Coronavirus Reveals the Hollow Internationalism of the Liberal Establishment

The liberal establishment has spent years proclaiming its internationalism over Brexit – but when it comes to helping the Global South at a time of crisis they are silent.

The debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union has created many problems for the British Left – in fact, you could argue that the divisions over Brexit were responsible for Labour’s calamitous defeat in the 2019 election. But it has also had positive side-effects. Most prominently, the British Left, which has tended towards insularity and occasionally overt imperialism, was forced to consider the meaning of internationalism in a globalised world.  

Liberals like Keir Starmer, and others associated with the People’s Vote campaign, argued for ongoing membership of the European Union on the basis of support for Western-led international institutions. ‘Global solutions to global problems’ was their rallying cry. Remain-supporting socialists, meanwhile, gave their reluctant support to the European Union – a capitalist institution with a devastating record of enforcing austerity on its members, caving to corporate lobbying, and rigidly policing its borders – on the basis that it could be reformed. 

Both of these camps attempted to claim the term ‘internationalist’ for themselves. For liberals, any failure to constructively participate in international organisations like the EU, the IMF or the WTO was indicative of a myopic nationalism that could only spell disaster for a small country like Britain in an age of globalisation. For socialists, the EU was cast as the only institution that could protect migrants’ rights and facilitate cooperation among socialists throughout Europe. 

The weaknesses of these arguments, which have been rehashed many times in Tribune over the past year, are now besides the point. The UK will, as (nearly) everyone has accepted, leave the European Union at some point over the next several years. But the Remainers who opposed this outcome now find themselves leading the opposition. They have retaken control of the Labour Party, while socialists linked to organisations like Another Europe is Possible have considerably more sway over the current leadership than those of us on the other side of the debate. 

It is reasonable to ask how these groups will use their power to campaign for the international solidarity for which they have been calling for the past four years. Will they continue to refer to themselves as ‘internationalists’ now it is no longer politically convenient to do so? Or are we about to witness a return to the naval-gazing nationalism of the pre-Corbyn Labour Party?

So far, the signs do not look good. Many of the anti-socialists who spent the last four years viciously attacking Jeremy Corbyn were incensed not so much by his rhetoric about taking on the billionaires, as by the concern his approach to international policy showed for the world’s poor. For the MPs who left to form the now-defunct Independent Group, talk of ceasing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, adopting a more critical attitude to NATO and providing technology transfers to the Global South was a bridge too far. 

Most of these anti-socialists supported Keir Starmer in the leadership election, and will be lobbying for a return to a more traditional approach to foreign policy – one that does not interfere with the private activities of British weapons manufacturers, enthusiastically enforces market discipline on the world’s poor and follows the international agenda of the United States. 

The pressure to return to the bad old days of Left nationalism has been evident in the hugely myopic response of the Labour leadership to the current coronavirus pandemic. It is now becoming clear that the coronavirus crisis will have a particularly severe impact on the Global South. States that have been flooded with cheap credit during a decade of low interest rates are now seeing international lending dry up, which is increasing their borrowing costs and pushing many towards default. 

A range of NGOs from across the political spectrum has called on world leaders to deliver another debt jubilee for the Global South, writing off the unpayable debts owed by poor states’ governments to private creditors so that they are able to increase public spending on health care and social security in response to the pandemic. The Labour Party, Keir Starmer, and the assortment of liberals and socialists who boasted of their internationalist credentials before this crisis, have been completely silent on the issue.  

This is all the more remarkable given the prominent role played by those on the right of the party in organising a debt jubilee for the Global South in the year 2000. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, pressured by activists and NGOs, delivered a substantial (though ultimately insufficient) debt write off for heavily indebted poor countries all over the world. 

Keir Starmer’s entire political career has been based on his promotion of his internationalist credentials. Many activists genuinely believed that he would hold true to the spirit of his campaign slogan – ‘another future is possible’ – which is derived from the alter-globalisation movement of the early 2000s. And yet, in Keir Starmer, we find ourselves with a leader whose internationalist instincts are lagging behind even those of Tony Blair.