Treating Anti-War Activists as ‘Enemies’ Is Nothing New

Keir Starmer's accusation that anti-war activists were siding with the West's 'enemies' were nothing new – they are part of a campaign to question the loyalties of dissenters which stretches back at least as far as the First World War.

Supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) march through London to demonstrate against the deployment of Cruise and Trident nuclear missiles on British soil in 1983. (Keystone / Getty Images)

Tensions have continued to rise over the build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. The US and UK have ramped up the threat of war, sending troops, evacuating staff, and calling for their citizens to leave. Russia has denied any intention of invasion but has warned against Ukraine to join the NATO military alliance, while Germany and France have attempted to mediate to calm the situation. And the Ukrainian government itself has become increasingly frustrated with Western countries’ warnings of imminent invasion, which have helped exacerbate a domestic economic crisis.

One person keen to take advantage of the current situation is Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. In a sabre-rattling Guardian op-ed last week, he described the party’s commitment to NATO as ‘unshakeable’, claiming the alliance as a product of the ‘internationalism’ of post-war Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin—a curious figure for praise by a leader with a supposedly zero-tolerance attitude to antisemitism—and source of equal pride to the NHS.

In the same article, Starmer took time to accuse the Stop the War Coalition, the left-wing organisation founded to oppose wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of siding with NATO’s ‘enemies,’ specifically Russia. ‘The likes of the Stop the War coalition are not benign voices for peace,’ the Labour leader wrote. ‘At best they are naive; at worst they actively give succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies.’

An Establishment Tradition

It’s easy to see Starmer’s attack on Stop the War as just another example of his Corbyn contrarianism—if Corbyn says the sky is blue, Starmer says it’s purple and is ‘sickened’ that some might think it’s blue—but it also echoes a much longer tradition of questioning the loyalties of left-wing and anti-war activists.

The Cold War saw advocates of nuclear disarmament like one-time Tribune editor Michael Foot routinely accused of being Soviet dupes. In 1995, the Sunday Times agreed to pay damages to the former Labour leader after publishing an article entitled ‘KGB: Michael Foot was our agent’—but it didn’t deter the political mainstream from levelling these accusations. It was on their basis that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and many other anti-war organisations were subject to undercover state surveillance for decades.

Bruce Kent, the former priest and veteran peace campaigner who chaired both CND and the anti-poverty charity War on Want during the ’80s, recalled in 1999 the onslaught of articles aimed at him and his organisation, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the abuse they provoked. ‘I remembered it all too well. The sneers, the hatred, the funding allegations and the lies. Some sociologist will one day write a thesis out of my box files,’ he wrote. ‘“Dear Bruce, I wouldn’t give you the steam off my piss if you were burning alive—you red scum.”’

Starmer’s op-ed is not the first time the Guardian itself has waded into such waters, either. In 1916, it joined the barrage of abuse directed at conscientious objectors against the First World War. Back then, it suggested stiff consequences—up to and including death—for those who refused to fight. That was the only way, the newspaper claimed, that an objector could prove he was not ‘a mere coward masquerading under fine pretence.’

Over the years, trade unionists have faced similar treatment. Whenever a national cause could be summoned up to struggle for, any attempt by workers to demand their rights could be framed as disloyalty. This was the case most memorably in July 1983, when Margaret Thatcher gave a speech to the 1922 Committee that branded striking miners ‘the enemy within’—an accusation of anti-democratic sedition she intended later to extend to the entire Labour Party.

Putin and Blair

No-one should doubt Vladimir Putin’s penchant for militarism or irridentism, or his willingness to use disproportionate violence to quash a threat. Indeed, when Putin was still a friend of the West and counted the likes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton among his admirers, he earned the nickname ‘Butcher of Grozny’ for his ruthless repression of dissent in Chechnya which left thousands in the regional capital dead.

The same year aid workers estimated at least 5,000 civilians had perished over the course of six months as result of fighting in Grozny, diplomats said Blair and Putin had a ‘very friendly’ relationship, with the former praising the latter’s ‘clear agenda of modernising Russia’. In fact, it is now widely accepted that the Blair government helped Putin to power in the first place.

Despite the reputational damage Putin has suffered among his erstwhile allies, Blair maintained a soft spot for Putin, apparently viewing him as a potential ally in his War on Terror. In 2014, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Blair argued that the West needed to put aside its differences with Putin in order to cooperate against the growing threat of ‘radical Islam’.

Four years later, just a few months after the  of former Russian military official Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury by suspected Russian agents—an act which provoked the expulsion of Russian diplomats across the planet—Blair was still advocating an alliance with Russia against ‘terrorism’, even if he conceded there might be ‘powerful and strong disagreements’ with Putin’s administration.

As late as 2021, Blair unfavourably compared Joe Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan with Putin’s commitment to propping up the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. ‘Putin committed. He has spent ten years in open-ended commitment. And though he was intervening to prop up a dictatorship and we were intervening to suppress one, he, along with the Iranians, secured his goal,’ Blair wrote in a statement.

And yet, despite this extensive evidence of Tony Blair’s complicity in supporting Putin and his kleptocratic regime, there will be no articles in newspapers like the Sunday Times accusing him of being a Russian asset, nor thinkpieces in the Guardian accusing him of siding with Britain’s ‘enemies’. These are very specific slanders aimed, in reality, only at those who threaten the ruling class’ agenda on the home front.

From Russia to Iraq

The elephant in the room whenever war is on the table is Iraq. The 2003 invasion for many years tainted the idea of the US and UK launching or getting involved in foreign wars—but for those without the goldfish memory of our media class, it was also a time when speaking out against war was to be branded a traitor and a supporter of Saddam Hussein.

One infamous relic of this time, recently resurfaced on social media, is the ‘Open Fire on Traitors’ dartboard printed in the Sun in the run-up to the invasion. The Sun’s indication that the likes of then UN head Kofi Annan, late RMT leader Bob Crow and George Galloway were all traitors, and all on the same page, might seem ridiculous now, but—as with Ukraine—the mainstream media was far more willing to ascribe sinister motives to anti-war campaigners than to engage with their concerns.

This is the tradition Labour’s current leader now stands in. Anyone with a commitment to genuine internationalism based on working-class solidarity across borders—rather than the faux internationalism of bombs and military pacts that so excites Labour’s right wing—will inevitably be viewed with suspicion.

But for those still unsure whether it’s possible to detach opposition to war from implicit support for a regime, perhaps take a trip to the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Karbala, or Basra, and speak to the locals there. Along with the Iraqi Kurds and the victims of Iraq’s West-backed war with Iran, no-one suffered more than the leftists and Shiites of southern Iraq under the heel of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny—and yet you will find no-one more opposed to US and UK military aggression.

As Kamal Jabir, a leftist politician and former freedom fighter who spent year working against Saddam in the 1980s and ’90s, put it last month on the subject of Tony Blair’s knighthood in the New Year’s honours list: ‘The 2003 war against Iraq was a crime against humanity—therefore Blair should be tried instead of getting rewarded. Looks like the moral compass among the leaders in the UK is fading away like every other country in the world.’