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It’s time for a truly anti-imperialist party on the British left

July 12, 2016 at 12:12 pm

So, it’s official. On Wednesday, David Cameron will step down as prime minister of the United Kingdom and Theresa May will take charge. May, who has been home secretary for six years, will become the UK’s 76th prime minister and will oversee what will surely be turbulent times for the country.

In this context it is likely that her ascendance to the premiership will be welcomed as a return to stability both for the government and the ruling Conservative party, which has been beset by infighting over issues such as the EU, immigration and the some social and cultural values vs. a more pure form of neo-liberalism.

After “Brexit”, May very much appears to embody a triumph of the neo-liberal consensus over a populist insurgency – which led the “Leave” campaign. Yet there can be no doubt that the impact of the populist right-wing rhetoric on British society has been significant. Aside from the vote to leave the EU, there has been a large-scale uptick in racist incidences and a surge in crude nationalistic rhetoric.

However, while the fight for the top position in the Tory party may be over, the struggle for leadership in the Labour party is on going, and it is possible to view that contest as a representation of much broader social cleavages. Indeed – given the centrality of Labour’s foreign policy positions to this debate – there is a compelling case to be made that the fight for power in the Labour party can be seen as a microcosm of a broader conflict between two competing visions of Britain’s place in the world.

Will it be won by the “Britain-as-usual” narrative or by a truly anti-imperialist alternative?

Prime Minister Theresa May

As I mentioned last week, the new PM’s positions are well known on a range of issues, including those relating to the Middle East. She is a strong advocate for Israel and has bolstered behind-the-scenes deals to support the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, in spite of the fact that other ministers in the UK government have publicly distanced themselves from the regime while it pursues a highly controversial war in Yemen. May has also championed a tough line on immigration, supporting rather draconian measures designed to ensure that refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean are met with military force, not humanitarian aid.

Of course May’s elevation comes in the context of the “Brexit” crisis.  During the run up to the referendum she officially sided with the “Remain” camp, but kept mostly quiet. In the aftermath, she has managed to maintain an air of calm stability, even though there has been mass political bloodletting in both her own party and on the Labour front benches.

Certainly, there have been plenty of rumours circulating that Britain’s establishment elites were rooting for May to take over quickly. The logic behind this certainly makes sense from their perspective for a couple of reasons. Not least of which is that, this process avoids a-weeks-long leadership battle within the Tory party that would not help calm the spiralling uncertainty that is currently bleeding the UK economy.

Similarly, May’s only remaining rival, Andrea Leadsom, represented an unknown quantity. She lacked senior level experience, articulated some erratic policy positions and held a penchant for populism, all of which made her a threat to the status quo and a whole raft of Westminster’s unelected upper management.

Why is this important?

At least in the immediate term it seems likely that the post-Brexit reality will leave the UK as a diminished power on several fronts. In particular, as direct consequences of the UK’s imminent withdrawal from the EU, there will be strained ties with European allies, a potential loss of strategic significance to Washington and a likely economic recession. Not to mention the fact that that Prime Minister May will be forced to prioritise “Brexit” negotiations and the potential fallout in terms of integrity of the United Kingdom, above most of the rest of her portfolio.

Moreover, broader factors have already set a trend of a decline in British influence abroad including: the impact of the six years of Conservative-led austerity measures, which have rolled back both the UK’s soft and hard power capabilities; the lasting damage to the UK’s image by its association with the Iraq war; and the increase in relative power/capacity of potential rivals, particularly in the form of China and Russia.

Yet in spite of all this, Britain remains a significant force on the international stage. The UK retains a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and a significant contribution to NATO, the world’s premier military alliance. Additionally, as discussed in a previous article, the UK also enjoys important and long-standing bilateral diplomatic and security relationships with several Middle Eastern states – particularly Gulf monarchies and the PA – as well as important trade links with others. It is unlikely that any of these will be directly affected by “Brexit”.

Thus, May, as First Lord of the Treasury, will be the chief executive of the British government and, as the Chilcot report reminds us, in a position with the capacity to make momentous decisions that can have a lasting impact on the Middle East and on Britain’s place in the world.

Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition

There is, of course, another side to these political machinations. The ongoing turmoil in the Labour party represents a serious challenge to the possibility of restoring the status quo in British politics. Indeed, Labour’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, embodies a rupture in the neo-liberal consensus that has dominated British politics since the 1970s.

Corbyn is pro-Palestine, anti-war (both in Iraq and Syria), anti-nuclear weapons and has perhaps achieved his greatest successes as leader of the opposition by highlighting Britain’s complicity with dictatorial regimes in the Arabian Gulf.

Perhaps because of these positions – and his open evisceration of Labour’s former leader, Tony Blair, for his push for the disastrous war in Iraq – Corbyn now faces a serious threat of being usurped. This will come in the form of Angela Eagle – who voted for the wars in Iraq and Syria – but has maintained a reasonably “soft left” stance on domestic issues.

A realignment of the parties?

It also emerged last week that secret talks had taken place between some leading lights on the left of the Conservative party and the pro-business right wing of Labour to potentially form a new pro-EU centrist party. Given the accent of Theresa May to Tory leader such an arrangement is unlikely to come to pass anytime soon.

 However, if Corbyn loses out – if he does it is likely that it will be as a result of a technicality  – it may well mean that the Labour movement would split anyway. It is, after all, unlikely that the massive growth in membership for Labour, that has occurred under his leadership, can be maintained if the party is seen to be led by someone who stands opposed to many of the core-issues that Corbyn has fashioned himself on – most prominent of which have been his opposition to foreign military engagements.

The need for coherent anti-imperialism

Understandably, in the wake of the Chilcot report, there has been much recollection of the numerous voices that spoke out against the war in 2003, emanating from all sides of the Commons. Yet while there was serious opposition from inside parliament – even inside government – at the time, there was insufficient coherence and strength in the anti-interventionist argument at the time to resist the UK’s march to war. A similar story can be told of the more recent vote to bomb Syria.

Yet we cannot forget that outside parliament – literally, in the case of the largest ever popular protest in British history – the truth that has taken Chilcot more than two million words to articulate, was already widely known to more than a million people as they marched against the war in 2003. It was clear to those protesters that the war was wrong, and Britain was playing the role of international moral adjudicator, for which it was poorly suited and ill-equipped to follow through with sincerity.

Indeed it is possible to trace a line more-or-less directly from Corbyn’s current leadership right back to that anti-war movement, and perhaps still further to an important undercurrent within British society more broadly. This line is a narrative that challenges the mainstream belief that Britain is an exceptional country because of its imperial past, and that it derives a right – from this imperial legacy – to continue to play a larger-than-life role in the world.

Instead this progressive alternative narrative sees Britain as a multi-cultural, truly democratic country, tied together through a sense of civil identity – not cultural superiority – and that the UK is no better or worse than any other nation. It sees the recent military escapades in terms of their continuity with the imperial past and it therefore it rejects their legitimacy.

Time for change

The struggle for power in the Conservative party is over for now. The right wing populism may have lost the battle for the premiership to mainstream Toryism, embodied by Theresa May, but the larger impact of their campaign against immigration and the EU has had much broader, cultural affect.

The struggle for power in the Labour party is still ongoing. If the party machinery foists a mainstream candidate like Angela Eagle to the head of the party, then we will see that normal service has resumed across both main segments of the political class.

However, if Corbyn holds on or the anti-war left finds another way to maintain a high profile role challenging for government, then another, similar cultural impact may be felt in terms of the mainstreaming of a broader, more rational, understanding of Britain’s place in the world.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.