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There were curious echoes in Parliament last week of October 1956, when Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell opposed a war over the Suez canal.
The war was sparked by an Israeli attack on Egypt, but in reality had been planned by France and Britain.
Labour’s opposition to the Tory government’s war plans was couched in the phrase “law not war,” as Gaitskell felt the military intervention, incidentally on the side of the Israeli aggressors, did not have appropriate backing.
Most significantly the United States was not in favour. The adventure ended in total failure and by January 1957 Tory PM Anthony Eden had resigned. Suez has often been seen as the moment imperialist Britain realised it was no longer strong enough to act independently of the United States.
Ed Miliband’s opposition to David Cameron’s plans to intervene in Syria had a similar flavour to Gaitskell’s, at least in terms of an emphasis on international law.
Miliband chose to take his example from the Suez period rather than the Iraq era of his more recent predecessor as Labour leader Tony Blair.
But Labour’s foreign policy history has been a lot more complicated than that. From 1964 Labour was in office while the Vietnam war reached its height.
PM Harold Wilson did not take British forces into that war. But he didn’t speak out against it either — in fact it was the strength of opposition to intervention that caused him to hold back.
Again we see similarities with Miliband, who seems to have considered supporting war before realising how unpopular the idea was.
But Wilson, who had something of a reputation as a wily politician, found other ways to support the US in Vietnam.
He allowed it to use British bases and training facilities in the Far East and there is evidence that British special forces did actually fight in the war, though not badged as such.
There is a high possibility that something similar will happen if the US does attack Syria, and the use of British bases in Cyprus by US or French warplanes has already been mooted.
Wilson’s refusal to openly back the US over Vietnam can be seen as part of the legacy of Suez. Britain did not get involved in a major conflict until the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher went to war over the Falklands/Malvinas.
Most on the left opposed that war, but it was different from the wars waged by the Blair government later. It was the only time in the post-1956 period when British territory, as defined by the British government, was under attack.
A new era for British — and Labour Party — foreign policy began in 1997, when there was much talk of the birth of an “ethical foreign policy.”
It was never entirely clear what this meant. It did not seem to stop us selling arms to dictators.
But combined with Blair’s messianic “doctrine of the international community” speech delivered in Chicago in 1999 it appeared to suggest Britain would start to intervene militarily around the world in support of democracy and human rights.
The problem was that in many eyes this was not the real agenda. Wars were launched for strategic reasons, oil seemingly a factor in Iraq.
And did it work? Some still argue it had a positive influence in Bosnia in the 1990s, but for Iraqis it was an unmitigated disaster.
Regimes were changed, but things got worse, not better. So the impulse to “do something” about tyranny, besides being extremely selectively applied, failed its practical test.
Cameron, whose grasp of modern British history does not appear to be strong, picked up the legacy of the post-Suez period in the Commons on August 29. And lost.
He mostly lost because Miliband opposed him. Was this because, as son of the Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, he may have understood the context better than Cameron?
Perhaps not. Like Gaitskell in 1956, Miliband might well have backed war if “appropriate” agreements and measures were in place. He is no left-wing champion.
And finally there were the ripples of the biggest march in British history against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 hanging over this parliamentary showdown.
Miliband may have been rejecting Blair’s legacy, but his stance fits neatly into the character of British post-Suez foreign policy.
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