The standoff over Ukraine is a deadly serious matter, and all European politicians should be doing what they can to defuse tensions and reduce the possibility of all-out war. Unfortunately, Britain’s political class appears to believe that self-aggrandizement is the order of the day. While Boris Johnson and his foreign minister, Liz Truss, saw the crisis as a launchpad for ineffectual posturing across the English Channel, the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, has seized upon it as an opportunity to pick a row on the home front.
Starmer’s article in praise of NATO is mainly directed against his opponents on the party’s left wing — above all, his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn — and against the wider antiwar movement. Starmer’s polemic will probably have no impact on the international scene, but in domestic politics its effect will be to help reinforce a suffocating consensus around British foreign policy that has led to repeated disasters over the past two decades.
The Two Ns
The Guardian article begins with the following claim:
Of all the great achievements of the 1945 Labour government, one stands out on the world stage. The NHS may have the greatest impact on our daily lives, but it is the creation of NATO that ushered in what is now approaching three-quarters of a century of peace between the nations of Europe.
This conflation of a military alliance with a system of public health care returns in the final sentence, where Starmer describes “both the Ns — Nato and the NHS — as legacies of that transformational Labour government that we need to be proud of and to protect.”
Starmer goes on to describe NATO as an “unprecedented alliance of democracies” crafted by Clement Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, and “the representatives of the other free nations.” He quotes Bevin’s description of the pact as “a consecration of peace and resistance to aggression,” and describes “Bevinite internationalism” as the touchstone of his foreign policy.
Sadly, there are some malcontents in Britain who spurn this remarkable creation:
Some on the left may be sympathetic to those siren voices who condemn Nato. But to condemn Nato is to condemn the guarantee of democracy and security it brings. . . . The likes of the Stop the War Coalition are not benign voices for peace. At best they are naive; at worst they actively give succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies.
According to Starmer, those who campaign against British foreign policy are “virtue signallers,” guilty of “naivety and weakness,” who are “providing a smokescreen” for Vladimir Putin’s government.
“The Bloody Union Jack”
Let’s begin with the historical undergirding. The founding members of Starmer’s “unprecedented alliance of democracies” include the Portuguese fascist regime of António Salazar, which apparently qualifies as a “free nation” in his view. NATO went on to embrace Greece and Turkey in 1952, and both countries remained members in good standing under the rule of their respective military dictatorships during the Cold War.
“Bevinite internationalism” has always been a decorous euphemism for imperialism in Labour circles. One of Ernest Bevin’s cabinet colleagues observed that he was “at heart an old-fashioned imperialist, keener to expand than to contract the Empire.” When Clement Attlee tentatively suggested withdrawing British troops from the Middle East, Bevin threatened to resign, along with the country’s most senior military officials.
Under Bevin’s watch, the British armed forces helped restore French colonial rule in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, not to mention Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. He was unflinchingly determined to keep hold of Britain’s own imperial possessions: the only territory to gain its independence in the late 1940s was India, because the cost of repressing its people would have been too high.
Bevin’s argument for developing British nuclear weapons rested upon considerations of national prestige rather than national security. He mainly wanted to convince figures like James F. Byrnes, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, that Britain was still a major power:
We’ve got to have this. . . . I don’t mind for myself, but I don’t want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at or by a Secretary of State in the United States as I have just had in my discussion with Mr. Byrnes. We have got to have this thing over here whatever it costs. . . . We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.
Starmer’s claim that “Bevinite internationalism” was principally concerned with the defense of “free nations” against Soviet aggression flies in the face of the evidence. Eric Shaw’s excellent book The Labour Party Since 1945, published shortly before Tony Blair became prime minister, took a far more realistic view of the matter:
The thesis that the USSR was bent on world conquest — denied by critics on the left at the time — is not one that is now given much credence, not least because the crippling losses Russia had suffered during the war, infinitely greater than its chief adversary, the United States, rendered it quite incapable of such a move. The decisive consideration was Labour’s insistence on upholding Britain’s status as a world power rather than fear of Soviet expansionism.
Shaw should perhaps have said that this thesis was “not one that is now given much credence among serious scholars,” since the version of history that he dismisses out of hand is still ubiquitous in political debate, and British politicians feel able to present it as the unquestioned truth.
Starmer claims that Ernest Bevin and the other founders of NATO had learned from “the failures of appeasement and the spectre of Munich. . . . Attlee, Bevin and [Denis] Healey saw communism for what it was, and were prepared to stand up to its aggression.” In reality, British politicians have repeatedly invoked the specter of Munich to justify their own wars of aggression, from the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 to the invasion of Iraq. The parallels drawn are invariably misleading and tendentious, giving as false an impression of Britain’s policy toward Adolf Hitler in the 1930s — which was a product of cynicism rather than naivete — as they do of the latest geopolitical bogeyman.
Entirely absent from Starmer’s article is the world beyond Europe, which is where the real action took place during the Cold War. Throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the United States and its NATO allies waged war on revolutionary movements and reformist governments alike, whether or not they were led by communists. In some cases, they did so directly; in others, they channeled their intervention through local allies.
