In the general election, the Conservatives aim to shoot to kill. By denouncing Labour as soft on defence, they believe they can win their first landslide victory since 1987 (when they similarly tormented the opposition over this issue).
Jeremy Corbyn’s Chatham House speech on foreign policy was partly aimed at neutralising this charge. While reaffirming his opposition to western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen, he also declared: “I am not a pacifist”. Corbyn, who said during the 2015 Labour leadership contest that he could not think of circumstances in which he would approve the use of military force, added: “I accept that military action, under international law and as a genuine last resort, is in some circumstances necessary.” Having not given any examples in his speech of wars he supported, Corbyn later cited the UN action in East Timor as one he backed (though did not renounce his opposition to the Sierra Leone and Kosovo interventions).
It is the gravest act of all – the use of nuclear weapons – that has proved most fraught for Labour in recent times. Though the party’s manifesto has committed to Trident renewal, Corbyn, a lifelong unilateralist, has long refused to say whether he would use the UK’s arsenal (and, indeed, has said he would not). Shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, who has said she would, was not invited to the event and did not contribute to drafting the speech (seeing it for the first time at 11pm last night). At her insistence, a manifesto section warning any prime minister to be “extremely cautious about ordering the use of weapons of mass destruction” was removed.
But in his speech, Corbyn all but repeated it. “I am often asked if as prime minister I would order the use of nuclear weapons,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary question when you think about it – would you order the indiscriminate killing of millions of people? Would you risk such extensive contamination of the planet that no life could exist across large parts of the world?”
He added, however: “Labour is committed actively to pursue disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and we are committed to no first use of nuclear weapons
But let me make this absolutely clear. If elected prime minister, I will do everything necessary to protect the safety and security of our people and our country. That would be my first duty.”
That, however, fell short of explicitly stating he would use nuclear weapons (which Trident supporters regard as essential for deterrence). In the subsequent Q&A, when pressed on whether he would approve a nuclear retaliation, Corbyn limited himself to saying that there were “circumstances” where “military force” would be appropriate. It’s hardly surprising that the CND vice-president can’t bring himself to say he would use nuclear weapons, but it leaves the Conservatives with room to attack.
As the event drew to a close, Corbyn was asked whether he supported the full renewal of Trident (encompassing four Vanguard-class submarines). Corbyn noted that while parliament had voted for a like-for-like replacement, Labour would hold a Strategic Defence Review, which he did not wish to pre-empt. Though aides subsequently stated that abolition was not an option, the possibility of downgrading the system remains. Labour’s nuclear headache will not end here.