Labour & Security - A Sympathetic Realist Critique
We hope to come back to Labour's Manifesto commitments on international relations, defence and security later. These issues have been pushed to the end of a Manifesto heavily focused on domestic socio-economic issues. This, scarcely commented on in the media, is remarkable in itself because it cuts across an establishment narrative that constantly looks outwards towards counter-terrorism, state security and maintaining foreign alliance as second only to economic viability in a global market economy. Labour has turned aggressively back to the condition of the people as something of more consequence than State grandstanding. But here we want to look at a specific point where, a few days before the Manifesto Launch, on May 12th, Jeremy Corbyn entered into the Establishment and contested its core narrative directly.
In his effort to be seen as credible in national security policy, Jeremy Corbyn chose Chatham House, the intellectual beating heart of what passes for the British deep state, to put his case. What we have to do is separate some of the rather weak rhetoric in his speech from the substantive statements. We say weak rhetoric because, instead of creating his own set of strong sound bites and quotations and perhaps a creative re-formulation of core ideas he has held for many decades, he or his speech writers lazily drew on some of the clichés of social media criticism of the establishment.
There is no Leftist activist who has not seen many times the claims of President Eisenhower about the rise of the military-industrial complex. These are fair warnings but they are over half a century old and they endorse indirectly the Tory critique that Labour under its new Leader lives in the distant past. It also suggested that the Labour Leader was drawing his authority from past thinkers and statesmen rather than giving us a fresh analysis. When it came to a specific new initiative, his Minister of Peace was a mere gimmick. What is actually needed is that the existing system be geared towards peace rather than provide reason for yet another a Ministerial car to be made available to one of the payroll vote.
Whatever the origins of our current situation (we could go back if we wanted to Bismarck in Germany or Lloyd George in 1916 for the construction of the cynical link between welfare and warfare), our current predicament of continual war and failed interventions goes back to Blair’s infamous Chicago Speech and his malign decision to adopt a strategy of aggressive Atlanticism based on regime change and militarist intervention. Backing off a direct and robust critique of New Labour in this area, rather than just making an indirect and coded one, when many centrists and even liberal Tories were and are horrified by Blairite militarism and neo-imperialism, was not showing responsibility but a dash of, well, mild political cowardice.
However, having criticised his lack of a language of robust challenge to Tory, New Labour and Deep State international relations policies of the last two decades, Corbyn’s speech was a fair assessment of core Labour values – that national security is in itself a core value, that the Party is fundamentally internationalist, that it is absolutely committed to the United Nations – and an acceptance that we face a challenging international environment. The reminder that the Labour Movement was and is partly defined by its historic opposition to fascism was a salutary reminder of its own history.
What the Eisenhower quotation should have led to was a more sustained critique of how the twentieth century saw a massive accretion of power to the centralised security state, using the communist and now terrorist threats as excuses after the defeat of fascism. This is not to say that one does need the security services (far from it!) but rather that the total security system based on the Cabinet Office and on the Prime Minister, and centred on unaccountable alliances such as that with Washington, is an excuse for political and social control mechanisms that far outweigh the threats they claim to defend us from.
Similarly, was it really wholly wise in the speech to make an immediate enemy of the new US President to please the emotional sensitivities of Corbyn’s activist supporters? On the one hand, basic realism tells us that this is the worlds’ most powerful superpower ever. The entire infrastructure of national security is still based on a relationship with Washington. Saying that this relationship is now the problem sets the Deep State against an incoming Labour Administration from the very beginning instead of ensuring a serious debate in power about the British (meaning the British people’s rather than the Crown’s) essential interest. The problem is not Trump, it is Washington, the 'swamp' and there are many people in the British security and intelligence establishment who would agree with that assessment and seek a more subtle way of asserting Britain's interests under socialism within the wider international community.
