Sunday 15 October 2023

Imperialism: An Old Labour Tradition

In his pre-conference interview on Laura Kuenssberg last week, Keir Starmer was asked what qualities he admired most in Rishi Sunak. His answer was that in their first conversation after Sunak's "election", they agreed on a joint approach to Britain's international relations and "national security". We've seen the fruits of this over the last few days. Grant Shapps went on the radio and gave Israel carte blanche to commit war crimes in Gaza, and Starmer followed suit on LBC. This morning, James Cleverly did the same when asked by Victoria Derbyshire. And his "opposite" number, who greeted him with an awkward over-friendly handshake, did not dissent from the bipartisan line. On foreign policy, the cabinet and the shadow cabinet are one and that one is a depravity that should cling to them to their graves.

Politically speaking, Starmer is a coward. But his support for Israel, the banning of CLPs from passing motions on Gaza and stopping elected representatives from attending solidarity events is not him running scared of principled politics. He never had them in the first place. There might be some who think associating Labour with supporting Palestinians threatens to dredge up the old antisemitism wars, but with most of the press firmly on side thanks to the Tories being kaput Labour doesn't have to worry about that any more. It can be reserved to abuse those opposed to war crimes, or the left if they ever threaten the position of the Labour right again.

In 1978, the Revolutionary Communist Group published Labour: A Party fit for Imperialism. The stark title aptly sums up the inescapable aspect of the party. From the beginning, not only did Labour profess loyalty to the institutions meant to keep the lower orders down, but also to the empire. In the first brief forays into government in 1924 and 1929-31, there was no break with the Tories on colonial policy. Uprisings in Iraq, Palestine, and Nigeria were put down with the same alacrity as any other government. The legendary 1945 Labour administration, that well worn fetish for the left and right of the party, undertook the bloody partition of India, fought the independence movement in Indonesia at the behest of the Dutch, and ran a bloody counterinsurgency in Malaysia. Labour diverted money from social programmes to armaments, doubling military spending in the final year of government and doing most of the legwork for Britain's bomb. Labour has not deviated from this track once, albeit managing the country's decline as a global power from one of the big three to the United States's reliable junior partner.

Except in one instance. There has always been an influential dissenting wing in the Labour Party, albeit one that owed its politics more to pacificism than anti-imperialism. Those politics were fused in Jeremy Corbyn, but it's worth noting the his views, principled as they are, hardly amount to giving the opponents and enemies of British capital a free pass. Now, as during his time as Labour leader and before, Corbyn has been a consistent advocate of multilateralism and the regulation of relations between states by international law. A supporter of the idea of a rules-based order, you might say. It says everything about his critics in self-identifying "decent" circles and the Labour right that they find the idea of great power politics being subject to the rule of law an anathema. But to varying degrees, a Labourist critique of British foreign policy that emphasises rules, (liberal) internationalism, and giving the United Nations more clout. Tony Blair, for instance, knew of the strength of this tradition and is why he tried dressing his invasion of Iraq in these trappings - including attempting to get the UN to give his and Bush's military adventure the sign off.

The Corbyn period was the only one when Labour as a party offered British imperialism something other than a blank checque. When the left supposedly led Labour in the early 1980s, Michael Foot was famously even more gung-ho over the Falklands than Thatcher. In 1990 there was zero dissent from the "need" to "deal" with Iraq and Saddam Hussein, nor were there any protests from this quarter as the country was periodically bombed up to when Labour entered government. And then it carried on.

Starmer's endorsement of war crimes and erasure of Palestinian suffering is not about offering heart felt condolences on the occasion of so many Israeli dead, or buddying up with Netanyahu. What he is demonstrating is his solidarity with the disgusting, bloody history of Labour as a loyal servant of British capital's international interests.


Fabian Social Imperialist said...

The need to deal with Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Neglecting to mention that Iraq had invaded and annexed a member of the United Nations. And declining the mention the utter barbarity of the Iraqi regime which would have been extended to Kuwait if the world had listened to the anti-imperialists.

