Keir Starmer is a Long-Time Servant of the British Security State

The Labour leader’s obsession with the union jack is more than just empty electioneering.

by Oliver Eagleton

2 March 2021

Keir Starmer/Twitter

Last month a leaked strategy document revealed that Labour leader Keir Starmer plans to capitalise on Captain-Tom-mania by brandishing union jacks and praising the armed forces to win back the trust of disillusioned voters. On both sides of the party’s aisle, the leak was met with consternation. 

For the left, it marks the culmination of a troubling Blue Labourist trend. Since becoming leader, Starmer has rubbished the Black Lives Matter “moment”; endorsed ten-year jail terms for protesters who vandalise war memorials; advocated legal immunity for police officers who commit murder, torture or rape; and backed similar protections for British soldiers. He has excised the final traces of Jeremy Corbyn’s progressive internationalism – aligning with far-right apartheidists like Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as hosting a friendly get-together with Mike Pompeo. Last week he instructed his shadow defence minister to tout the party’s “non-negotiable” support for nuclear weapons. In light of these actions, commentators who once believed Starmer would revitalise Corbynism with a dose of lawyerly competence are now expressing their disenchantment in apologetic op-eds.

For his allies on the Labour right, the thought of Sir Keir rebranding as a rich-man’s Nick Griffin has also begun to rankle. Sympathetic papers like the New Statesman and the Economist are voicing doubts about these patriotic gestures, which they fear will highlight Labour’s lack of political vision and play to the Tories’ strengths. Starmer’s own MPs are concerned that ‘flag and family’ soundbites won’t wash with their intended ‘red wall’ audience, who may not be as credulous as the member for Holborn and St Pancras assumes.

If Starmer’s chauvinist turn has riled his sympathisers on both sides of the party, it is worth asking why he’s done it. The obvious answer is that it’s a desperate bid to win back the north of England, driven by his policy director’s conviction that conservative values are the key to the proletarian heart. By this logic, enraging out-of-touch Momentum activists or Westminster-centric MPs is a measure of his strategy’s success. As one Labour HQ staffer remarked about Starmer’s inner circle: “They don’t believe any of this stuff; they’re saying whatever they think will get them votes.”

Electoral cynicism is no doubt part of the equation. But the image of Starmer as a run-of-the-mill liberal social democrat, bending his principles to seduce the Workington Man, is in need of some correction. Indeed, almost a year into his tenure, it is an indication of how little remains known about Starmer’s personal convictions that his actions are usually interpreted as overtures to others – working-class Brexiteers, the Board of Deputies, big business, and so on. 

When the decorated barrister was elected last April, many Labour members (including this writer) assumed his ‘soft-left’ ilk was essentially malleable: able to amend its outlook depending on the political climate. In one sense, this diagnosis has been confirmed. The man who once proposed lengthy prison sentences for ‘benefits cheats’ and abstained on the Tory welfare bill has now evidently accommodated himself to the post-austerity consensus. Yet while Starmer’s views on economic policy have oscillated, what might be described as his social authoritarianism – pro-army, pro-cop, anti-protester – has been strikingly consistent, despite his self-presentation as a spotless human rights advocate. Against the presumption that his patriot act is aimed solely at the Leave constituency, we must consider the possibility that Starmer genuinely believes what he says. After all, it is only by pinpointing the most authentic and inflexible aspects of his politics that the left can formulate a credible response.

There is, in fact, a clear biographical explanation for Starmer’s flag-waving stance. During the crucial years of his political formation, after a fleeting association with Pabloite Trotskyism and a longer stint at the campaign group Liberty, Starmer worked as a servant of the British security state, domestic and international. In 2003 he was hired to advise the Policing Board of Northern Ireland on its compliance with the Human Rights Act – a role that ended his attachment to grassroots politics by proving that change is best achieved by working within established institutions (as he later recalled to journalists). From there it was only a small step to becoming director of public prosecutions (DPP) – the country’s most senior lawyer, responsible for all criminal prosecutions in England and Wales. Sources at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) claim his 2008 appointment was seen by the New Labour government as a chance to bolster its ailing human rights credentials after the war on terror. Yet once in office, Starmer set about remaking the CPS as a tool of Anglo-American foreign policy.