We could go further. Whatever he is doing now, it seems that Trump has generally tended to prefer discussion to military solutions compared to Obama’s actual behaviour. His campaigning populist critique of the American Deep State, his opposition to interventionism and his brutal current struggle with leading figures in that Deep State suggest that he is closer to Corbyn, no matter how distant, in some respects than any US President since Eisenhower, including all Democrats excepting perhaps Jimmy Carter. One suspects that a coterie of emoting idealists is dictating attitudes that are non-realist, as absurdly idealist (in the worst sense of being out of touch with reality) as those of Tony Blair in a different direction.
We have to grasp the nettle of Labour idealism. Idealism is presented as good thing but it is not if it is not underpinned by realism. There is a difference between having values that inform policy and having an ideological consistency that is separated from the ‘real world’ (which is just billions of people making decisions in real time with very varying access to resources and power) At its worst, Labour grassroots idealism threatens to displace the self-interested group-think of the politicised New Labour or Tory State with something equally out of kilter with reality. Labour’s central mission here is not to imagine a new world but to engage in the very practical business of shifting resources and power from the elite to the mass within the world presented to it.
A Labour Party prepared to re-think, seventy years on, Attlee’s then-understandable commitment to the security state is actually in the spirit of the great Prime Minister. Although he came to err on the side of the security state because of Cold War fears, he always was aware of the risk of the liberal values of our society being undermined by the security services. As politicians became enamoured of the security apparat under successive Prime Ministers, it was often leading security and intelligence professionals who challenged the ethical implications of political decisions. Security service figures like Lady Manningham-Buller have directly challenged New Labour's simplistic solutions to terrorism in the past. There could be more meeting of minds here than we think between socialist Labour and the security community if the former can sift its position towards more 'realism' in dealing with international affairs.
Government after Government of both parties has allowed the security state to become a powerful special interest in its own right with frequent misuses of power, now compounded by massive expenditures on psychological operations ostensibly against claimed enemies but which ‘kick back’ to our own people and stifle debate through a supine media. The widespread belief is that this is the doing of the security community in this country - in general, it is not. They have often been restraints on the political class' instinct for treating security and intelligence as a political tool for pre-set positions (do we need to bring up the disastrous Blair years here?) or to deal with short term political problems rather than as an analytical tool that should be disconnected from policy or an operational tool informed by what is possible but also what is ethical.
In this context, the nub of Corbyn’s argument might be regarded as a questioning of the ideological matrix in which we consider questions of national security and defence. A sort of profound group-think built around ostensible liberal values but actually centred on fear and manipulation has given us an inability to think critically, repeating the errors of fascism and communism as total ideological systems. Corbyn asks why we are stuck in this matrix. Is it a true representation of the world or is it, like fascism and totalitarian communism, a simulacrum, a refusal to consider alternate realities? This is the most important part of his speech - and yet he fails to drive his point home.
Whatever the neo-liberal reality that he challenges is, it is not stable and its instability seems to be derived from its own conditions. The decisions of the post-Cold War elite have not only not worked, they have made things worse and progressively so. What he suggests is a radical re-think of the normal policy priorities of a massive network of policy wonks, bureaucrats and politicians here and overseas. Every sensible person outside this somewhat self-serving and mutually reinforcing complex knows in their bones that military intervention has simply made things worse and yet an entire elite network refuses to stand up and recognise this.
We may also question the liberal internationalist insistence on getting over-involved in alleged human rights abuses overseas? Ah, heresy! Yet this is where idealism really does come up against realism, putting economic development at home at threat to make points overseas, showing inconsistencies when weak relationships are excoriated but not strong alliances and having the arrogance to suggest that, in a post-imperial manner, it is for us to tell other sovereign states how to run their affairs. This may be well within the tradition of the liberal wing of the Labour Movement and very personal to Corbyn himself but it may equally be a distraction from the people’s interest that he claims to want to uphold.