As for dealing with Iraq and Saddam, part of the ceasefire involved allowing Saddam to use helicopters which were then used to brutally crush the uprising. On retreat from Kuwait, Saddam ordered the burning of the oil fields and caused a spill so great it killed all the fish and birds on the nearby coastline. But what crime could be worse than western imperialism? And for all your talk of the west clamping down on poor Saddam, they really didn't. There's no reason they shouldn't have gone all the way to Baghdad and removed this menace guilty of genocide, aggressive invasions, using WMD, and ecocide. If they had done so in 1991 instead of 2003, there wouldn't have been al-Qaeda pouring out from Afghanistan to mess up the situation.

As for the Falklands, this is British territory and always will be. It is not imperialist to defend British territory. If the anti-war left had been listened to, the islanders would have been subjected to the Argentinian junta, under which one islander died from being denied medication during the time of the occupation.

As for Iraq in 1924, I don't know much about it other than that the Air Secretary William Leach challenged his critics to come up with a "really genuine, righteous, and incorruptible" plan. None of them did.

There's a point about Malaysia and a couple others, but overall I find this a rather foaming anti-war article which does not consider the intricacies of complex situations. Labour undertook the partition of India, for instance, because they weren't prepared to spend enough maintaining the British Raj until a unified India was ready for self-governance. As for Starmer's nimble statements of Israel, he is a prime minister in waiting and must maintain a posture of diplomatic restraint. In all his statements,including the more unfortunate ones, he has stressed the need for international law. There is nuance that should not be ignored. If you look at Joe Biden's work, he has secured Israel turning back on water to the south of Gaza and opening the Rafah crossing. Obama was constantly mad at Netanyahu and it secured nothing. What is the anti-imperialist plan for Israel? Like William Leach, I ask you to produce the really genuine, righteous, and incorruptible plan.

McIntosh said...

We keep getting told that Starmer was an human rights lawyer, and he keeps telling us that he managed the CPS and so knows how to run things. I suppose we should ask, was he any good as a lawyer and how well did he run CPS? Afterall his grasp of human rights law in Gaza seems poor and his running of the Labour Party seems problematic.

And as he seems to adhere to the judgement of the Israeli government that Hamas acted because it is 'evil' so there is no need for further analysis. There is no history, context, causation or rationale for Palestinian actions. It is all down to the immoral and wicked insticts of Palestinians who cannot be reasoned with since their evil quality means they only want to negate good and just arrangements. How can you do anything but give unwavering, unconditional and uncritical support in the fight against devils and evil? Gaza should suffer the fate of Jerico!

Ken said...

You missed the support for the French colonialists in Vietnam 1945-6.
The Nationalists attempted a revolt in the late thirties. The result, a basket of guillotined heads.
Ho Chi Minh walks from China (!) to head a broad front against the Japanese invasion.
The French collaborated.
The OSS send guns, supplies and agents to Ho Chi Minh et. al.
The end of the war against the Japanese catches colonialism by surprise.
The British intervene in Saigon, “I kicked out the Vietnam Minh ..” the senior British officer.
Too few in numbers, the British use Japanese troops to maintain the British ordered curfew.
Saigon and its environs are held until the French can arrive with troops in the new year to begin the third Vietnam war.
Yes, there were 4, but since only one involved America, the singular is always used.
In Parliament, Attlee maintained that the Labour Government was opposed to imperialism.
Oh yes, lied to again about interventions abroad, as Labour as singing the Red Flag.

Ken said...

Fabian social imperialist.
You’ve just got to love you English and irony.
Re Saddam.
Just one point.
Bush Senior had it explained to him that the removal of Saddam, a Ba’athist, that is a secular leader in the same vein as Nasser, previously the West’s willing ally against Iran, would lead to Iraq becoming an Iranian proxy, and that was inimical to US interests.
Bush Senior listened, and Bush Junior didn’t, but clearly, the Bush Senior advisors were correct and Junior set the place ablaze, an estimated 1 million estimated deaths, millions of refugees, Isis, brewed up in America’s jails, and last, and maybe least, Tony Blair’s government lockstep with the US poisoned British politics with his deceptions.

David Parry said...

Fabian Social Imperialist

'this menace guilty of genocide, aggressive invasions, using WMD, and ecocide.'

... all of which he was aided and abetted in by the US, the UK and other 'Western' states. Moreover, it was the CIA who installed Saddam Hussein in power in the first place.

gastrogeorge said...

