Labour balancing realism with idealism on defence

Paul Dixon sees a new pragmatism in Corbyn’s approach

The key problem for a Corbyn-led Labour Government is not so much what should be Labour’s objectives but how can they be achieved?

Labour Idealists would argue that the party should stand on a radical manifesto and a Labour government should implement this from day one, advancing on all fronts.

The Labour leader stood as an Idealist, promising a ‘straight talking honest politics’, but in office he has – some would say inevitably – developed a more strategic and tactical Realist approach.

Labour Realists would argue that the party leader needs to be a strategist and a tactician if he is going to achieve his party’s goals against likely resistance from powerful interests. Rather than advancing across all fronts, the Government would build credibility and support by focusing on policies that have popular support and then use this momentum to make progress in more difficult policy areas such as defence and foreign policy.

President Clinton’s political agenda was partly derailed by a major battle with the armed forces over ‘gays in the military’ in 1993.

Defence policy has, historically, been a difficult policy area for the Labour party. There may be popular support for limiting Britain’s overseas military operations and not risking the lives of military personnel. But defence is bound up with British national identity, pride in the military and a post-imperial culture.

The Left was shocked, for example, by the outpouring of patriotism at the time of the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

Labour Realists point out that Margaret Thatcher was a ‘Realistic Idealist’ who concealed her private views and publicly pursued moderate policies to maintain party unity and appeal to the electorate.

Jeremy Corbyn’s ideals are fairly clear and indeed he was elected because of the consistency of his politics since the 1980s. The Labour leader is a long-standing supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, former Chair of the Stop the War Coalition and an opponent of Trident and the arms industry. The Labour leader is opposed to Britain’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and support for Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen. He has been critical of NATO’s expansion and, therefore, has resisted the ‘new Cold War’ rhetoric against Russia.

The extent to which Corbyn’s personal convictions will be reflected in the next Labour manifesto and, if elected, government policy is debatable. What is most remarkable about Jeremy Corbyn is that his idealism of the wilderness years has led to a much more pragmatic realist leader.

This realism is most apparent in the Labour leader’s willingness to compromise and accept the party’s conference decisions. The Labour Party’s current policy on Trident, for example, is to support its renewal. This policy may be tactically astute because it avoids a confrontation with a powerful military and ‘defence’ community, making it a difficult sell to public opinion.

A radical Labour government is likely to run into strong resistance from within and without the British state. The military, for example, is – next to the monarchy, with which it has a close relationship – one of the most conservative institutions. 

The military reacted strongly against the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour party in 2015. The Sunday Times reported that ‘a senior serving general’ was threatening mutiny against a Corbyn government that downgraded the military. This broke a constitutional convention that the military avoid political controversy. Memories were stirred of the ‘Wilson Plots’ against the Labour government in the seventies. These inspired Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup.

The 2017 Labour party manifesto on defence and foreign policy is a very cautious document. The former head of the ‘Royal United Services Institute’, Michael Clarke, thought that in Labour’s manifesto there was no great departure from existing policy.

Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to NATO, and its provocative eastward expansion, did not prevent NATO being endorsed in the Labour manifesto, although scepticism of NATO and the UN, as the instruments of powerful states, is also expressed.

The Labour Party also committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence. This pledge was not in Ed Miliband’s manifesto in 2015 and marks a raising of the bar on defence spending. There are now calls from the ‘defence community’ and the US for raising this still further to 2.5-3%.

On the arms industry, the manifesto seeks both to secure its future and increase controls.

Requiring UN authority and a parliamentary vote on the use of force provide plausible, lawful and democratic means to end Britain’s almost permanent state of war. There is no commitment in the manifesto to UN approval, but the Labour leader has since called for a ‘War Powers Act’ which would establish in legislation the growing convention that the Prime Minister should consult Parliament.

There is a welcome emphasis on diplomacy and conflict management in the manifesto but there are also echoes of the cosmopolitan arguments that have encouraged war. ‘Protecting civilians’ in conflict, or ‘human security’, has been a major argument for the use of force. A ‘UN Emergency Peace Service’ could easily become a new legitimation, alongside ‘Right to Protect’ (R2P) for the ‘humanitarian interventions’ that have been so disastrous since the end of the Cold War.

The contrast between Jeremy Corbyn’s idealism and the pragmatism of Labour’s 2017 manifesto is striking. Realists would endorse this pragmatism. Margaret Thatcher became more radical over time as she asserted control over her party, government and the state.

Paul Dixon

Paul Dixon is Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London and the author of Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy.

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