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1 October 2001

What Blair could learn from history

War on Terror: The Labour Party - Labour's ranks have included admirers of Thomas Hobbes as

By Robert Taylor

The Labour Party, almost from its very beginning, has been troubled and ambivalent about foreign and defence policy, and in this crisis Tony Blair is bound to face growing unease about his support for America’s “war”. True, Labour has never been a wholly pacifist party. George Lansbury, leader from 1931-35, was certainly a pacifist, a Christian socialist whose moral revulsion towards militarism was born out of the First World War. While few party members were prepared to go all the way with him, many believed Britain should set an example to the world through a commitment to collective security and international solidarity.

This strain of idealism drew much of its strength from the Nonconformist traditions of Victorian liberalism. It was at its height between the world wars – exemplified by Arthur Henderson, foreign secretary in the 1929-31 Labour government, with his call for a foreign policy that sought to create a “co-operative world commonwealth” centred around the League of Nations. Again, after 1945, most Labour members saw the United Nations as the basis of a civilised foreign policy. Even right-wing leaders such as Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell paid more than lip-service to the belief that the UN’s primary use was to resolve disputes and prevent war.

But many in the party came to see the belief in reason and solidarity as badly flawed. They thought it wrong to assume that all nations wanted a stable and civilised international order; this was demonstrated by Italy’s brutal assault on Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and the Spanish civil war. The party’s ingrained mistrust of using force as a last resort to settle differences was at odds with the brutal realities of the Thirties.

In fact, there has always been another Labour approach to foreign policy that is often forgotten, but which Blair could draw upon if he bothered to study the party’s history. Tory historians might like to write Labour out of the script, but its leaders in Churchill’s war cabinet saved Britain from capitulation to Hitler in the summer of 1940. Labour “spoke for England” by rejecting appeasement. With Ernest Bevin, the proletarian patriot, at the Foreign Office after 1945, the Labour government was one of the founding fathers of the Atlantic Alliance and a vigorous opponent of the Soviet Union in the cold war. Under Attlee, it led Britain into war in Korea.

This policy was not based simply on crude pragmatism. It stemmed from a realistic view of international politics.

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The most articulate exponent of socialist realism was the young Denis Healey, who wrote a brilliant chapter in a book of Fabian essays published in 1952. In 18 pages, he gave combative expression to a credo Blair might find instructive in his current position. He argued that “an understanding of the power elements in politics is the first necessity of a sound foreign policy”, and that Thomas Hobbes’s bleak Leviathan was “a better handbook for foreign policy than Fabian essays”. Tragically, the world “as a whole had never resembled the deliberately integrated democracy which Britain developed in the three centuries following its civil war”.

He suggested that Labour, because it lacked a systematic theory of world affairs, “had too often fallen victim to the besetting sin of all progressive opposition movements, utopianism”.

It is not surprising that such language made Healey many enemies on the left. But his sober analysis should not be dismissed. It was on display during the Labour governments of the Sixties and Seventies. As defence secretary, Healey presided over Britain’s military retreat from east of Suez and sat in a Labour cabinet that resisted persistent bullying from President Johnson to send British troops to Vietnam.

The debate within the Labour Party between utopianism and realism in foreign policy was never to be clear-cut. The peace-loving Michael Foot also castigated the guilty men of appeasement in 1940 and championed the 1982 war to liberate the Falklands. In later years, the realist Healey opposed the 1991 Gulf war with as much vehemence as Tony Benn.

Since he was elected its leader seven years ago, Blair has remade the Labour Party in often astonishing and disagreeable ways. Now, if he is to maintain party unity at this time of crisis, he needs to draw on Labour’s conflicting foreign policy traditions. It will not be easy to reconcile the admirable belief in social justice and peace abroad with a dangerously limitless and ill-defined commitment to a “war” against terrorism.

However, Blair must expect a serious revolt inside the Labour Party if he fails to display restraint as well as compassion and joins a Manichaean crusade against evil for which there is no realisable end.

Robert Taylor is writing a one-volume biography of Ernest Bevin