Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee, 1945 Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee, 1945. Photo: British Government / Public Domain

History shows why nobody should be surprised that the Leader of the Opposition is backing the dogs of war, argues Sean Ledwith

As Europe edges towards an unimaginable conflict, we have witnessed scenes of reckless warmongering in the House of Commons this week. Tory MPs who only a couple of weeks ago were declaring Johnson unfit to be PM are now lining up behind him as he drags us towards a catastrophic war. As the country confronts a cost of living crisis, these maniacs are calling on the government to squander even more billions on military spending. Johnson is, of course, revelling in the opportunity to dust off his pathetic Churchill tribute act as he watches the lockdown parties controversy handily recede into the distance.

Blind support

Not to be outdone on banging the war drums, Keir Starmer has condemned the government response to the crisis as not confrontational enough! Johnson goaded Starmer about the 11 Labour MPs who signed a Stop the War petition which rightly criticised relentless Nato expansion as contributing to the present crisis. Starmer was left flailing by Johnson’s belligerence and could only respond by demanding even tougher sanctions on Moscow – a move guaranteed to inflame an already perilous situation.

The Labour Leader had flagged up earlier this month that the Nato war planners in Washington, London and Brussels could rely on his blind support in the event of an escalation in Ukraine:

“Nato is just one part of the rules-based international system that allows for collective action, but it is a vital one. It should be supported, and its resolve strengthened, not undermined by ill thought-out opposition. That is why Labour’s support for Nato remains as unwavering today as it was when we played an instrumental part in its formation.

Normal service resumed

Starmer has explicitly turned his back on the Corbyn leadership’s association with the Stop the War movement, most shamefully with his recent calumnious attack on Stop the War as Putin apologists. Since then, the 11 Labour MPs have withdrawn their signatures from the statement under the threat of having the whip withdrawn.

The suspension of his predecessor over false allegations of antisemitism related to his support for Palestine also indicates the current leader will dutifully support the Israeli state and downplay the rights of the Palestinians. Some may regard this drastic shift away from Corbyn’s anti-war foreign policy as an aberration from the Labour tradition. An examination of the party’s history reveals that the Starmer agenda, however, represents the resumption of an otherwise consistent allegiance to the imperial projects of the British and US states.

Labour loyalty

Formed at the start of the last century, Labour’s first opportunity to demonstrate its loyalty to the cause of British militarism came in 1914 when the outbreak of World War I prompted the party hierarchy to eject Ramsay MacDonald from the leadership on account of his public reservations about the conflict. His replacement, Arthur Henderson, enthusiastically joined the wartime coalition that sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to their deaths in a bloody conflict that was transparently nothing more than an imperial carve-up between the ruling classes of the time.

When nationalists in Ireland rose up two years later in an attempt to end that country’s participation in the militaristic madness, they were denounced by a party journal:

“We do not approve armed rebellion at all..Nor do we plead the rebels’ cause…Nor do we complain against the government for having opposed and suppressed armed rebellion.”

Labour was consequently silent when James Connolly and thirteen other rebels were executed by the British colonial forces following the suppression of the Easter Rising.

First class colonisers

Henderson’s collaboration with the coalition led by Lloyd George also led him to approve the 1917 Balfour Declaration that led to the handing over of parts of Palestine “to such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return and may work out their own salvation, free from interference by those of alien race and religion.” The alien race referred to here, of course, were the native Palestinians who soon discovered the subsequent Zionist influx triggered the wholesale theft of their land, culminating in 750,000 of them being forced into exile upon the creation of the Israeli state.

Labour’s condoning of the incremental uprooting of the Palestinian people throughout the inter-war period was confirmed by Herbert Morrison, one its influential figures in the 1930s. He noted: “The Jews have proved to be first class colonisers have the real good, old empire qualities, to be really first class colonial pioneers.” Shortly before the creation of the Zionist state in 1947, the party voted in favour of a conference resolution calling for the  complete deportation of the native Arab population: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in.”

Labour leaders in subsequent eras have sustained their support for Israel’s role as the watchdog of the West as part of an agenda to reassure Washington that the party can trusted with the British security role in the Middle East. The mass flying of the Palestinian flag at the party conference in 2018 was, unfortunately, an isolated example of the leadership explicitly siding with the cause of liberation, rather than imperialism, in the region. It is a safe bet we will not be seeing a similar spectacle at Labour conference as long as Starmer and Nandy oversee foreign policy discussion.

Golden age?

Attlee’s postwar government is often cited by Labour supporters of as the golden age of the party’s reforming mission. There were undoubtedly major improvements in the quality of living standards for British workers in the 1945-51 period but in terms of defence and foreign policy, Attlee and his team proved to be staunchly determined to establish the UK as Washington’s junior partner in the cause of Western imperialism.

This is the era that Starmer regards as the most exemplary in terms of Labour foreign policy. He wrote recently: ”It was to prevent such needless wars that the generation of Attlee and his foreign secretary, the formidable trade union leader Ernest Bevin, were the midwives of Nato

Ernest Bevin, Attlee’s Foreign Secretary, conceded that the US had become the dominant global power but was not prepared to relinquish Britain’s imperial pretensions:

“I am not prepared to sacrifice the British Empire, because I know that if the British Empire fell….it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.

