mike Gapes, the former Labour MP who left the party this year to form The Independent Group. “I’ve known him since the seventies and I think his instinctive world view is that of anybody who has supported Chavez, [Nicolas] Maduro and [Fidel] Castro as he has. It’s the romantic view of revolutionary third world liberation movements. I don’t think reality comes into it.”

There is still an unknown: how Corbyn’s worldview resonates with voters. Too much has changed in the past decade to prejudge that. On campuses and beyond, his anti-capitalism has been vindicated by the 2008 crash, and his anti-Americanism has been vindicated by Trump.

It’s a nice paradox, then, that on at least three foreign policy pillars a Prime Minister Corbyn and Trump would find themselves in almost perfect alignment – their Euroscepticism, their mistrust of Nato and their instinctive non-interventionism.

A press conference with the two of them would be extraordinary. There would be no love lost, and yet Corbyn’s promise to “speak our mind” in any dealings with the White House would recall nothing so much as Hugh Grant and Billy Bob Thornton (as PM and president respectively) in Love Actually.

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings

Will it ever happen? It could, so it is worth itemising what actions Corbyn has said his government would take on the international stage if he ever formed one.

  • He would recognise the state of Palestine. The effect would be more symbolic than practical, but this would make the UK the most pro-Palestinian country in Europe and would drive a wedge between Britain and Israel.
  • Labour would move to suspend British arms sales to Saudi Arabia and probably to Israel. The latter could prompt a tit-for-tat suspension of Israeli drone sales to the UK.
  • Corbyn would argue in the UN for an end to permanent seats on the Security Council for the “big five” nuclear powers, even though they include Britain.
  • He would appoint a “Minister for Peace”.
German extra soldiers in a Serbian province, 2004

One expert on the European Left (who wishes to remain anonymous in order not to alienate its leaders) tells a story about Joschka Fischer, the former German Green Party MP who served as foreign minister under Gerhard Schroder. Like Corbyn, his politics were first formed in the ferment of the late 1960s. Unlike Corbyn he forced himself to see that when hard left ideologies collide with reality the consequences can be appalling. In Fischer’s case what struck home was the murder of Dora Bloch, an elderly Jewish woman, during the raid on Entebbe in 1976 to free hostages taken by Palestinian and West German terrorists.

From that point Fischer embarked on a real journey, from the fringe to the mainstream, that eventually saw him deploying German combat troops in Kosovo. “Corbyn hasn’t been on that journey,” this person says. “There hasn’t been any sort of reassessment of the sort that other ‘68ers’ went through.”

Corbyn no more expected to win the Labour leadership than Boris Johnson expected to win the EU referendum. But now that he has, the whole country – indeed, the whole world – may have to learn to live with his fixedly ideological view and with the character that has preserved them down the decades like mint condition Dinky toys. We may also have to live with their consequences.

Further reading

– Steve Bloomfield’s long read in Prospect on the world according to Corbyn reveals much about its subject – and about Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry.

– Corbyn’s set-piece foreign policy speech at Chatham House in May 2017 was covered properly by Politico, but not by many others.

Power and the Idealists, or: The Passion of Joschka Fischer, by Paul Berman, tells the story of Fischer’s gradual coming to terms with the real world.