Slowly but certainly, Keir Starmer is reclaiming the Labour Party’s own history. As Vladimir Putin’s egregious assault on Ukraine has unfolded, the Labour leader has committed his party to support whatever meagre amount the British government can do to help. This change of attitude even prompted Boris Johnson, in the House of Commons last week, to acknowledge that Labour had changed under its current management.
In fact, Starmer is simply returning Labour to the diplomatic mainstream, and returning the party to its historic position. It was, after all, Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary from 1945 to 1951 in a Labour government, and a man who Starmer has cited favourably on a number of occasions, who was instrumental in the creation of Nato. In January 1948 Bevin made a great speech in the House of Commons in which he argued that a defence pact between the nations of western Europe was an essential barrier against the (to him) evident threat posed by the Soviet Union. The north Atlantic treaty was signed by the foreign ministers of the 12 signatory states on 4 April 1949. It containing the famous Article 5, which holds that an attack against one member of Nato will be considered an attack on them all.
Bevin had been critical in moving Labour to a serious position. At the 1935 party conference in Brighton, Bevin, then the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, had replied to the party leader George Lansbury, whose pacifist speech about Mussolini and Abyssinia had received a standing ovation, by accusing Lansbury of “hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it.” Lansbury resigned a few days later and ever since, with just the short and disgraceful recent interlude, Article 5 has been the Clause IV of Labour foreign policy.
Not that you would think so from the party’s most recent leaders. The war in Iraq produced a crisis of confidence in Labour that led directly to Ed Miliband’s refusal to back air strikes in Syria in 2013. And then came the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, which replaced Miliband’s craven caution with an ideological determination to act in ways precisely opposed to everything that Bevin once stood for.
On being elected Labour leader, Corbyn was the incumbent chair of the Stop the War Coalition, a pressure group formed in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. In the years since, Stop the War has faced accusations that it has taken the side of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, defended the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and now sought to blame President Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine on the eastwards expansion of Nato.
There is a small but persistent cohort of Labour MPs, prominent in Corbyn’s team, who are fellow travellers of Stop the War. The former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott issued a video on 3 March in which she said, implausibly, that “the claims that Russia is the aggressor should be treated sceptically, the destabilisation in the entire region comes from a continued eastward expansion of Nato.” Corbyn himself said the same thing. Starmer, though, is having none of it. In a prewar piece for the Guardian, he was splendidly forthright: “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.”
Sadly, the worst is the truth of the matter. It is intrinsic to the beliefs of the Stop the War Coalition that it supports regimes that the rest of us regard as authoritarian. The reason for that is not that it consciously supports dictators so much as that it consciously deplores the US. Denizens of Stop the War believe that the great liberationist cause of the age is opposition to imperialism, specifically American imperialism. It believes that the great capitalist power is on a misguided mission to spread its loathsome ideology around the world, with the upshot that the poor of the globe will be trodden underfoot. It sees its task as opposing this imperial adventure everywhere. It is important to understand which war it was formed to stop – the war it believes is being conducted by America for global hegemony.
The argument is, of course, nonsense. In a strange paradox, the Corbyn view of the world grants far too much importance to the US, and far too little agency to Putin. In the Stop the War view, Putin acts only as a response to the US. He is denied substantive material or political demands of his own. Instead, the US is the only real actor and every problem is always really somehow about us. In point of fact, Putin has the purist nationalist’s belief that language and statehood should be bound together. He is prepared to sacrifice Russians in pursuit of Russia.
The consequence of Putin’s extreme nationalism is that Nato is becoming more united than any time in living memory. The vision of Bevin is still alive, as the bulwark against Putin’s attempt to create a satellite government loyal to Russia in Ukraine. Bevin always knew this. In a speech to the Trades Union Congress conference in Edinburgh in 1927, he opposed joint trade-union institutions with the Soviet Union and contrasted it with the UK in the following stark and prophetic terms: “one is the moral standard accepted by the British movement: to differ but to hammer out their differences, and when a decision is arrived at, to loyally and honourably abide by it… The Russian standard, as I see it, is that the end justifies the means…. Now these two moral standards cannot be reconciled in the promotion of a unified movement.”
Corbyn’s leadership ratings began to fall precipitously with the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury in March 2018. The British public wisely rumbled Corbyn, whose reaction to the poisoning had, in effect, exculpated the Russian government. Keir Starmer is not liable to make the same error and not just because he is more politically adept. He is steering a different course for Labour because that is his party’s historic position to which he has, quite rightly, sought to return.