Lindsey German on imperialism and anti-imperialism
The left really needs to step up over international questions and this just could be the week to do it. Donald Trump is coming to London on Monday where he will be meeting all the NATO leaders. He comes against a backdrop of continued attacks on Labour over nuclear weapons and supposed softness on terrorism. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the Tories use these issues as political footballs and have absolutely nothing to offer on foreign policy except more of the same, including playing follow my leader in Washington.
This is all against the background of Friday’s terrorist attack in London. It was a horrible incident and particularly sad that that one of the victims was someone who was doing the valuable job of trying to help offenders and prisoners. What a tragedy that he and others have been attacked in this way. The response of Boris Johnson and the Tory party was of course a disgrace in that they have immediately tried to turn this into a means of attacking Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
Terrorism is unacceptable - it leads to the death and injury and traumatisation of innocent people as we saw in the latest attack. But the growth of Islamic terrorism is not divorced from the war on terror, which was pursued as its supposed antidote. Rather the wars, interventions and occupations of the past nearly two decades have helped to fuel terror and make it a more frequent occurrence in countries like Britain.
As Jeremy Corbyn has said, this is something that we have warned about for nearly two decades now. The war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and the interventions in Libya and Syria all contributed to a sense of instability and a series of grievances which have allowed the terrorists to grow. The response from Johnson is frankly insulting and pathetic, coming from the leader of the government and the member of the party which has done nothing to deal with any of these problems and indeed has exacerbated them while making cheap political points.
This is a good week to restate an alternative view of the world. The Tories are very frightened about Trump’s visit. One anonymous source suggested that the NATO summit should have been cancelled because they are fearful that it will provide Trump with opportunities to attack Corbyn which may well backfire given Trump’s unpopularity here. The left should not shy away from these arguments. Trump is deeply unpopular, the wars are deeply unpopular and it should be possible for the left to make an argument for a different approach to foreign policy.
Instead, too many of those around Labour, although not Jeremy Corbyn himself, have preferred to ignore these questions, which they regard as difficult. They do not like to discuss Trident and they do not want to talk about the NATO military alliance because they think this will make them look unpatriotic or in some way not interested in defence. On both grounds, they should be a bit more courageous. The answer to whether or not you will press the button to start a nuclear war is not yes or maybe. It is, as the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon said, no because to launch a nuclear war is to kill millions of people. This is not difficult and to do otherwise is to accept the narrative of the Sun or the Mail.
The same is true about NATO. This military alliance is not a force for peace and never has been. It is a force for war and has been at the centre of all the recent wars. It is not just a marginal player but absolutely crucial to foreign interventions. Its expansion in various countries, including in Latin America and across Eastern Europe is actually leading to more tensions and more threats of war. Although most people in Britain probably don’t give much thought to NATO and do not oppose it, support for this body has been going down in recent years among British public. It is not the job of the left to pretend that somehow it can be used in a defensive and positive way.
It is a weakness of the British left, including very large sections of the Labour left, that it never recognised that progressive domestic policies should also be accompanied by foreign policy which challenges imperialism and which also is critical of the legacy of the British Empire. NATO and nuclear weapons are not part of the post-war settlement like the NHS and nationalisation. They are part of a militaristic world order which was formed during the Cold War and which has continued to play an important part in British foreign policy. It is hugely to Jeremy Corbyn‘s credit that he has rejected this politics, and it is one of the main reasons why he is regularly under attack from the right-wing media and their mouthpieces in parliament. But it is also one of the reasons why he was successful in becoming a leader in the first place. Trying to ignore these policies or talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘baggage’ in these areas and seeing it as a problem rather than a strength only leads to weakening of left politics.
It may be that many people are more concerned about the NHS than they are about the military. But if the left wants to speak the truth about this, it has to make it clear that the NHS is underfunded in part because the military, nuclear weapons and endless wars are so central to British politics.
All good reasons to demonstrate against Trump this week as I and many thousands others will be doing.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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