Last week the leading opposition parties issued a joint demand for the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the context of the war in Yemen. Alongside Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, even the Liberal Democrats added their voice, notwithstanding Vince Cable’s former role as business secretary approving those same arms transfers, including during the first weeks of the war.
Conspicuous by their absence from the list of signatories, however, was the ‘Independent Group’ (TIG) of former Tory and New Labour MPs. This is a clear sign that on foreign policy, the self-styled party of ‘change’ will offer more or less what one would expect: reflexive conformity to the status quo.
TIG’s claimed belief in the “international rules-based order” is hard to square with support for, or acquiescence in, the continued arming of Saudi Arabia. The state is guilty of widespread violations of international law in Yemen, up to and including likely war crimes, while the UK’s provision of arms plainly breaches its own international legal commitments. It seems decades of British support for some of the world’s cruelest regimes doesn’t count as part of the “broken politics” TIG has promised to challenge.
Over 60,000 Yemenis have met a violent death since the Saudi-UAE coalition entered the war, mostly due to a Saudi bombing campaign characterised by a pattern of atrocities against civilians. That bombing is carried out by British and American built military jets, flown by US and UK trained pilots, dropping munitions supplied by the US and UK, and with the British and Americans providing the support services required to keep those jets in the sky. This, and a coalition-imposed blockade, are the leading causes of what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An estimated 85,000 infant children have died of starvation or preventable disease, while 14 million teeter on the brink of the worst famine seen anywhere in the world in 100 years.
Compare these levels of suffering, and Britain’s crucial enabling role, with the contributions in parliament on the subject of Yemen from Mike Gapes, TIG’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, and Joan Ryan, who leads on international development. Hansard records that Ryan has mentioned Yemen just three times since the intervention began four years ago, all passing (and frankly tangential) references made in the course of defending Israel or criticising Hezbollah. Not once has she engaged with the issue of Saudi and British involvement in the war and its human costs.
Gapes has mentioned Yemen in parliament only four times in those four years, expressing no concern about the consequences of UK support for the Saudis. Indeed, on one occasion he remarked: “Crudely to say that we should condemn the British government’s support for the Saudis […] will not take us anywhere”. Doubtless there are members of the Russian parliament taking an equally thoughtful and humane view of Vladimir Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad.
A member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee from 2005 until this year, Gapes is a rigid adherent to the modern elite consensus on foreign policy, both in terms of his commitment to a US-led global order, and in his loyal belief in the inherent moral virtues of Western military power. Within that elite consensus, one can occasionally at least detect a reluctant acknowledgement that mistakes are sometimes made, but even this appears to be a struggle for Gapes.
In a recent interview, Gapes defended his support for the Iraq war, listing a few claimed benefits of the illegal invasion without mentioning its costs: a six-figure death toll, millions made into refugees, bloody societal division, state collapse, and of course, the rise of Isis. This doesn’t quite match TIG’s promise to be guided in its thinking by “evidence” rather than “ideology”. Indeed, there is something in Gapes’ underlying reasoning – the calculation that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs – that is reminiscent of the more cynical apologists for the Soviet Union.
Elsewhere in that interview, Gapes offsets Saudi Arabia’s “human rights problems” against the “radical reform agenda of the crown prince”, likens his three visits to the kingdom over the years to travelling from the 14th century to the late 18th to the early 20th centuries, and asserts: “To see it through the prism of western European society and not recognise the change is not being real”. Put aside the fact expert observers increasingly see the Saudi ‘reform agenda’ as a failed PR strategy masking an intensification of repression. Gapes’ framing of the West’s relationship with the kingdom reflects a core feature of the elite foreign relations ideology that he espouses.
Under that ideology, originating in the days of empire, ‘the West’ is the source of modernity and enlightened civilisation, while ‘the East’ is mired in backwardness, sometimes aspiring to catch up (perhaps with our benign assistance – an arms deal here, an invasion there). As I discuss in my recent book on UK-Saudi relations, this facile, chauvinistic and racist narrative obscures the historic role the West has played in entrenching and empowering authoritarian rule in the Middle East. The British state and the Saudi kingdom are not only warm allies, but mutually reinforcing expressions of the same modernity, and of the US-led global order to which Gapes remains devoted.
The catastrophes of Iraq and Yemen underline the urgent need for radical change in Western foreign relations. No one would expect that change to come from the Independent Group, given its personnel and their track records. What TIG provides is merely a small example of the thoughtless dogmatism to which centrist politics has reduced itself.