This is the third in a short series of notes on the state of the British left and the way forward. The first two were The Great Leap over the institutions and Brexit: wrong question, wrong answer.
The biggest political demonstration in British history took place in London, on 15 February 2003. You were probably there. We shuffled along under hard grey skies, two million and more of us (I am no longer interested in triangulating with the police estimate), to protest against the Blair government’s plans to invade Iraq. It was the culmination of numberless meetings and vigils and marches in towns and cities across the country; it was a display of genuine internationalism, inspired much more by solidarity with people the demonstrators had never met and would never meet than by fear of the terrorism we all knew the war would exacerbate; it was magnificent. And it felt futile.
Because most of us on the Stop the War march that day knew, I think, that the war was not going to be stopped. The decision to invade had already been taken. On the coach back home I turned to another weary activist and said, ‘You know, the day will come when we regret that this was so big.’ It looked as though the only lasting consequence of a movement so vast, yet so powerless to achieve its aim, might be a despair that would ultimately become indistinguishable from apathy.
For more than a decade, that remark was my proud moment of insight and cynicism. It was only in 2015, seeing one of the leaders of the then anti-war movement elevated to the leadership of Tony Blair’s old party, that I started to wonder whether I hadn’t missed something.
And developments since then have been in some ways even more unexpected. Jeremy Corbyn, a politician who had always been known—if at all—for his dedication to the anti-war cause, changed Labour’s positions less in defence and foreign affairs than he did in any other policy area. The issues on which he had campaigned so consistently as a backbencher all but vanished from his speeches once he became leader. NATO? Nuclear weapons? For the first time in his adult life, these did not seem to be Corbyn’s priorities.
I suppose I can partly imagine how it happened. Corbyn’s support base included people from the soft left (in whom the Labour instinct to focus on bread-and-butter domestic questions is very pronounced) and from the trade unions (who are always suspicious of policies that might threaten members’ jobs in arms manufacturing and the nuclear weapons industry). You can’t fight on every front at once. Blairite MPs who might be persuaded to swallow a certain amount of anti-austerity economics would be sure to rebel the minute they were asked to endorse peace: in a reversal of the propaganda line that was sometimes used to defend continued support for Blair, they could live with the Sure Start centres provided they still got the wars. Only a certain number of issues can be debated at Labour Party conference in any given year, and there were always other important items on the agenda. Maybe war and peace did not seem the most urgent.
But the end result was that on foreign and defence policy Labour went into the 2019 general election with two separate manifestos. There was the official manifesto. It was set out in black and white, in print and on the party’s website; it said ‘We will maintain our commitment to NATO [...] Labour supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent [...] Labour’s commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence will ensure’, etc., etc. (It’s Time for Real Change, p.101); and I doubt anybody even entertained the possibility that the party leader agreed with a word of it. And there was the other manifesto, the invisible one, a radical manifesto for disarmament and peace: you couldn’t find out exactly what was in it, but everyone hoped or feared or just took for granted that something like it existed in the leader’s head. But because it was invisible and unofficial, neither Corbyn himself nor anyone else could actually ever argue for this second manifesto in public. As it happens, there are some very convincing arguments to be made that Trident is either useless or genocidal; that exporting weapons and fighters and mercenaries makes the world more dangerous for everyone; that the wanton destruction of Iraq was a major and as yet unpunished war crime, and the wanton destruction of Libya was another; that sporadically bombing terrorists is probably a less effective anti-terror technique than refraining from arming and funding them in the first place. But none of those arguments could be made. They would have clashed too obviously with the pro-nuke, pro-NATO official manifesto.
Not that they would have convinced everybody, even if they had been made. I have no doubt at all that there are some people who will never knowingly vote for peace when there is any war on offer,—who have looked at the career of Adolf Hitler and his appeasers and extracted the lesson that invading other countries is always good,—who think that when it comes to foreigners the only respectable courses of action are to bomb them or to sell bombs to them, and it doesn’t matter too much which you happen to do to any particular set of foreigners at any particular time. I know those people exist. The op-ed pages are full of them; and there are some among the wider public as well. But I don’t think many of them voted Labour last week. The fact that Corbyn was silent on foreign policy did not mean his critics had to be: everyone who could be reached and swayed by warnings that he was a pinko, a peacenik, a unilateralist, anti-British, soft on terror, hostile to the armed forces, hostile to the police, etc., etc., was reached and was swayed. On the other side, a fair number of people who themselves support a peace policy probably remembered Corbyn’s track record and voted Labour in spite of the official manifesto. But there are also a great many people who fall into neither of those groupings: they haven’t ever had much exposure to radical foreign policy positions, but neither are they irretrievably opposed to them. If the arguments were made, they might listen. Who knows? They might agree. Perhaps they mostly tend to nod along with the pro-war clichés of the press; but, if they heard the case against being made with reason and passion, they might be open to it.
It is those people who never got the chance to hear Corbyn or his supporters defending the opinions everyone knows he holds. They certainly heard the attacks; they heard that he was a terrorist sympathizer and all the rest of it. But they never heard the defence. They never heard the anti-war movement’s case for the prosecution against the pro-bomb consensus, either. And, because Corbyn was routinely attacked on these issues but never defended, because the official manifesto was careful to disclaim the radical positions Corbyn was known to support, they may well have concluded that an anti-war line was indeed something shameful. Why hide it, if it wasn’t?
Obviously all political parties have their policy-making procedures, and all party leaders occasionally have to be the face of one policy when they themselves would have preferred another. But the situation becomes absurd when the disagreement covers large parts of a major policy area—especially if the area concerned is one with which the leader has been closely involved during a career lasting decades. It may seem superficially as though defence policy did not play too prominent a role in the election campaign; after all, Labour did their best not to mention it. But the idea of Corbyn the peacenik, Corbyn the national security risk, Corbyn the terrorist-lover, Corbyn the traitor, did play an extremely prominent role. Those attack lines all come down to foreign policy and defence. The Tories and the press repeated them endlessly, and they unquestionably had an impact. And Labour’s inability to mention war and peace meant they could not be effectively countered.
A position like this is clearly untenable. Going forward, the left has a choice. It can explicitly repudiate any anti-war or anti-imperialist commitment, and take its stand squarely on the ground of the official Labour manifesto; or it can resolve to make the anti-war case as boldly and compellingly as it can, in the Labour Party and in the trade unions and with the general public, and to try to win the argument. No third way is possible.
Among commentators who are associated with the left, it is Paul Mason who has argued the most robustly for the first course. (I should say in passing that, while on this and on much else I disagree profoundly with Mason, the honesty with which he states views that he knows many leftists will dislike is rarer than it should be and is genuinely admirable.) Perhaps it could be made to work. It would imply trying to match or outbid the Tories in military fervour; it would presumably mean the left apologizing for having insufficiently Supported The Troops in assorted imperialist adventures; leftists would probably need to stop worrying about patriotic arms dealers flogging patriotic weapons systems to the patriotic Saudis. Almost everyone who has been a serious leftist in recent decades would need to be purged or retired: they all have a peacemongering past. Perhaps, even so, it could be made to work. Myself I would reject with contempt any left-wing movement that tried it—and I suspect it would lose the likes of me a long, long time before it even started convincing the bomb-happy pro-war brigade it was sincere. I hope, at any rate, that the second course is the one the left will choose. But it does have to be one or the other.
Monday, 16 December 2019