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Corbyn might want “a world of peace” but hermit security is not an option for the UK

Approaching every conflict with fixed, preconceived notions doesn't just reduce the complexity of foreign policy to student slogans - it's dangerous, too.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal after the Commons had voted in support of air strikes against Isis in Syria, George Osborne described how the “controversy over US and British engagement in the Iraq War, compounded by the trauma of the Great Recession, caused my political generation, in both countries, to look inward”. In early September, when I spent a day with the Chancellor in the north of England, he spoke at length about how this new inwardness – in effect, a new isolationism – had affected British prestige and influence. Dismissing the suggestion that he was a neoconservative, the Chancellor – who at least has a coherent world-view, unlike the Prime Minister – described himself as a liberal interventionist: “My generation has got to win an argument, because of what happened in 2003, again, that Britain is a force for good in the world and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say so. And we shouldn’t be embarrassed to assert our values . . . of openness, tolerance, freedom, democracy, which I think are universal values.”

We discussed the failures of the Iraq War and its long, disastrous aftermath. Osborne said that he had learned from and been changed by the experience. “I think we ­always know the price of military action,” he told me. “What’s more difficult to judge sometimes is the price of the absence of war, to borrow a David Hare phrase.”

If Osborne is both a foreign policy realist (doing trade deals with China while turning a blind eye to its human rights abuses and authoritarian excesses) and an idealist (asserting British values and morality), Jeremy Corbyn is a utopian. He never speaks about the national interest and, because his politics were forged in the fires of the upheavals of the late 1960s and the anti-Vietnam War protests, his instinct is to denounce “Western imperialism”. As he told Stop the War’s Christmas fundraising dinner, “I’m not interested in bombs. I want a world of peace.”

No one sane wants a world of war but sometimes nation states must fight for peace. It’s not something that arrives gift-wrapped. To approach every conflict with fixed, preconceived positions is to reduce the complexity of statecraft to a student slogan as well as to show little feeling for what Max Weber described as “the tragic sense of life, the awareness of unresolvable discord, contradictions and conflict which are inherent in the nature of things and which human reason is powerless to solve”.

Because Corbyn is an isolationist (he is deeply Eurosceptic, opposed to Nato and the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, which he considers “immoral”), foreign policy was always destined to split the Labour Party under his leadership.

Yet Corbyn is correct to assert and defend his positions – he won an astounding mandate in September and knows he has the support of most of the members and activists. But he must do more than speak to the converted. What the Labour leader needs most pressingly is to understand better the country of which he aspires to become prime minister. Perhaps he doesn’t want to – after all, he has spent his entire career surrounded by people just like him – but he needs to make the effort all the same if he is ever to be taken seriously by world leaders.

Some on the left may wish it otherwise but Britain remains a great power and, indeed, a force for good when world order seems to be crumbling. As a P5 nation – a permanent member of the UN Security Council – and a prominent member of Nato, Britain cannot simply ignore its responsibilities. Staying on the sidelines and hoping for a “political solution” to a catastrophe such as the Syrian War without being prepared actively to achieve it is not an option – not when Europe is destabilised by the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War and the virus of violent jihadism is mutating.

Here’s a suggestion. Corbyn and his peacenik advisers would do well over the Christmas holiday to study John Bew’s new book, Realpolitik: a History. A New Statesman contributing writer and academic in the war studies department at King’s College London, Bew is among the brightest of the new generation of British historians.

In Realpolitik he quotes the “realist” Hans Morgenthau’s observation that no nation can “escape into a realm where action is guided by moral principles rather than by considerations of power”. But a realist foreign policy pursued without regard to morality has severe limitations. And one driven by the will to power and self-interest alone can be ruinous, as the experience of Germany in the 20th century demonstrated.

Yet idealism can be fraught with danger, too – just ask Tony Blair, who argued for “a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish”. The result: the Iraq War.

In the age of Isis, we must accept that there is, as Barack Obama put it in a 2007 interview with David Brooks of the New York Times (drawing on his reading of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr), “serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain” and that “we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things”. But humility in and of itself is not enough. Political leaders should be humble and modest, yes, but also pragmatic and prepared to intervene if the logic of the situation demands it. Power must be balanced by power.

Nor should foreign policy problems be approached with a pre-prepared script (Corbyn and Ed Miliband) or, as Bew writes, “with unshakeable faith in one’s methods” (Blair and Cameron). The Syrian War – with its hundreds of thousands dead and millions of refugees, and still without a sense of an end after more than four years – has taught us this, if nothing else. We can’t simply turn away from what’s happening and wish it wasn’t so. A condition of hermit security isn’t possible in such an inter­connected world. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.