Britain’s ‘place in the world’

In the Labour leadership contest, a clear distinction between Corbyn and Smith has emerged in one area, broadly to do with international relations, foreign and defence policies, Britain’s ‘place in the world’. For the most part the contest has been marked by Smith’s reluctance to differentiate himself too much; to gain the support of Labour members/supporters he has had to present himself as, simply, ‘a more electable version of Jeremy’. If this strategy has indicated a lack of confidence on the part of Smith himself and those responsible for his campaign, indeed, a decline of ‘Tory-lite’, he has shown greater determination when outlining a conservative – by which is meant conventional, more of what we’re used to, ‘business as usual’ – alternative to Corbyn on the retention of nuclear weapons/Trident and a commitment to NATO. In these two areas any Labour policy, in opposition or government, of course, comes up against the interests of the United States and how far Britain is prepared to support the US.

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In last week’s leadership hustings one of the sharpest disagreements between Corbyn and Smith, and most revealing phases of the entire debate, came when they discussed Britain’s membership of NATO.[1] Initially, discussion centred on a future Labour government’s attitude to the nuclear deterrent (opposed by Corbyn, supported by Smith); then, invited to respond to what Corbyn had said about the dangers of any use of nuclear weapons, Smith preferred to change tack and bring up something Corbyn had said previously about NATO.

Smith felt he could exploit a Corbyn weakness, a failure to commit fully to Britain’s ‘responsibilities’ as a member of NATO, even if the example he gave on this occasion (defending France, presumably following a Russian invasion of Western Europe) lacked plausibility somewhat. He seemed to confuse two distinct issues, the perennial threat that Russia (as a successor to the USSR) is said to pose to Western Europe and recent terrorist attacks on France. One would hope that Smith could, if pressed, explain the different policy demands made in these two cases, but no matter. He had appeared to support Corbyn’s call for a War Powers Act, legislation that would mean Parliament voted on any deployment of British troops; but then backtracked, insisting that Britain’s duty to come to the aid of a NATO ally would have to take precedence. All Corbyn had said was that Parliament should have to the power to vote; interestingly, in order to keep up his offensive, Smith had to imply that it would be wrong if Parliament did in fact vote against the deployment of troops. Corbyn had promoted the view that Parliament should be sovereign; and this is, or should be, hardly controversial, given David Cameron’s own insistence on the very same policy, when he became Conservative leader (and there have, of course, been such votes, most recently on intervention in Syria last December – see the Telegraph‘s take on this ‘relatively new feature’).

However, having painted himself into a corner, Smith seemed to prefer that a prime minister might continue to act without recourse to Parliament. If nothing else, this moment in the debate offered an insight into the mindset of the political class at Westminster: their definition of ‘the national interest’ roughly translates as whatever suits the US.

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And so to John Pilger’s film Stealing a Nation, first broadcast on ITV in 2004 but still of topical interest. For most people this film would have been an introduction to the Chagos Islands and the fate of the people who lived there for generations – that is, until they were expelled in the 1960s to make way for a US air base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. Since 2004, updates on the story have appeared regularly, most recently a report of the Supreme Court’s decision that islanders cannot return to their homeland. Labour governments in the 1960s and 2000s have featured prominently in the story Pilger told, and his film is still worth watching as an illustration of what is meant whenever Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US comes up, a relationship based on US hegemony and, inevitably, British subservience. In particular, Pilger noted the strategic importance of the islands for US military power: attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were launched from Diego Garcia. Moreover, since the film, it has become apparent that Diego Garcia was secretly used for extraordinary rendition (for details, see reports in The Guardian, here and here).

The issue isn’t just to do with which politicians knew what and when, and who might have lied; rather, the issue is the complacency with which we still might regard Britain’s ‘place in the world’ as became clear in last week’s leadership debate. Specifically, Smith said we couldn’t ignore our status as a great power, or the legacy of a historical role that saw Britain take its place as one of the founding (permanent) members of the United Nations Security Council.

Given the Chilcot Report’s scrutiny of Blair’s relationship with Bush ahead of the invasion of Iraq, this would likely mean falling into line and rubber-stamping whatever the US had already decided to do: this conclusion, of course, is also unavoidable when watching Stealing a Nation or considering what has happened with the Chagos Islands since then.

At Glasgow, Smith was clearly in thrall to Britain’s status as ‘one of the great military powers in the world’, insisting ‘we are looked to by the world’. At this point the audience indicated mild scepticism, and Smith continued: ‘You may not wish that to be the nature of the history of Britain.’ One of the problems is that politicians enjoy using history to add authority to their claims. Unfortunately, they are usually very selective in the way they do so. Moreover, as Pilger’s film and the Corbyn/Smith exchange on NATO make clear, this isn’t just a question of foreign policy and international relations; it also touches upon constitutional reform.

[1] In Glasgow, 25 August. The debate is available here. Discussion of nuclear weapons and NATO begins at about one hour nine minutes.

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