"Starmer's nimble statements". Are you Polly Toynbee?

Kamo said...

I'm no fan of Netanyahu and his ilk, in an ideal world we'd see the end of illegal settlements, Israeli apartheid and a workable two state solution. But one thing I am convinced of is that sections of the hard left are moral relativists and they hold the different sides to very different standards.

They consider the Israeli state to largely sit within modern Western Liberal Democratic tradition (in so much as Jews are quite close to white European peoples), and therefore it's outrages are judged against such standards, it's behaviour is egregious, cruel and aggressive but within outer bounds of modern civilization. The likes of Hamas are not judged the same way, de facto they do not sit within Western tradition, they don't know any better.

Hamas unequivocally espouses Islamist ideologies which by own stated definitions hark to pre-modern methods of political organisation, a tradition that does not take as granted ideas such as 'universal' human rights, a tradition which explicitly subscribes to medieval antisemitism. Israel is judged cruel by modern standards, whereas Hamas may be judged by medieval standards.

I also find Imperialist critiques of this situation are limited by those Western philosophical blinkers. Hamas is an Iranian proxy in a non-Western Imperialist contest. The Islamist/Pan-Islamic ideology is routed in Imperialism, just not the sort that western 'anti-Imperialists' are aware of. They should cast a wider gaze before adopting useful idiot positions.

Aimit Palemglad said...

@Fabian Social Imperialist

Is this a spoof? Or are you actually serious? The world is full of unpleasant leaders but so long as they don't threaten Western (i.e. US) interests they are acceptable. Saddam was fine so long as all he did was attack Iran, gas Kurds and oppress the Shias in his own country. Then he invades Kuwait and suddenly he's a tyrannical dictator and 'we' must save the Iraqi people from him. Don't make me laugh.

People like you are so blinkered and incapable of independent thought or analysis you have swallowed not just the cool aid, but the entire recipe book of self-justification for dummies. According to this the world is divided into goodies and baddies, and we get to decide who is which. We also get to change our mind when the situation requires it.

We even get to apply special labels to large scale slaughter. When it suits us, it's self-defence, or unfortunate side-effects of carefully targeted strikes, or collateral damage. When we don't approve, it's genocide or war crime.

Putin's missiles hit civilian buildings - war crime. Netanyahu's missiles do the same - unfortunate, but necessary 'self-defence'. Utter hypocrisy.

Our history is of conquest, exploitation, appropriation, theft and destruction. Our wealth was built by serfs, peasants, those made landless through enclosure and the theft of the commons, refugees, immigrants, slaves and the colonised. We exported our model of class exploitation and land seizure across the globe. Rather than be proud of our legacy, we should be ashamed and doing everything we can to make restitution for it.

Aimit Palemglad said...

@Kamo Moral relativists is it? What exactly are modern standards as compared to medieval ones? Are you actually suggesting that Hamas are judged based on what we imagine people did in medieval times? And this is a serious point?

Judging is not something that any of us do in any way but subjectively - even you. All thought is subjective. So, if you mean that we apply different standards to people depending on our overall views and where we perceive they fit in those, then, gosh thanks for the insight. Of course we do. So do you. So does everybody.

Let's talk about context. Any action sits in a context. Here it is one of 75 years of occupation and colonisation. 75 years of apartheid, oppression and asymmetrical violence. Resistance is a right, and something that, if we were in their shoes, we would hope to have the courage to do. Do I judge the oppressed differently than the oppressor? You bet I do. So should any decent human.

After the Holocaust people rightly said, "Never again". A noble thought. No people should have to suffer genocide. It turned out that what was meant was, "never again will we be the victims". This has now become "Next time. we'll be the perpetrators". Trauma and abuse can lead to the victim becoming a perpetrator. But to see a whole nation follow this path is genuinely shocking.

See! Different standards do get applied. Genocide can be re-labelled as self defence, and the world goes along with it so long as those carrying it out are agents of a 'friendly' state.

Anonymous said...

A comparison of the ‘rules based international order’ and actual international law

SimonB said...

It’s always “complex” for war apologists. Complex because of the mental gymnastics they have to go through to justify murdering civilians.