In February, The Sun broke the story that Jeremy Corbyn had been a spy for Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. Or at least that he had met a Czech spy, and had been paid to provide information. Though, it turned out he wasn’t paid and that the ‘top secret’ information was the fact that he owned a dog and some fish.
The calls for the release of Corbyn’s ‘secret Stasi files’ then collapsed when the Stasi Archives said that no such files ever existed. But, as the factual basis for these allegations evaporated, the criticism deepened into the question of what those meetings revealed about his worldview. Their allegation was that the way Corbyn understands the world — particularly questions about international relations — made him a threat to the party and the country.
This has been at the root of all the major scandals that have followed Corbyn’s first three years as Labour leader. His support for nuclear disarmament, his meetings with Sinn Féin, his response to the Salisbury poisoning, all revealed a worldview which breaks dramatically with the British establishment. The continuing anti-Semitism scandal is also, though not exclusively, tied to Corbyn’s position on Israel–Palestine.
But this clash of perspectives between the leader and his predecessors is not about Corbyn as some unique anomaly. This divide on international questions has always been the beating heart of the split between Labour’s right and left. It’s a divide between a politics which hedges its liberal internationalism with a focus on national security and a desire to appear ‘ready to govern’, and a politics which, at its best, is grounded in international institutions, human rights, and anti-imperialism.
Labour and War
In the early years, the Labour Party struggled internally over what a socialist foreign policy should look like. Labour’s 1906 election manifesto set out their broad approach to matters of war and peace: ‘Wars are fought to make the rich richer; and school children are still neglected.’ The notion that the working class bore the brunt of reckless capitalists’ wars was central to the Labour Party’s internationalism and its engagement with the Second International.
But the First World War drove a wedge through the British labour movement (as it did for socialists across Europe), testing this working class internationalism. The Labour Party split, with its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, resigning over Labour MPs support for the war. Yet only a decade later, MacDonald, serving as Britain’s first Labour prime minister, failed to live up to his own internationalist credentials, enacting policies like the Bengal Ordinances in India (which gave power to the government to imprison without charge or trial), dispatching warships to Egypt, and bombing Iraq.
MacDonald’s 1928 ‘Labour and the Nation’ programme would propose the following: (i) to keep and develop the Empire as the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’; (ii) give subject peoples ‘such measure of political responsibility as they are capable of exercising’; and (iii) ‘cordial co-operation with the Mandates Commission of the League of Nations.’
An organised Labour left position emerged from these early schisms around war and empire, most notably tied to the Independent Labour Party (ILP). It was in the ILP that an articulation of socialist internationalism distinct from both the mainstream Labour establishment and the Comintern developed. It is in many ways the ILP tradition that is the best summary of Corbyn’s international politics, one that is emphatically anti-colonialist, anti-racist, and anti-militarist. It was the ILP that sent brigades to Spain during the Civil War, worked in the League Against Imperialism and produced figures such as Fenner Brockway, the leading Labour critic of South African apartheid.
Despite the temporary unity of the Second World War, foreign policy quickly became a dividing line again after 1945. Clement Attlee’s Labour Party won a landslide victory and a mandate to rebuild the country, introducing nationalisation, a National Health Service, and basic social security. And there was great hope that the new Labour government would be as radical in terms of foreign policy. The left opposition within Labour coalesced around Tribune, which described Ernest Bevin’s first speech as foreign secretary as ‘the moment at which Britain broke the continuity of her foreign policy.’
However, for the Labour right, the 1940s and 1950s were defined by a commitment to international order through the United Nations, opposition to the USSR, and support for US foreign policy. They also took an ambiguous position on empire, accepting the need to get rid of nineteenth century imperialism, but wanting to protect the Commonwealth as a source of national power. This included violent crackdowns in places like Malaysia, where British forces forcibly removed 500,000 rural labourers into guarded camps.
None of these were peripheral issues. In John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee he argues that, for Attlee, the most important decision he ever took was to align Labour with a popular front of liberal democracies and the United States, rather than with international socialism. This meant joining NATO, supporting the Korean War, and the US-dominated United Nations. There were several motivations behind this. Part of it was ideological, a commitment to a liberal international order and opposition to the USSR. It was also material, Britain needed aid from the USA to help it rebuild. But the Labour right were also concerned not to appear out of their depth. As Nye Bevan said in 1958 ‘Labour Members of Parliament could reasonably be expected to know something about engineering, or about mining, there were two subjects on which they were completely ignorant: foreign affairs, and how to make war.’ By siding with the United States they hoped to prove their competence.
