The Establishment Feared Corbyn’s Internationalism

Above all, the British establishment feared Jeremy Corbyn because he advocated forcefully for socialist internationalist foreign policy. This anti-imperialist politics was the first casualty of Keir Starmer's Labour Party leadership.

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn stands in front of a Stop the War Coalition banner during a protest outside the Polish embassy in London on November 20, 2021. (Hollie Adams / Getty Images)

For the British establishment, the most intolerable element of Corbynism was its opposition to imperial intervention. Though the Tories tried to close the gap with Labour on domestic policy — floating plans to end austerity and put workers on company boards — their stance on overseas issues was resolute: facilitating the assault on Yemen and occupation of Palestine; bombing Syria and doubling deployments to Afghanistan; forging alliances with Gulf dictators and saber-rattling against Russia. On each of these points, Jeremy Corbyn’s dissenting position anathematized him in Westminster.

Accordingly, anti-imperial politics was the first casualty of Keir Starmer’s New Labour revival. The party is now marching in lockstep with the Conservatives: backing more defense spending and tougher sanctions against rival states while trumpeting its “unshakeable” commitment to NATO. Maximal support for Israeli ethnic cleansing is the new bipartisan norm. As Corbyn’s former political adviser Andrew Murray wrote in these pages, the Labour leadership has embraced a “warmonger internationalism,” stacking its foreign policy team with cheerleaders for the military ventures of the Tony Blair years.

Internationalism, Not Moralism

Opposition to such jingoistic reflexes has, thankfully, outlasted the Corbyn experiment. Stop the War Coalition and Palestine Solidarity Campaign have recruited a younger cohort of activists since the 2019 election, invigorating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Left Labour MPs such as Apsana Begum and Zarah Sultana have condemned the atrocities of the multibillion-pound arms industry, refusing to toe the party line on weapons sales. And the United Kingdom’s socialist media sphere, fronted by Novara and Tribune, continues to publish spirited takedowns of liberal interventionism and rebuttals of Israeli hasbara.

Yet despite their success in keeping anti-imperialism alive, these worthy efforts to shift public opinion have failed to capture Britain’s position in the US-dominated order or explain what’s at stake in its ability to project power abroad — subjects that will become increasingly difficult to ignore as the UK reshapes its international role post-Brexit. With some notable exceptions, critiques of Tory foreign policy suffer from three interconnected problems that compromise their ability to articulate a convincing left alternative.

The first is a narrow framing that emphasizes the humanitarian impact of Whitehall’s bellicosity. Of course, counting the victims of air strikes and arms deals is useful to spark anger, or highlight the gulf between government rhetoric and reality. But it also serves to elevate effect over causation, the symptoms of neo-imperialism over the system itself. Rather than identifying the latter’s function for British capitalism, critics usually attend to its ideological scaffolding — attacking patriotism or imperial revanchism, as if they were the primary reasons for the UK’s overseas activity, instead of its post hoc justifications.

This generates the second problem: a single-issue focus that lends itself to campaigning on a series of distinct injustices but fails to draw links between them. Since the dominant left foreign policy framework is ethical as opposed to structural, it often centers on the government’s most clear-cut transgressions, such as its complicity in Saudi and Israeli war crimes. While this approach has obvious merits, it means that socialist commentary becomes heavily weighted toward specific issues (notably Israel-Palestine), which can then be dismissed by political opponents as irrational fixations or idiosyncrasies. By foregoing a comprehensive analysis of UK geopolitics, the Left becomes susceptible to the charge — tirelessly repeated by bad-faith columnists like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland — that it is picking and choosing its pet issues, foregrounding the plight of Gazans but neglecting abuses elsewhere.

Framing foreign policy issues in moral terms suggest that a lack of a social conscience, rather than specific strategic interests, is what motivates the Right. When Starmer launched his Labour leadership bid on a platform of “moral socialism” — winning votes from some 40 percent of former Corbynites — he tapped into precisely this sentiment. An inheritance from low-church Protestantism, the ethical case for socialism is, in the words of Tom Nairn, “founded not upon any idea of what the world is objectively like but upon the conviction of its wrongness and injustice.”

Moralistic socialism is held together by its belief that a concrete assessment of political-economic forces is not required to alleviate suffering; what’s needed instead is a leader who is willing to do the right thing, a “nice” party to oust the “nasty” one. If Starmer’s popularity among Momentum-aligned activists proved anything, it’s that this argument has more cache on the Left than many would like to admit — especially when it comes to foreign affairs.

This Manichean schema brings us to the third problem: a tendency to retreat from ethical complexity — and, by extension, from the most pressing aspects of the global conjuncture. The UK is currently gearing up for a new Cold War in which it will act as head servant to the United States, using its inflated military budget to counter Chinese and Russian influence. Last summer, Boris Johnson dispatched a warship to the Black Sea to antagonize Vladimir Putin, and sent an aircraft carrier strike group into the contested South China Sea to rile Xi Jinping’s Defense Ministry. Johnson has now joined the AUKUS nuclear pact with the United States and Australia, designed to militarize the Pacific region and escalate the arms race with China.

