Jeremy Corbyn’s pacifist illusion (2018).
By Bagehot, “Economist”, 19th April 2018, Source=https://www.economist.com/britain/2018/04/19/jeremy-corbyns-pacifist-illusion.
[ Author Bagehot, Posted by Lara Keller 25/1/20 Updated 7/3/20] Blog Table Of Contents
The Labour leader’s reluctance to use force threatens to make the world a more dangerous place Britain.
GEORGE ORWELL wrote, a little wickedly, in “The Road to Wigan Pier” that the British left acts as an irresistible magnet to cranks of every variety: fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers, sex-maniacs, “nature cure” quacks, and, a particular peeve of his, pacifists. On the whole the Labour Party has done an admirable job of keeping its crank-wing under control when it comes to serious issues like national security. Ernest Bevin was one of the architects of NATO. Nye Bevan slammed supporters of unilateral nuclear disarmament with a rhetorical flourish about sending a foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber”. Tony Blair’s failure, if anything, was to go too far in the use of force.
There are two exceptions to this tradition. One was in 1980-83, when Michael Foot committed Labour to unilateral nuclear disarmament and shrinking the armed forces. That hardly mattered because Foot was crushed under the wheels of Margaret Thatcher’s chariot in the general election of 1983. Another was in 1932-35, when the party was led by a committed pacifist, George Lansbury. In 1933 Labour’s annual conference passed a resolution calling for “the total disarmament of all nations” and pledging never to take part in any war. The party routinely opposed rearmament. This mattered enormously. Adolf Hitler and his confrères took it as evidence that they could proceed with impunity.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn. Today’s world has more than a whiff of the 1930s about it. The old order is shaky. Strongmen are on the march. Wars on the periphery are threatening to spread. And the leader of the Labour Party is talking about peace. The big difference this time is that Mr Corbyn is much more powerful than Lansbury ever was. He has a tight grip on his party apparatus and is the most likely winner of the next general election.
Mr Corbyn says that he is not a pacifist. He is willing to sanction the use of force in certain circumstances—“under international law and as a genuine last resort”—and gives the second world war as an example of a conflict he would have been willing to support. It is true that he is not a pacifist, but not for the high-minded reasons that he gives. He has spent his life opposing the use of force by Western governments. He not only objected to the Iraq war, and acted as chairman of the Stop the War Coalition in 2011-15. He also opposed the West’s decision to strike against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. He not only spent his youth campaigning against the Vietnam war and nuclear weapons. He has also been a longtime critic of NATO.
But his conscience has been less sensitive when it comes to opposing the use of force by anti-Western regimes or by various non-state actors. He half-justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, saying that the roots of the conflict lay in “belligerence” from the West and that Vladimir Putin was “not unprovoked”. He has often found time to hold meetings with left-wing groups that have sanctioned the use of violence to achieve their aims. In 1984, a few weeks after an IRA bomb nearly killed Thatcher (and did kill five others) at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, he invited Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA’s political wing, to Parliament for a reception. The essence of Corbynism is the rejection of one of the basic tenets of British foreign policy: that you side with the West, rather than its enemies. He is a pacifist of ideological convenience rather than principle.
Two noxious events in the past two months—a poisoning in Salisbury and a chemical attack in Syria—have given a vivid sense of what Mr Corbyn’s quasi-pacifism means in practice. He has repeatedly raised questions about the government’s (and indeed the West’s) version of events. He has called for the government to delay acting until international bodies have had their say—despite the fact that, in the case of Syria, Russia’s ability to veto any decision by the UN means that this would be like waiting for Godot.
Mr Corbyn’s prevarications are a reminder of what a risk Britain would be taking with its foreign policy if it sent Mr Corbyn to Downing Street in the next election, which is due in 2022 but could happen earlier given the government’s lack of a majority and the agonies of Brexit. A Corbyn government would weaken Britain’s relations with its allies. The United States might well refuse to share sensitive information with a leader who has built his career on anti-Americanism. It would weaken NATO, since Mr Corbyn has refused to say whether he believes in Article 5 (which states that an attack on one is an attack on all) and has opposed the use of nuclear weapons (bizarrely, he supports maintaining Britain’s nuclear submarines but not arming them). It would also embolden Mr Putin, who could assume that, through the UN, he could exercise a veto over British foreign policy—and thereby neutralise one of the world’s strongest military powers and one of the West’s most consistent champions.
Nudists in the conference chamber.
The classic objection to pacifism is that it makes conflict more likely, because bullies conclude that they can act unpunished. This is even more true of Mr Corbyn’s quasi-pacifism. It insists on erecting endless obstacles to the West’s use of force, from the seemingly reasonable (such as a parliamentary debate before the use of force), to the deliberately impossible, such as international consensus. At the same time, it makes endless excuses for the use of force by the West’s enemies.
In 1935, as the strongmen flexed their muscles, the Labour Party replaced the hapless Lansbury with Major Clement Attlee, who combined a vigorous support for Britain’s entry into the second world war with unceasing work to found the post-war welfare state. Today, alas, Labour’s parliamentary party is bereft of Attlees. Meanwhile, the party in the country is dominated by sandal-wearers and nature-cure quacks, who are willing to give the slippery Mr Corbyn the benefit of the doubt in return for the vague promise of a more just society.
This article appeared in the Britain section [Economist] of the print edition under the headline “Jeremy Corbyn’s pacifist illusion”.