Top Secret stamp. Graphic: Pixabay/TayebMEZAHDIA Top Secret stamp. Graphic: Pixabay/TayebMEZAHDIA

Theresa May’s Cold War revivalism is a high risk strategy for all of us, writes Alex Snowdon 

The government’s reckless response to the recent events in Salisbury, where it is alleged the Russian state was directly responsible for poisoning a former spy and his daughter, is, of course, risky diplomatically. But it is also a gamble politically. The initial public response, according to a number of polls, appears to be relatively favourable for the Tories. That is no surprise in the circumstances, with a simplistic ‘look tough’ approach likely to play reasonably well, but public support is fragile and vulnerable to change. 

Generally, the media framing so far has consisted of an unquestioning attitude towards the government – as if its approach is mere ‘common sense’ – and excessive attention to challenging the Official Opposition, with Jeremy Corbyn treated as the one who must answer all the questions. His response has been calm and measured, insisting on proper scrutiny and avoiding escalation. The Labour leader’s article, published by the Guardian, argued that a painstaking criminal investigation must be allowed to proceed without political hysteria surrounding it. He also noted the inconsistency in Tory denunciations of Putin’s government while giving Donald Trump unqualified support and rolling out the red carpet for Saudi royals. He urged an end to ‘servicing Russian crony capitalism in Britain’ and reiterated his more general position of sanctioning human rights abusers. 

The BBC programme Newsnight earned ridicule for its studio backdrop implicitly characterising Corbyn as a Russian agent – including an apparently photoshopped Russian-style hat – and the right-wing papers have carried the same message more brazenly (see the Mail’s ‘Kremlin Stooge’ front page). At its worst, this coverage is intended to frame Corbyn as the agent of a rival foreign power, actively working to undermine this country and its interests. Even at its mildest, the reporting is designed to raise suspicions about Corbyn and make him appear as a Cold War throwback, unsuited to modern British politics. 

The media’s defining of the issues make a difference – it creates the ‘mood music’ around what is happening and how it is discussed, ensuring that Theresa May’s stance is widely seen as the default sensible approach (while Corbyn is a threat). It is of a piece with the repeated smears linking Corbyn to every bogeyman of the last 40 years from the IRA to Hamas. However, this is limited in its impact. The papers have declining circulations and trust in the BBC has been eroded over a long time. We saw in last year’s general election that an enormous amount of muck thrown at Corbyn by the Mail, Express and Sun cannot stop very large numbers of people voting Labour. 

The polling so far doesn’t indicate great levels of support for Corbyn’s stance, yet it doesn’t suggest warm approval of how Theresa May has handled the situation either. There is evidently widespread wariness. The support that the Tories do currently command could swiftly fall away, for example, if it looks like they are dragging us all into an increasingly dangerous conflict. 

Focus could shift towards the holes in the Tories’ case or the hypocrisy of it issuing anti-Russian rhetoric at the same time as courting Russian oligarchs. New developments could undermine May, for instance, if it proves extremely difficult to get NATO agreement for further sanctions targeting Russia, or if such provocative actions escalate the response from Russia (or even if they simply prove ineffective). Public opinion is volatile. This, furthermore, is happening against the backdrop of an ongoing political crisis for the Tories: hysteria about Russia cannot magically make the problems over austerity or Brexit negotiations disappear. Media attention on tensions with Russia ensured there was little focus on Tory MPs voting to deprive hundreds of thousands of children free school meals, but these realities remain. And they can’t be obscured forever. 

Corbyn has been ridiculed for referencing Iraq, yet the 2003 invasion – and everything that has been exposed about the British establishment’s role in justifying it – is profoundly relevant. Millions of people learnt from that experience how unreliable ‘intelligence’ can be, how distortions and even outright lies can be deployed to justify government action, and how proper democratic and public scrutiny of the state’s actions is sorely needed.

Corbyn, like the whole anti-war movement, was utterly vindicated by the Chilcot report. It has also become clear to many people that the bellicose and interventionist doctrine that underpinned UK military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria has been disastrous, fuelling conflict and increasing instability. It is questionable whether there is much public appetite for rehashing Cold War conflicts in a post-War on Terror world. 

Labour’s contradictory foreign policy 

There is, unsurprisingly, a centre-left layer among MPs and commentators that is rallying to the Tories and attacking Corbyn. Jonathan Freedland in Saturday’s Guardian. and Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Observer capture the essentials of this layer’s position. The Western liberal centrist order, assumed to be a force for good, has been severely weakened by Brexit, the rise of Trump, the growth of far right parties, and the Putin government. We must rally to defend the old order against these dangerous variants of populism, the most toxic of which is Putin’s Russia. 