From Vietnam to El Salvador, Angola to East Timor, the self-styled leaders of the Free World chalked up a body count in the millions and supported some of the worst tyrants of the last century, all in the name of anti-communism. Starmer presents the Cold War as an exclusively European affair that pitted democracies against dictatorships in a righteous struggle that the good guys won. It’s a familiar gambit that erases the shameful record of the NATO powers in the Global South.
The New McCarthyism
Starmer’s half-baked history lesson is really meant as a justification for his political stance today. He wants to put an ocean of clear blue water between his leadership and Jeremy Corbyn’s. An elaborate mythology has already developed around Labour’s approach to foreign policy between 2015 and 2019, which makes serious discussion very difficult — as is the intention, of course.
First of all, Corbyn made a number of significant compromises with the Labour right. Labour’s 2019 manifesto promised to “maintain our commitment to NATO” and keep hold of Britain’s nuclear weapons. Second, when Corbyn did put forward a distinctive line that none of his predecessors would have contemplated, it did his prospects no harm.
The clearest example of this came in the wake of the Manchester bombing during the 2017 election campaign — the most emotionally fraught moment for a critique of British policy in the Middle East that one could have imagined. Commentators predicted that Corbyn’s speech would elicit a furious popular backlash. Instead, an opinion survey found that a decisive majority agreed with his sensible, well-documented analysis of terrorism and its causes.
It has become an article of faith for many pundits that Corbyn’s reaction to the Salisbury poisoning controversy in 2018 was electoral poison for the Labour Party — perhaps even the main cause of its 2019 defeat. Yet detailed research by the polling firm YouGov at the start of 2019, midway between the Salisbury attack and the 2019 general election, found no evidence of this. The protracted row over Labour’s Brexit policy was by far the most important reason given for negative perceptions of Corbyn: “His positions on defence were mentioned by just 1 percent of respondents, whilst nobody mentioned his response to the Salisbury poisoning.”
The content of Corbyn’s response has also been the subject of extensive mythmaking. The Guardian’s report on Starmer’s article claims that he “declined to attribute responsibility for the attacks to Moscow.” This is what Corbyn actually said at the time, in the pages of the Guardian itself:
Theresa May was right on Monday to identify two possibilities for the source of the attack in Salisbury, given that the nerve agent used has been identified as of original Russian manufacture. Either this was a crime authored by the Russian state; or that state has allowed these deadly toxins to slip out of the control it has an obligation to exercise. If the latter, a connection to Russian mafia-like groups that have been allowed to gain a toehold in Britain cannot be excluded.
This was a perfectly sensible position. As Corbyn went on to say, “In my years in Parliament I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times.” In both scenarios, Moscow would have been responsible for what had happened, directly or indirectly. It may not have satisfied those who measure the value of an utterance chiefly by its decibel levels, but those are precisely the sort of people who cannot be trusted with matters of war and peace.
The Labour leader left no room for doubt about his view of Vladimir Putin’s government:
Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights. However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent.
In truth, Corbyn’s critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party didn’t really have a problem with Putin’s conservative authoritarianism or his abuse of human rights. If they cared about such things, they would have been irreconcilable opponents of the House of Saud instead of rising up in revolt when asked to vote against the Saudi invasion of Yemen.
The Russian leader’s invasion of Chechnya was by far the greatest crime he has committed since taking office, with mass killings of Chechen civilians. But he wasn’t treading on any geopolitical toes in the West back then, so Tony Blair gave the invasion his wholehearted support.
Motes and Beams
While Keir Starmer was using Ukraine as a foil for his hawkish posturing, a far more serious politician was trying to put out the fire. Also writing for the Guardian, Bernie Sanders insisted that the Russian government was “most responsible for the looming crisis.” Figures like Starmer are content to leave it there. Sanders, on the other hand, recognized that people who live in NATO member states have a responsibility to look at the beams in their own country’s eye:
When Ukraine became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russian leaders made clear their concerns about the prospect of former Soviet states becoming part of Nato and positioning hostile military forces along Russia’s border. US leaders recognized these concerns as legitimate at the time. They are still legitimate concerns. Invasion by Russia is not an answer; neither is intransigence by Nato. . . .
Putin may be a liar and a demagogue, but it is hypocritical for the United States to insist that we do not accept the principle of “spheres of influence.” . . .
. . . Even if Russia was not ruled by a corrupt authoritarian leader like Vladimir Putin, Russia, like the United States, would still have an interest in the security policies of its neighbors. Does anyone really believe that the United States would not have something to say if, for example, Mexico was to form a military alliance with a US adversary?
Presumably Starmer would deride the senator from Vermont as another “virtue signaler” who is “showing solidarity with the aggressor.” Others may prefer to see him as a grown-up who understands that the most important thing when facing a potentially disastrous conflict is to try and defuse tensions instead of using it as an exotic backdrop against which to strike a pose.