The political systems of Britain and the United States have borne witness to many surprises in recent months. With Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump achieving surprising success in their parties’ primaries ahead of the 2016 general election, it can be forgotten that Britain has already seen a similar upset: the election of Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed ideologue of the far-Left, as leader of the Labour party, one of Britain’s three major parties. In the aftermath of his election as leader, that party has seen an abrupt divergence from the internationalism of much of its long history.
This internationalism was epitomised by Clement Attlee’s support for Winston Churchill during World War II, and was also evident in the utterances and actions of Attlee’s post-war Cabinet colleagues. But this proud and longstanding tradition is now under threat.
Corbyn would like, for example, to abolish Britain’s nuclear deterrent, a move that is in direct contravention of the tradition of post-war Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, who declared of the nuclear bomb that ‘we’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs’ and ‘we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it’. Corbyn has also called (though he has since backed down) for Britain to leave NATO, membership of which has been a fundamental pillar of our national defence. His weekly column in the Morning Star, a newspaper initially founded by the Communist Party of Great Britain, features regular attacks on American foreign policy, as well as the policies of other Western nations and the European Union.
In one column in April 2014, he wrote that the ‘EU and Nato have now become the tools of US policy in Europe’. ‘The far-right is now sitting in government in Ukraine’, he said; Ukraine’s government is the spiritual successor of those who ‘welcomed the Nazi invasion in 1941’, wrote the leader of the Labour party. Indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ‘is not unprovoked’, and ‘there are huge questions around the West’s intentions in Ukraine’.
All of this would have appalled Bevin. But views like Bevin’s are not apparently held by such contemporary party officials as Seumas Milne, Labour’s director of strategy and communications, who was called a Stalinist in his university days at Oxford and has been revealed this week to have stood for election on a Maoist ticket while attending Winchester College, an exclusive public school. And with Milne and his ilk calling the shots, it seems likely that Labour’s noteworthy anti-Communist tradition is also on the verge of collapse.
The most recent example of this new tendency can be found in the case of Gerry Downing, a self-identified Trotskyist who was this week re-admitted into the Labour Party by a decision of its National Executive Committee. Though he has since been expelled from the party in light of the furore which followed, much can be learnt from Downing’s case. His organisation, Socialist Fight, has published apologias for the 9/11 attacks, the atrocities of the Taliban, and even the crimes of ISIS, declaring each to have been anti-imperialist in nature.
In one piece, Downing writes that American foreign policy has served as ‘the entirely understandable motivation for 9/11 and suicide bombers’. Elsewhere, his organisation says it ‘defend[s] the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq against the bombing of US imperialism’. Finally (and most incredibly), though it ‘give[s] no political support’ to groups like the Taliban, the Islamic State, and the Russian-supported puppet government in eastern Ukraine, Socialist Fight sees ‘US-led world imperialism as the main enemy of humanity’ and advocates ‘critical support and tactical military assistance … to all those fighting for the defeat of imperialism’. This amounts to qualified support of almost every terrorist group active in the world today; and yet the man who likely wrote those words was welcomed back into Britain’s largest Left-wing party with ‘no objections … received’.
Many Labour Members of Parliament were understandably vexed by this, with one MP, John Woodcock, writing to Corbyn to state that ‘[a]llowing this man to be a member of the Labour Party insults the memory of those who died in the 11 September terror attacks and the British servicemen and women who gave their lives in the Afghanistan conflict that followed’. And MPs in Woodcock’s mould are right to be worried: despite Downing’s subsequent expulsion from the Labour Party, it is feared by many that his views, which had in effect received an official stamp of approval, may be held secretly by those in the party’s leadership.
A particularly interesting point was raised by Woodcock in his letter: many of Downing’s ‘disgraceful comments about terrorist atrocities were made only a couple of months ago, in January of this year’. Though this fact does not mean that Labour’s upper echelons endorse Downing’s expressed opinions, it makes it substantially harder for the party to claim total ignorance, as it could reasonably do if his outbursts were rather less recent in occurrence. The fact of his re-admission points to some very unwelcome conclusions about the Labour party and its new leadership – namely, that either they are entirely incompetent in investigating those who have been suspended from the party, or that there is some sympathy, official or unofficial, for such views within a party which governed the country less than six years ago.
This means that the Labour leader could be considered an enemy of the United States, Britain’s firmest ally, as well as an opponent of the alliances and confederations within which the nation resides. He is not alone in doing so, and these views have been held by some for a long time; but it is certainly true that these opinions – which could endanger Britain’s place in the world and lead to the abandonment of our allies – are no longer the stuff of the political sidelines. Corbyn has brought it all – the anti-Americanism especially – into the mainstream, and the case of Downing is an apt example of this transformation.
The fracas surrounding Downing’s reinstatement and subsequent expulsion is a fascinating and strange event, but it is not an isolated one. And with Corbyn and his ideological fellow-travellers now at the heart of the Labour Party, it will probably not be the last of its kind. All of this gives rise to the possibility of dark times ahead – for the party, for the United Kingdom at large, and for the world.