What is lacking is a clear overseas human rights policy that is more realistic than (say) some of the nonsense that recently came out of the Swedish Socialist Party in office where threats to the economic prospects of the country from a forward human rights policy merely led to some sharp back-tracking. What we really need to see is something no liberal seems to be prepared to offer … a rationally argued consistent and specific line on human rights that the British State Parliament and Courts can enforce with a clear accounting of costs that we can all be prepared to accept, much as the British once accepted the costs of banning slavery and enforcing naval action against it on the High Seas. What we get too often is vague idealistic posturing
Whether the sort of inequality that blames billionaires really is an issue here is debatable … some of these billionaires have been more effective at solving serious emerging world problems than states. Whether climate change really is so central to international breakdown as environmental activists claim may be more faith than reason. Similarly food security has actually improved in recent decades. As usual, the Labour Leader is a bit in hock here to standard issue NGO special pleading. But he is absolutely right that destabilising even unpleasant regimes is more destructive to populations and world order than negotiation and discussion.
What is attractive in Corbyn’s Speech, which he fails to emphasise enough or with sufficient passion, is the idea of Britain having an independent national interest. Is it because he is terrified of being labelled a nationalist in the context of some of his Party’s obsession with Brexit as a problem rather than an opportunity? We will speak our mind to the US. Good! A good relationship with Europe? Well, yes, if the EU does not insist on being our enemy. Non-confrontation with Russia? Absolutely! Calculating our own best relationship with India and China? Yes, good! Standing against automatic support for interventions to maintain the Atlantic Alliance? Yes, good!
So, it is not about Trump at all and he was foolish to put it in these terms. It is about the national interest, meaning the people’s interest. Corbyn seems to want his cake and to eat it - to speak for an independent British foreign policy and yet to try to position it as something to do with Trump which it is not.
Corbyn’s May 12th Speech is mostly decent, ethical and reasonable – an eschewing of fear and mass murder as an instrument of policy, reversing seventy years of implied brutalism since the mass bombing raids on Germany in the 1940s without in the slightest abandoning any policy option that would, as he put it, “protect the safety and security of our people and our country.” Only a fool believes that a nuclear exchange would ‘protect the safety and security of our people and our country” yet fools seem to have believed this implicitly on a cosmic bluff for decades. By questioning the prevailing matrix, he restores our essential humanity.
Corbyn is shifting the paradigm of foreign policy to one of negotiation, away from one of fear and confrontation. The real question – the worrying question – is whether, in fact, he has a sound grasp of negotiation which is a carefully calculated assessment of the assets we have and the assets that the other side has and being crudely effective in playing a very realist consequential game. He leaves open the door to ‘humanitarian intervention’ even though this is as much playing with peoples’ lives in the cause of an ideal, potentially leading to brutal unintended consequences, as having a nuclear deterrent or regime change. But his stance is ‘prove the case’ for the use of military assets and, for that, he should be commended.
The core of Corbyn’s stance is always internationalism. This is something, for all our doubts about the ability of a new Labour Government to control and manage the Deep State or negotiate sound outcomes, we should applaud and support. His new thinking even goes so far as to accept NATO (which we think is a little out of control) and 2% of GDP defence spending (which may be excessive in an age of austerity). His compromises with past positions are probably wrong but necessary. We cannot be ‘realist’ and then condemn necessary realism in dealing with powerful social forces even if one hopes the Labour Leader would use power, as Prime Minister, to weaken those forces.
So, all told, a Speech that was well within the broader liberal internationalist tradition of the Labour Movement as well as one that will have been designed to reassure the military and foreign policy establishment with which Corbyn would expect to deal in office but also one that offers a foreign and security policy that still looks backwards rhetorically and one that is still far too beholden to the naïve idealism of left wing activists. There should be no incompatibility between holding the values explicit and implicit in this Speech and realism about international relations. But it is perhaps a little disappointing to see one set of self-defeating radical idealisms (the Blairite) in danger of merely being replaced with another.