While prosecution services in Britain were decimated by funding cuts, Starmer chose to expand the CPS International Division – a previously dormant sub-department established to combat ‘national security threats’ through overseas legal work. CPS staff were deployed to advise foreign judicial institutions on matters of interest to the UK government, including terrorism, drug smuggling and irregular migration. Much of this work was overseen by Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill, formerly NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, who believed Britain’s domestic crime-prevention strategy could not be confined to its borders: state prosecutors must rather work alongside the government to identify ‘risks’ in faraway places and neutralise them before they reach our shores. A network of CPS ‘criminal justice advisers’ stretching across multiple continents was established towards this end. Starmer coordinated with the Foreign Office, intelligence services and Counter Terrorism Command to decide where his itinerant lawyers should be sent. Their day-to-day work was often mundane: instructing under-resourced judicial authorities on how to structure their offices or helping to refine police interview techniques. But in many cases they increased the judicial capacities of uniquely repressive governments: advising states in West Africa and the Caribbean on prosecuting the war on drugs, and giving ‘counterterrorism’ support to blood-stained client regimes in the Middle East.

One former International Division employee told me that, under Starmer, his work was “joined up with the government […] We made sure that what we were doing was most relevant to the UK’s international objectives.” He also noted that these efforts were “a huge part of promoting British soft power” under David Cameron. When countries were reluctant to accept outside interference in their legal systems, Starmer was sometimes flown out to meet their senior statesmen and briefed by the local British Embassy on how to talk them round. His eagerness to become a de facto envoy was commended by Tory cabinet ministers, some of whom rang up Starmer’s office to congratulate him on his outstanding overseas work. William Hague celebrated the Foreign Office–CPS partnership in a 2013 speech, where he dismissed concerns about their collaboration with tin-pot dictatorships by asserting that, where a country has committed serious human rights abuses, the UK must “cooperate with them in a carefully controlled way while developing a more comprehensive approach to human rights adherence” (for which read: place it on the back burner). Starmer’s reforms elicited further enthusiasm from Barack Obama’s administration, which agreed to bankroll a number of CPS international deployments via the State Department – calculating that, in countries where US intervention had a bad rap, the DPP could be used as a proxy. Starmer duly green-lighted a deal with US officials which ensured his international work would complement American foreign policy interests.

This yoking together of executive and judiciary was opposed by a number of CPS staffers, who feared it would erode the latter’s independence. Judging from Starmer’s domestic decisions, their worries were not unfounded. The most notorious instance in which political affinities seemed to bear on the DPP’s judgement was the Julian Assange case. As part of his cooperation with the US, Starmer developed a close and mutually admiring relationship with Eric Holder, the US attorney general who in 2010 had authorised several actions aimed at prosecuting the Wikileaks founder. At this time, Assange was wanted by Swedish authorities for questioning over sexual assault allegations, but he refused to travel to Sweden for fear he would be sent onwards to the US. His lawyers therefore proposed a solution. Before Assange was forced to move into the Ecuadorian Embassy, they encouraged Swedish prosecutors to question him in London. This was the standard protocol in such cases: if for some reason a suspect cannot return to the country where he is wanted, the authorities will often travel to meet them, as failure to do so needlessly delays proceedings and denies closure to victims. Yet the CPS intervened to block this course of action, advising Swedish prosecutors that Assange’s case should not be “dealt with as just another extradition”. Over the next two years, the CPS continually pressured their Swedish counterparts to keep the investigation open, with one lawyer working under Starmer issuing the following (now infamous) injunction: “Don’t you dare get cold feet!!!”

Starmer presided over the destruction of sensitive files on the Assange case during his time as DPP. Those that were released, thanks to dogged Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, were heavily redacted, with crucial details blotted out. Maurizi’s appeal to publish the correspondence between the CPS and Holder’s office was rejected tout court on the grounds that it “would be prejudicial to international relations”. In 2013, the CPS similarly refused Assange’s request to view the personal information it had stored on him, explaining that his case was still a “live matter”. Yet, contradictorily, when asked to account for its mass deletion of files related to the case, a CPS spokesperson stated it was “not live” after all, having “concluded in 2012”. It is partly on account of these evasions and redactions that Starmer’s personal involvement in the Assange affair remains opaque. We still have no record of the relevant exchanges between him and his subordinates. Yet we know from Starmer’s own statements that he expected to be “regularly briefed” on any “high profile case” such as this one, so his complicity in its unorthodox handling can be inferred; and we know Starmer had pledged to assist the overseas interests of the Obama administration, for whom Assange’s capture was paramount.