Russia, according to this account, is uniquely awful in its flouting of democratic norms and liberal values. It is, therefore, the duty of all good liberals, and specifically all moderate and sensible Labour MPs, to support the British government on this question. It is equally necessary to marginalise Labour’s leader and his romantic yet deeply unrealistic fondness for calm, diplomacy and a sense of perspective. 

All of this depends on exaggerating Russia’s strength in the global order, while downplaying the history – including in recent years – of US-led imperialist intervention, involving Britain, and the accompanying racism, attacks on civil liberties, and so on. It wilfully ignores the expansion of Nato since the 1990s and its role in escalating tensions with Russia. It fails completely to grasp how disastrous the combination of neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy has been for many people (and how discredited that has become). It is an old story: a competing imperialist state is depicted as particularly backward, despotic and threatening, which justifies support for our own imperialist state. 

The Tories have correctly gambled on being able to sharpen divisions on the Labour benches by stoking paranoia about Russia. The revolt in the Parliamentary Labour Party is predictably exaggerated by much of the media, treating the views of 30-40 right wingers as representative of a wholesale rebellion across the PLP. In fact, many Labour MPs are cynical about Tory intentions, wary of rushing to judgement in the wake of Chilcot’s conclusions, and reluctant to undermine their own party. However, the Tories and their press can almost always rely on a hardened PLP minority to back them on major foreign policy questions. 

This is not, as many mainstream commentators suggest, because of public opinion, which has become considerably more sceptical of British establishment claims that might lead to military conflict than was traditionally the case. It is because a right-wing layer in the Labour Party is, and always has been, supportive of the British state and its actions abroad. It is instinctively supportive of the US-UK alliance, and of Nato, and of all the implications which follow that core commitment. This layer is ideologically committed to a set of assumptions about Britain and its place in the world, which inform a range of specific positions: support for Trident renewal, dedication to continuing Nato membership, putting the interests of the arms industry ahead of human rights, complicity in Israeli apartheid, and more. 

This layer needs to be confronted and its arguments – which are desperately weak – challenged. There are those on the Labour left, like Paul Mason, who have argued over the last couple of years for the left to downplay foreign policy and focus almost exclusively on domestic issues. That is neither feasible (the Tories won’t allow it) or wise. Such a position tends to be linked to confusion and political weakness over the bigger issues – Mason, for example, has echoed the establishment rhetoric about Russia on occasions. The left needs to be willing to tackle the arguments and turn the tide against Labour’s pro-war camp, as well as the Tories, on the basis of a solid analysis of what’s happening in the world. 

Such a project would be easier if Labour’s foreign policy was coherent. Elements of change and continuity are combined. There has been progress in Labour developing a more critical attitude to the arms trade, especially in connection with Saudi Arabia, and a growing willingness to talk about links between terrorism and instability and the US-led War on Terror from 2001 onwards. Labour has also successfully tapped into widespread popular hostility to Trump. 

Yet Labour remains committed to Nato, Trident and high levels of military spending, while shying away from opposing Israeli apartheid strongly. If Corbyn’s own record of anti-war and anti-militarist politics was replicated in party foreign policy, and if he had stronger backing from the likes of shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, Labour would be better able to counter the Tory narrative about Russia. 

UCU: grassroots rebellion 

Last Monday’s briefing was by UCU activist Des Freedman and succinctly outlined the balance of forces in the university workers’ dispute with their employers. The events of last week illustrated how swiftly things can change and how the actions of trade union members, operating collectively, can transform a situation. When details of a proposed deal emerged, there was profound dismay among UCU members. Instead of allowing union negotiators to sell them short, they immediately moved into action and resisted any acceptance of a shoddy deal. 

They called mass meetings, discussed the issues, and passed resolutions. This was a powerful and dynamic grassroots rebellion – and it worked. It reflected the strength of the strike itself, which has involved high levels of active participation on pickets and at rallies, and the determination of UCU members involved in strike action to stop a major assault on their pensions. 

It also reveals an important political dimension to the strike, as the dispute has raised very large questions about the nature of higher education and the place of universities in society. Sustained strike action often broadens political horizons, as well as enabling real, collective democracy in action. These important strengths will need to be utilised if university staff are to win their demands.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).