Jeremy Corbyn, a recent article in the Economist frets, has “the most radical views on national security of any leader in the Labour party’s history.” The politics of Corbyn and many of those around him is not, the piece continues, mere “cuddly pacifism”, but “opposition to ‘Western imperialism’.”
This organ of the British business class is exactly correct. Corbyn, his team, and substantial parts of the mass movement behind him represent a longstanding but long-marginalised current within British political life: anti-imperialism and militant internationalism. They aim, in the long-term, at a cross-national alliance of solidarity to break down the stratospheric differentials in wealth and power built on – and maintained by – unjust relations of global domination. This general election therefore represents a historically unprecedented chance for all who are committed to worldwide human equality and liberation – and this is the primary reason for the British elite’s wild-eyed reaction against Corbyn’s Labour party.
The manifesto for real change in foreign policy.
It is hard to express how much of a break the Labour manifesto – whilst still objectively moderate – makes with historic precedent. The opening paragraph of the ‘new internationalism’ section pledges to “end the ‘bomb first, talk later’ approach to security” and to “put human rights, international law and tackling climate change at the heart of our international policies.” Whilst this may seem to us ordinary folk like a bare modicum of human decency and compassion, it represents a sharp disruption of business-as-usual in a country which has been at war overseas every single year for over a century.
The British ruling class, brutalised in private boarding schools and socialised into a repellent sense of class and racial superiority, treats the Global South as a playground for British bombs and businesses. These rulers operate on a fundamentally different moral plane to me and you, and they get away with it because the reality of Britain’s role overseas is systematically hidden from us. As a book published by Chatham House, the British elite’s imperial talking shop, put it in 1997: “Much of our foreign policy is conducted on the sly for fear that it would raise hackles at home if people knew what we were pushing for.”
The British ruling classes are the people who starved a million Irish to death in the mid-1800s. They deliberately imposed famine-policies in India, killing upwards of 30m Indians from 1876 to 1943. They interned and tortured tens of thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps in the 1950s. Horrors such as these were systematically expunged from the historical record in Operation Legacy at the end of formal empire, when millions of sensitive documents were burned or taken to ‘current-free waters’ and left to sink into historical oblivion.
Horrifying enough as these past facts are, they find their corollaries in the present. Today, Britain is assisting Saudi Arabia’s brutal blockade and bombing campaign against Yemen, helping cause one of the most desperate humanitarian crises on Earth. Our relentlessly high emissions are going to help drown entire civilisations in the South Pacific, wreck crop patterns in sub-Saharan Africa and put Caribbean islands at risk of more devastating hurricanes and floods. Meanwhile, our government’s involvement in international financial institutions serves to relentlessly disadvantage the poorer nations of the world, imposing harsh economic programmes and debt regimes whilst helping their rulers stash ill-gotten billions in western-controlled tax havens.
Corbyn represents a challenge to this status quo. A Labour government would now end arms sales to Saudi Arabia, put new legal restrictions on British prime ministers’ ability to wage overseas wars, and stand as a firm ally of Global South nations desperately trying to tackle climate chaos. Importantly, Labour will stand up for indigenous West Papuans, currently suffering a genocidal occupation at the hands of an Indonesian state and backed to the hilt by the UK. No other major party offers anything close to this elemental human decency and solidarity – and no previous Labour leadership ever has either.
Labour and British imperialism.
Prior to Corbyn, the Labour party has been fundamentally committed to a global imperial order in which Britain and its allies maintain their huge disparity in wealth and power through force, coercion and exploitation.
Tony Blair’s record of murderous invasions, bombings and arms transfers marked a continuation, not a break, with this history. Harold Wilson, possibly the most left-wing of Labour prime ministers, went out of his way to facilitate a mass bloodbath of Indonesian peasants in the mid-1960s. Even Clement Attlee, now a nostalgic darling of the Labour left, carried out post-WWII operations in modern-day Indonesia “that cost the lives of over 600 British and Indian troops and of some 20,000 Indonesians”, as John Newsinger records. Attlee oversaw the callous partition of India, during which a million died, brutally crushed a leftist insurgency in Malaya, and unilaterally rammed through Britain’s nuclear programme behind the backs of the British people and parliament.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has consistently opposed Labour leaderships on international questions. He stood with the anti-apartheid movement when a large current of the elite vigorously supported Pretoria. He helped lead the charge against Blair’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars which cost the lives of upwards of 1m brown people and displaced perhaps another 8m.
For the best part of a century, Labour has offered social democracy at home built on some form of imperialism abroad. What the Corbyn moment represents, at its best, is a programme of social betterment at home designed to assist rather than harm populations in the Global South. The party’s environmental agenda, for example, proposes to mitigate climate change in the poorer countries whilst transferring green technologies for their own transitions – a quantum of reparation.
The fact remains that, whilst some consumer benefits for the British working class have been financed on the back of colonial exploitation, the imperialism of the British ruling class has largely harmed the majority at home. Overseas laboratories of counter-insurgency have offered the British elite testing grounds for methods of repression swiftly deployed against dissenters at home. Racism, forged in the heat of colonial genocide and slavery, has been imported back into the UK, persistently damaging the possibilities of class solidarity and collective struggle for a better life. Putting a dent in British imperialism will redound to the benefit of UK residents, as well as those in the Global South. Getting Corbyn in Number 10 is the first step.
Connor Woodman is a writer and works with international solidarity movements.