Attlee and Bevin were  committed to not just maintaining British imperial possessions in locations such as Malaya and Singapore but also assisting other declining European powers such as the Dutch in Indonesia and the French in Vietnam in their repression of nationalist movements. When the Americans launched an attack on North Korea under the fig leaf of the UN in 1950, the Labour government sent British aircraft and troops to participate in a merciless bombardment of civilians that eventually killed half a million people, including the virtual annihilation of Pyongyang. British collusion with this war crime was based purely on a cynical calculation that only with US support could the UK hang onto the remnants of its far-flung empire.

A similar sentiment of impressing Washington persuaded Attlee to deploy British troops in the suppression of a leftist uprising in Greece in the late 1940s. Defenders of Attlee point to his willingness to concede independence to India in 1947 as evidence of his anti-colonial instincts. In reality, the scale of the nationalist movement there was so vast it left the British with no choice but to cut and run, leaving behind half a million corpses as ‘the Jewel in the Crown’ was disastrously split by colonial administrators into the two separate entities of India and Pakistan.

Attlee’s bomb

The senior partner in the special relationship would also have been impressed by Attlee’s decision in 1947 to secretly commission an independent British nuclear weapons project without consulting his own party, parliament or even most of the cabinet. Only five years later when the bomb was tested on a Pacific island – contaminating thousands of square miles with deadly radiation needless to say – was the project brought into the spotlight.

The price tag of this gargantuan waste of money played a role in the government’s partial return to austerity, including the introduction of prescription charges in the NHS, that allowed the Tories to regain power in 1951. Labour’s overriding commitment to support to what it regards as the security requirements of the American and British ruling classes, even at the expense of domestic needs, was never more egregiously demonstrated.  

Wilson and Vietnam

In the 1960s, Washington’s most infamous overseas operation was the attempt to stall the unification of Vietnam. Apologists for Labour as a progressive global force point to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s refusal to send British troops to assist the US army in its brutal and futile campaign against the Vietcong. Wilson’s non-cooperation was not based on any principled position but on a cold parliamentary calculus that with a majority of just four he would not win a vote for such a contentious deployment.

At no point did Wilson speak out against the savage USAF bombardment of North Vietnam which unleashed more ordnance on the country than in the entirety of WW2. Commenting on Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the war, Wilson commented: “I am absolutely convinced about the sincerity of the President in this matter. I could not be more convinced about anything.

Allegiance to America

Wilson also demonstrated his allegiance to Britain’s imperial overseer by colluding in the illegal deportation of 1,500 native people from the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia. Prompted by a UN vote in 2017 that declared the occupation of the island to be a violation of international law, Jeremy Corbyn committed the Labour manifesto of that year to returning the islands to the control of Mauritius. The current Labour Leader is unlikely to share a similar commitment and we can expect this story of postimperial British shame to drop out of the news in accordance with the wishes of the security establishments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dress rehearsal in Kosovo

The most notorious example of the party’s craven abeyance to US power in recent history, of course, was Tony Blair’s participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Four years before that calamity, however, the Labour government provided crucial ideological cover for Bill Clinton’s re-assertion of American military power in in post-Soviet Europe. Blair initiated the invidious doctrine of humanitarian intervention that permitted the Anglo-American bombing of Kosovo on the pretext of protecting the victims of Serbian aggression.

To justify the Western intervention, Blair’s Foreign Secretary Geoff Hoon, claimed 10,000 Kosovan refugees had been killed by Serb forces – the real figure turned out to be about 2,000, and that included victims on both sides of the conflict. The Kosovan operation acted as a dress rehearsal for the subsequent invasion of Iraq with a Labour PM providing the rhetorical smokescreen and lies for a naked US power grab.

Washington’s poodle

It is now widely acknowledged that without British support, the entire American operation to effectively colonise Iraq for the sake of a neoliberal carve-up might never have taken place. Blair’s effusive excitement at the thought of the UK fulfilling its traditional role as Washington’s poodle eventually terminated his own premiership; but it should not be overlooked that the majority of Labour MPs at the time also voted for the biggest foreign policy blunder since Suez. There was huge support from the party’s rank-and-file membership for the 2 million strong Stop the War demonstration of 2003 but, once again, the Westminster leadership’s desire to stay onside with Washington trumped domestic considerations.


Blair’s appalling collusion with George Bush and his gang of neocon vultures has tarnished the UK’s global reputation for at least a generation. However, in the context of the history of Labour defence and foreign policy, it is clearly Jeremy Corbyn rather than Blair who tragically is the aberration.

The British state is now so inextricably connected to the US military industrial complex through the armaments industry, the CIA’s global network of bases and pro-Western regimes such as Saudi Arabia, that it is virtually inconceivable that another Labour Leader will be as critical of Washington as Corbyn was. The Starmer era of Labour foreign policy looks set to be a depressing case of normal service resumed.

His risible flag-hugging since replacing Corbyn, and even more so during the current Ukraine crisis, makes it clear and urgent that only mass mobilisation on the streets and in workplaces calling for de-escalation by all sides offers the hope that a massive calamity in Europe can be avoided.  

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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