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IT IS a common myth that there is widespread public support for the wars and military interventions which have marked the history of the British empire and which are a continuing hallmark of imperialism.
Yet there has always been a strong current of anti-war opinion in Britain and it reached its height in the early part of this century when millions marched against the Iraq war and helped to create a massive crisis in Tony Blair’s government, the legacy of which still weighs like a nightmare on the present-day Labour Party.
The success of Jeremy Corbyn in winning Labour’s leadership in 2015 is attributed in part to the continued opposition to that war among many in the trade union and labour movement and the sense that there had to be a reckoning about Blair’s wars.
This was a major signal that Labour’s membership was turning its back on the era of wars and militarism which characterised Tony Blair’s governments.
Corbyn’s apology for Labour’s role in the war which followed the Chilcot report infuriated right-wing Labour MPs like Ian (now Lord) Austin but was welcomed by Labour members and supporters across the country.
The memory of that war still haunts Labour’s right and it is determined to drive out any sign of the mass opposition to it which helped to shape the politics of a generation.
Throughout Corbyn’s leadership there was no area where the right felt more threatened from the left than in that of foreign policy.
The Corbyn leadership period was accompanied by major political attacks not just on his own record of anti-war campaigning but on those organising in solidarity with the Palestinians and on the Stop the War Coalition which was accused of supporting dictators.
Starmer is doing everything he can to reverse that feeling and to assure the British and US ruling classes that they have nothing to fear from him or from a Labour government.
He made clear in a speech to the Fabian Society in January exactly how much the retreat on Corbyn’s foreign policy matters to him and how important it is to re-establish the Atlanticist views which Corbyn challenged.
He said: “We’re proudly patriotic. And we’re proudly internationalist too. I believe that after a decade of global retreat Britain needs to be a far stronger and more confident voice on the international stage.
“Because even before the pandemic we faced huge global challenges from the rise of authoritarianism whether in Russia or China; from nationalist, xenophobic populism whether in Europe, South America and the US as well as global terrorism, rising poverty, inequality and human rights abuse...”
Starmer’s claim to be both patriotic and internationalist should be viewed with caution. His notion of patriotism is to embrace the Union Jack, which is on display every time he speaks and which spells the opposite of internationalism to millions around the world.
What he means by the latter is further intervention by some of the richest countries against some of the poorest, a course of action discredited by Blair’s wars — but now back on the Labour agenda.
You would not think, listening to Starmer, that the catastrophic consequences of the “war on terror” — now almost 20 years old — are still being felt around the world, nor that any blame for those wars or indeed any of the other issues to which he points could be laid at the door of British imperialism and its allies.
There is no mention of the ongoing wars and instability in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, all of which have some roots in the interventions of the West in the past two decades.
No mention of the authoritarianism in parts of the world which are allied to the West, or of the abuses of human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
No mention of the continued oppression of the Palestinians by Israel. No mention of the bloody war in Yemen, regarded as one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world.
Starmer and his shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy have no criticisms on any of these issues because they see themselves as part of an alliance with Joe Biden which is ramping up tension with Russia, launching a new cold war on China and is in support of regime change in a number of Latin American countries such as Venezuela.
Nandy spoke at the launch of the Open Labour pamphlet which pronounced the value of promoting “humanitarian intervention” across the world.
Yet after two decades of such intervention it has surely been revealed as far from humanitarian. This won’t stop the push in Labour to rehabilitate wars of aggression. The dominant view of Labour’s leadership and the mass of MPs for most of its history has been to support Britain’s imperial agenda.
This was true of the Attlee government. Corbyn marked a real break from this tradition.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the War on Terror, Stop the War’s role as a mass campaign for peace is as important as ever.
It was established in 2001 at a time when some on the left said it was impossible to campaign around the coming war in Afghanistan — yet we established a mass campaign, involving for the first-time large numbers of the Muslim community in organising alongside the left and the trade unions. This was repeated on an ever larger scale round Iraq.
Perhaps most important for us now is to recognise how important the campaign was and is in giving a voice to those opposed to war — and to a significant number also opposed to imperialism. We changed public opinion on a permanent basis. And we cannot allow the Labour leadership or the Tories to roll that back.
Lindsey German is convenor of the Stop the War Coalition.
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