In this context, it is vital for the Left to forcefully oppose the Atlantic compact while also rejecting apologia for its strategic adversaries (whose crimes, from Xi’s internment of Uyghurs to Putin’s bombardment of Syria, should not be understated). Yet if socialists continue to confine themselves to black-and-white humanitarian crises, they will be unable to rise to this discursive challenge. The extraordinary danger of renewed great power conflict, mostly elided by progressive media outlets and MPs, calls for an internationalism with the analytic tools to confront it.

Inspiration for this project can be found in unlikely places. In a November 2020 document entitled A Very British Tilt, the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange encouraged London to mimic Washington’s pivot to Asia, concentrating its efforts on courting allies and constraining China in the so-called Indo-Pacific — a prescription which Downing Street has so far followed to the letter. Although we should discard its militarist conclusions, the paper is nonetheless useful for understanding the rationale behind such major strategic shifts.

It proceeds from a realistic assessment of the UK economy, which — oriented around the City of London — has spent decades in a state of external dependency, seeking out surrogates to compensate for the loss of its colonial possessions. One such surrogate was the European Union, whose common market and migrant labor were essential to offset Britain’s anemic manufacturing sector and aging population. Now that this relationship has been upended, the country faces hazards on multiple fronts: economic isolation, adverse trading arrangements, and supply chain disruptions, compounded by climate change and COVID-19.

Strong transnational partnerships will be needed to stave off such threats. Hence Policy Exchange’s recommended “tilt,” which promises to solve several predicaments at once: giving UK investors access to rapidly expanding Asian markets; safeguarding the free flow of commodities through trade routes in the Indian Ocean; and beating back regional competition from China, thereby deepening the special relationship on which the prized US-UK trade deal rests.

The Right’s Internationalism

Seen in this light, Johnson’s maritime operations against China do not amount to an outburst of mindless chauvinism. As with his maneuvers in the Black Sea, they are in fact a rational response to Britain’s fragile economic situation. Their purpose is to signal the UK’s position inside the American fold, which constitutes the best chance of shoring up its outward-looking economy — maintaining what has been described as its “strategy of eversion” — while exiting the European orbit.

Nor is British support for repressive Middle Eastern dictatorships a simple expression of Tory sadism. Gulf wealth is structurally integral to the UK’s financial stability, with petrodollars used to plug the growing account deficit and bankroll infrastructure schemes. As part of the government’s “Levelling Up” agenda, the Department for International Trade has made a concerted effort to attract investment from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in areas outside London. This has placed the British war machine at the heart of plans for regional rebalancing. Without robust ties to Arab monarchies, promises of a new post-Brexit settlement may yet come to nothing. Subsequently, Johnson’s political fortunes are dependent on those of the Gulf. This fact makes sense of his government’s £6 billion arms deal with Qatar, increased security cooperation with Oman, and covert deployments to Yemen.

By and large, Policy Exchange analysts are more attuned to these connections between international and domestic politics than their opponents on the Left. If the latter are to develop an anti-imperialism that surpasses moralism, they must adopt a similarly integrated perspective. For it is a dead end to condemn Tory policies without providing alternative solutions to the material challenges that they set out to fix.

For a brief moment during the Corbyn era, these solutions seemed to be within reach. The antidote to economic eversion is, of course, a coherent national industrial strategy — which would have been provided by Corbyn’s Green New Deal, developed in collaboration with the major trade unions to revive British manufacturing and transition away from a financialized, externally reliant model. This strategy was to be implemented by a more active state, unshackled from the ordoliberal competition rules of the EU, that could have played a dynamic role in coaxing and directing investment.

Leaving the “ever closer union” also gave the leadership the opportunity to develop a new trade justice policy, reshaping Britain’s trading relationships to reflect the principles of global solidarity (in contrast to the neocolonial EU Customs Union, which guarantees competitive advantage for European producers). Shadow minister Jon Trickett drew up plans for an international alliance of progressive leaders, including Brazil’s Lula da Silva and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, as a substitute for Britain’s circle of oil-rich despots.

This program combined a commitment to justice abroad with transformative measures at home. It was alert to the practical implications of disentangling the UK from its imperial networks — and it offered a radical vision of Britain outside the EU, bringing an end to the assumption that Brexit was an intrinsically racist or nationalist enterprise.

Yet it was never at the forefront of Corbyn’s pitch to the electorate. Indeed, during his four years in office, it was gradually eroded by a different faction of the party that believed it was better to concede to the establishment on controversial foreign policy issues (Brexit, NATO, Russia), maintain a rhetorical opposition to the Tories’ worst human rights violations, and focus on domestic issues such as wealth taxes and nationalization. This was not a winning strategy in 2019, nor will it be in this decade.