Jeremy Corbyn and British foreign policy

The anti-war movement, with all its errors and omissions, is central to Corbyn's popular appeal.

Gary Kent
10 August 2015
Stop the War Coalition

Corbyn is the chair of Stop the War Coalition. Flickr/Chris Beckett. Some rights reserved.

In 'The Boy in the Bubble', Paul Simon sang 'every generation throws a hero up the pop charts' and the latest political star is Jeremy Corbyn, an austere and likeable man who has become the focus of enthusiastic anti-austerity activism in Britain. He could even win the Labour leadership in September with far-reaching consequences for Labour, current government policy on Iraq and Syria and, if Prime Minister, British foreign policy.

There's something of the old gospel revivalism about Corbyn's campaign, which has set the leadership contest alight and is attracting large crowds at rallies across the UK. Many are young, some are older and others are seasoned hard left cadres who, like Corbyn, have decades of activism under their belts.

Corbyn is definitely not a boy from the Westminster bubble, having been a serial rebel throughout his 22 years as an MP and one that the Labour whips long ago gave up on. His message is that British capitalism is not delivering for the many while the few are living high on the hog. He advocates what could be called Keynesianism on steroids to boost growth, make big corporations pay their taxes, and rebalance the economy all in the hope that mobilising non-voters will obviate the need to woo Conservative voters and therefore tack to the centre. Other contenders have been left swinging in his slipstream, although Liz Kendall matches him in asserting her principles, which are less comfortable for some party members. I am reminded, however, of the line in WB Yeats classic poem, The Second Coming, that 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.'

A radically different foreign policy is also part of the package. Corbyn founded and chairs the Stop the War Coalition, which failed to stop the Iraqi invasion but has become a block on further intervention and underpins reluctance to act for both traditional insular and anti-imperialist reasons.

David Cameron's government is moving slowly to overcoming the barriers to air strikes in Syria in addition to those in Iraq, having lost a vote on the matter in the Commons two years ago, but needs backing from the official Opposition and has met the acting leader Harriet Harman to this end. Corbyn opposes Western airstrikes because they could cause civilian deaths and boost Daesh, which should be isolated and perhaps attacked by a regional coalition. And for good measure, Corbyn is sympathetic to arraigning Tony Blair as a war criminal and says the Iraq war was illegal. He cites the view of former UN boss, Kofi Annan as proof. Well, that settles it (not).

Corbyn is rightly proud of backing the Kurds in the late 1980s when Saddam was gassing them and was one of a handful of MPs that urged the British to boycott the Baghdad Arms Fair after Saddam's chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988. Another MP was Ann Clwyd who sought to indict Saddam and avert intervention but accepted it in the end. Corbyn opposed intervention in 2003 although the Kurds were foremost in urging it, as many are now in urging military support to the Kurdistan Region and perhaps the deployment of western ground troops.

He and his supporters trumpet their success in stopping air strikes against Assad in 2013 after his use of chemical weapons and claim that this stopped war, although, in my view, inaction helped prolong it.

The consistent theme in Corbyn's foreign policy is a Chomskyian antagonism to America. His hero, (mine too), is Salvador Allende, the Chilean socialist leader overthrown with the assistance of Nixon and Kissinger in 1973, which led to football stadiums being filled with opponents and murdered. The coup was disgraceful statesmanship by America, and ‘is not a part of American history that we’re proud of’, admitted Colin Powell in 2003. But Corbyn seems to think that such interventions for nefarious purposes are part of the DNA of American imperialism, which cannot play a progressive role in world politics. This leads to supping with America’s enemies. I remember seeing prominent left-wingers fawning on the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in, oddly, the Churchill Room in the Commons. Opposing American policy is one thing but consorting with tin-pot dictators sullies pluralism and democracy.