We also know Starmer worked directly with the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to extradite other suspects. Upon his appointment in 2008, he inherited the case of Gary McKinnon, an autistic IT expert who had gained unauthorised access to US military databases, hoping to find information about UFOs. Although McKinnon never published any of his findings, the security breach was a major embarrassment for the US state, which issued an indictment that would have seen the hacker imprisoned for up to 70 years. Starmer pledged to do everything in his power to deliver McKinnon to Holder. The defendant was hounded through the courts until 2012, becoming increasingly depressed and suicidal as successive appeals were thrown out. Yet just when it seemed his fate was sealed, home secretary Theresa May suddenly withdrew the extradition order, concluding that “after careful consideration of all of the relevant material […] Mr McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon’s human rights”. Starmer is reported to have reacted with fury. The next day he boarded a plane to Washington and met with Holder’s deputies to plead that this episode should not jeopardise their future relationship.

Starmer treated allies and employees of the US–UK security apparatus somewhat differently to its opponents. In 2010 he was asked to rule on the case of Binyam Mohamed, a terror suspect who had been arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and tortured under the supervision of four FBI officers. Mohamed was kept in a 2m by 2.5m cell, beaten frequently with a leather strap and hung from the ceiling for an entire week. During this period, he was visited by MI5 agents who observed his punishment first-hand, and warned that if he did not answer their questions he would be sent to a country whose laws would permit the use of more extreme interrogation tactics. This is precisely what happened three months later. The CIA transferred him to a secret prison in Morocco, where his captors repeatedly slashed his penis and chest with razor blades, burnt him with hot liquid and forced him to stay awake for 48-hour periods while playing loud repetitive music. MI5 continued to oversee the operation from afar, providing Mohamed’s interrogators with specific questions about his contacts in the UK and discussing the timescale of his detention with them. After he was released without charge, Mohamed produced evidence of British involvement in his torture, and it fell to Starmer to decide whether the lead MI5 officer would be prosecuted. Starmer declared he would not. He later made the same ruling in relation to an MI6 officer accused of sanctioning the torture of detainees in Bagram Air Base.

Another recipient of Starmer’s clemency was Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister who was part of the Israeli war cabinet during the 2008 assault on Gaza that killed an estimated 1,400 Palestinians, 333 of them children. When she arrived in Britain on the invitation of William Hague, some of Starmer’s former comrades from the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers handed him a private application for her arrest on war crimes charges (bolstered by a damning UN report on Israel’s actions). Starmer could have approved the request immediately and brought Livni in for questioning; but instead, he delayed for long enough that the Foreign Office was able issue a certificate designating her visit a ‘special mission’ during which she should be immune from prosecution. Even then, Starmer could have challenged this legally dubious action by pressing ahead with the application. But he was unwilling to do so, as a CPS spokesperson attested: “The DPP has refused to give his consent to the private prosecutor to make an application to the court for an arrest warrant. In considering this application, he has consulted the attorney general, but the decision is his.”

As these case studies demonstrate, Starmer’s approach to ‘law and order’ during his CPS years was uneven – and seemingly dependent on whether the accused was inside the imperial fold. The above sketch is by no means exhaustive. Starmer also surprised his former colleagues by supporting a government “superdatabase” that would collect all phone and internet communications. He altered CPS guidelines to facilitate the prosecution of peaceful protesters and to punish alleged ‘rioters’ with harsher jail sentences. And he famously whitewashed the spycops scandal, protecting undercover police officers who had stitched-up leftwing activists.

What accounts for such behaviour in an avowedly progressive human rights-ist? Those who have known Starmer for decades say he has always seen himself as a ‘moderniser’ – an image that is more important to him than most of his political principles. He brought this Blairite ethos to the CPS, which until the turn of the millennium had been a largely chaotic and dysfunctional institution. But his tenure coincided with the era of austerity, compromising his ability to establish new departments or promote legal advocacy (as his predecessor had done). In these circumstances, the government was most willing to assist the CPS, financially and operationally, on projects that directly benefited its security interests. Thus, one of the only avenues for development – where Starmer could realise his modernising ambitions – involved close collaboration with the Tories, the intelligence services, and their allies across the Atlantic. 

Keir Starmer is sometimes praised for being an outsider in the world of politics (or mocked as too lawyerly and insufficiently political). But in reality, much of his work as DPP blurred the boundaries between prosecutor and politician – following the dictates of the Cameron coalition, negotiating with foreign officials on its behalf, and dropping or pursuing cases according to its interests. In so doing, Starmer was integrated into the national security establishment. The nationalist-militarist tone of his Labour leadership may be partially determined by political expediency – but it is also a reflection of this wider history. As such, it is unlikely to yield to pressure from below.

Oliver Eagleton is an editor at the New Left Review. He is currently writing a book on Keir Starmer for Verso.

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