The Labour left was rarely able to articulate a clear alternative. In 1945, Tribune flirted with the idea of Britain standing as a ‘third force’ between the two superpowers. But the 1948 Nenni telegram incident — when a swathe of left-wing MPs were expelled from the party for supporting the Italian Socialists in their alliance with the Communists — was a key moment in the disciplining of the Left. Just two years beforehand, Labour had officially backed the Socialists, seeing them as their natural allies in Italian politics. But now, with Marshall Plan aid on its way from America, even a social democrat like Pietro Nenni, jailed and tortured by Mussolini, was beyond the pale if he sought a popular front with the Communists. As left-leaning MP Benn Levy put it, the controversy showed ‘there was no third choice for Britain, she must follow the Soviet road or the American road.’
Tribune had been formed as a magazine in defiance of the Labour establishment, supporting the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War while the leadership of the party remained neutral. It had reflected Nye Bevan’s view that the struggle against fascism required a class alliance and, as recently as 1946, the magazine had been mildly sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Tribune was also notable as the first major venue in Britain to afford space to anti-colonial leaders to make their case against continued British rule. The most prominent of these was Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention in 1938, which argued that if Labour was to be ‘anti-fascist’ it must also be ‘anti-imperialist’. ‘It must stand for the ending of Empire,’ he continued, ‘it must clearly declare for the independence of India and for the right of the people there to frame their own constitution.’
But the ferocious pressure exerted by the Labour leadership took its toll. By 1948, Tribune’s editorial board were so keen to avoid the party’s purge that it wrote an editorial backing the Italian Christian Democrats. Shortly afterwards, the magazine would do an about-turn on American aid — having initially opposed it — and its affiliated MPs would soon after join the rest of the Labour Party in accepting the North Atlantic Treaty, though the pages of Tribune itself maintained in vain that ‘European socialists’ and not the Americans should lead any new alliance. However, by the 1950s it was again pushing back against US influence, with front page headlines proclaiming ‘We Don’t Want Those Dollars’ and demanding the latest tranche of aid be rejected to secure British independence. And, in 1956, Tribune was the only faction of the party to oppose the Suez intervention, calling it ‘a crime against the world’ and an ‘evil, imperialist struggle against the Arab peoples.’
By the end of that decade, the Labour left had coalesced around a new goal and a new organisation, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Building on a wave of support for disarmament from the unions, the Labour left managed to pull off a historic victory at the 1960 party conference. In a tense conference hall, a resolution from the Transport and General Workers’ Union in support of unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons was passed by 43,000 votes. But, the Left were unprepared for this victory. Labour MPs baulked at the idea that Members of Parliament are elected by their constituents and chose to ignore conference’s decision. Then, after various internal manoeuvrings and a sustained campaign by Hugh Gaitskell, at the 1961 conference Labour reversed its position. For the Right this was fundamentally about national security and the need to appear serious about governing in the national interest. Ideals about peace had no place in that logic. For the Left, defeat led to disillusionment and increasing irrelevance as they failed to influence the Labour leadership as radicalism moved in an extra-parliamentary direction.
A New Foreign Policy
Fast-forward to more recent decades and it is clear the most visceral wound within the Labour Party regarding recent foreign policy is Iraq. Even for many on the Labour right, Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq without backing from the UN, NATO, or the EU, was a step too far. For those on the Labour left, it was criminal. And the catastrophic consequences of the invasion became a rallying point for the Labour left during a period of political weakness.
The unequivocal opposition to the war in Iraq shown by Jeremy Corbyn became one of the foundational parts of his leadership platform in 2015. In fact, for Corbyn, who was known as the ‘Foreign Secretary of the Left’, his opposition to Iraq followed decades of support for various solidarity movements, ranging from his passion for progressive struggles in Latin America, to support for political prisoners after the NATO-backed 1980 coup in Turkey. These were rarely popular causes, even among Labour MPs. But for many, by 2015, they seemed to show that he had been on the right side of history.
A Jeremy Corbyn government would be the first time that a foreign policy tradition akin to the ILP, one grounded in international institutions, human rights, pacifism, and anti-imperialism, could ascend to power. This is something his opponents in the Labour Party understand well. The Progress editorial after the 2017 general election made clear that ‘the big issues’ for them were ‘Britain’s role in Europe, our commitment to NATO, our belief in nuclear deterrence, our rejection of 1960s-style “anti-colonialism” used as cover to apologise for terrorists’. These issues serve as a shibboleth for the establishment to determine who is and who isn’t fit for government.
But the current party leadership have shown that they are prepared to take a different tack: the refusal to join the war in Syria, the commitment to stop arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the pledge to recognise the state of Palestine, and the demand for an independent investigation into the war in Yemen have all run contrary to the establishment line. In December 2017, coming to the end of what was a remarkable year in domestic politics, Corbyn, speaking in Geneva, promised to reject ‘Empire 2.0 as the path to global security’, and an end to ‘regime change wars, invasions, interventions, and occupations’. However, as the history of the Labour Party shows, the true test of foreign policy comes in government, not opposition.