Questions over NATO

Anti-imperialism trumps other factors too. Take Corbyn’s approach to NATO, which Labour helped establish. Last year, Corbyn berated the 'enormous expansion of NATO into a global force' and urged a 'serious debate about Britain’s overall defence and foreign policy' (including the nuclear deterrent) as 'NATO membership has brought us enormous levels of military expenditure and…involved us in countless conflicts.' He specifically challenged sending troops to Poland, Estonia and Ukraine and, while he would not 'condone Russian behaviour or expansion,' he said 'it is not unprovoked.' He told the Guardian last week that 'I am not an admirer or supporter of Putin’s foreign policy, or of Russian or anybodys else’s expansion. But there has got to be some serious discussions about de-escalating the military crisis in central Europe. Nato expansion and Russian expansion – one leads to the other, and one reflects the other.'

It is deeply troubling that the wishes of the peoples of the Baltic States and Poland are completely ignored although they see NATO and the European Union as means of protecting their independence from Russia. They should not be seen as pawns in a new Cold War – I am reminded of Yalta where Stalin and Churchill decided which countries would be in their respective orbits – but these peoples have agency, even when they agree with the West. I am sure that Iraqi Kurds will appreciate this given they sought the assistance of the West in ousting Saddam. I well recall my first visit to Kurdistan in 2006 and seeing a poster of Blair and Bush on the front door of the then socialist Prime Minister’s office in Slemani. Some left-wingers have never forgiven the Kurds for inviting Western intervention.


Another major issue that straddles foreign and domestic policy is Ireland. Corbyn is one of those Labour MPs who enthusiastically supported the Troops Out Movement from the 1970s and argued for self-determination for the Irish people as a whole, rather than recognising the legitimacy of the 'Occupied Six Counties' of Northern Ireland, with its Protestant and Unionist majority. Their assessment was that Northern Ireland should be seen as an artificial entity that caused division and it was a primitive analysis shared by Sinn Fein/IRA.

Most controversially, Corbyn and Ken Livingstone invited Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams to a meeting at the Commons in 1984. Corbyn supporters now claim that he was merely ahead of his time and has been vindicated by the later peace process. Another view is that this peace process could only come to life once the IRA realised that taking lives in London and elsewhere would not secure their aims.

I was active later from the late 1980s in the British-Irish Peace Train Organisation, whose main patron was President Mary Robinson and which sought to unite Irish people against the notion that the IRA had any legitimacy in bombing the Dublin-Belfast rail line or in its attacks elsewhere. It is at least arguable that this popular and organised revulsion against the IRA, combined with military and intelligence setbacks and wider Anglo-Irish co-operation, accelerated their eventual moves to accepting the consent principle – the legitimacy of Northern Ireland – and decommissioning.

Far from being premature peacemakers, Corbyn and Livingstone probably fed IRA illusions that they could deploy the ballot box and the armalite, or semtex, at the same time and maybe see their interlocutors taking office and implementing a united Ireland policy. I make no claim that Corbyn and his comrades condoned IRA violence but the demarche in 1984 highlights a naiveté that undermines Corbyn's claim to leadership now.


As does inviting 'friends' in Hamas and Hezbollah to tea at the Commons. In both cases, there is world of difference between private engagements with those with whom you disagree – myself and others, for instance engaged with Sinn Fein while also picketing their conferences against violence – and providing prestigious platforms for them.

Such radical thinking on domestic and foreign policy also highlights the gap between Corbyn and mainstream social democracy, a big plus for his followers, who are fed up with centrist politics and many of whom have been politicised by the anti-war movement, with all its errors and omissions, to put it mildly.

Every generation challenges received wisdom and, by accident, it falls to a decent pensioner to lead the movement to do this and with some panache. He is probably making more headway because he is clearly a sincere and modest man in comparison with other leaders of the hard left. Long established views and old institutions need to be defended, amended or ended and Corbyn's campaign has opened up a new and, for some, an exciting conversation on many such sacred cows. Hard left political activism is being rejuvenated by the Corbyn campaign and requires those who fundamentally disagree with its philosophical tenets to make alternative arguments rather than rely on inertia.

The Corbyn bubble, which is particularly big in London and may therefore be seen by the media as bigger than it is elsewhere, may grow or burst while to cite Paul Simon again, his opponents 'don't want no part of this crazy love' and his supporters hope, that 'these are the days of miracle and wonder.' 

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