When the Labour government in 2003 joined the disastrous US-led war against the people of Iraq, Tony Blair and other senior government ministers were much criticised on the left of the party for abandoning its oft-advertised promise to have an “ethical foreign policy”.
In fact, New Labour’s Foreign Secretary Robin Cook technically never promised that the UK would have such a policy. His May 1997 speech outlining the new government’s approach to global affairs promised only “an ethical dimension” to “our foreign policy”. A small but crucial difference.
New Labour’s foreign policy, although extremist and violent in nature, was in many respects not much of a departure from Labour governments of the past. Although New Labour made its reputation on essentially shredding the party’s historical commitment to democratic socialism by bowing down to right-wing tabloid owners and business interests, in many respects it could legitimately claim to be carrying on Labour Party tradition by participating in wars and neocolonialism around the world.
“Old” Labour after all – while bringing some spectacular improvements on important domestic issues, such as establishing the NHS and the welfare state – rarely made any substantive challenge to British imperialism, and at times, while in government and before decolonisation, was very literally the administrator of the empire itself.
The issue of Palestine is very much emblematic of this.
In times past, the mainstream of the Labour Party was very much pro-Zionism and, after the founding of the state, pro-Israel. At times, even the left of the party was enamoured of Zionism, seeing colonial institutions such as the collective kibbutz settlements as socialist experiments to be admired. The fact the racist kibbutzim never allowed Palestinian members was conveniently ignored.
This admiration was an imperialist delusion, born of a rapacious global empire, which in reality committed countless atrocities against native peoples around the world, from Africa, to Asia and the Middle East. The phenomenon of left-wing admiration for Zionism and for the kibbutzim in particular was best described by the late great socialist and anti-Zionist Jew Mike Marqusee as a “failure to imagine the people on the receiving end of your dreams. It’s a failure rooted in Western and white supremacy”.
Richard Crossman, a leading light of the Labour left, and a minister in Harold Wilson’s government, once lamented that the “Jewish settlers”, whom he argued were the “the white man” of the Middle East, failed to achieve a majority in historic Palestine. He made his approval of colonialism clear by arguing to an Israeli audience in 1959 that “no one, until the 20th century, seriously challenged their right, or indeed their duty, to civilise these continents by physically occupying them, even at the cost of wiping out the aboriginal population.”
Things have changed a lot in the Labour Party since then of course. Colonialism is no longer viewed in a mostly positive manner, and Israel and its apartheid and war crimes are deeply unpopular with the membership, and criticised at the highest levels of the leadership.
Nevertheless, Britain has never faced up to the reality of the poisonous legacy of the British Empire. The crimes of British colonialism are simply not taught in our schools, and popular media addresses the period through delusional rose-tinted glasses. The Labour Party too is far from facing up to its historical role in the crimes of empire.
With the ascendency of Jeremy Corbyn to the top of the Labour Party, along with the democratic revolt of its membership, which has overthrown the “New Labour” old guard, there is talk once again of a return to an “Ethical foreign policy” – which would in fact be the start of such a policy.
Corbyn has made some small moves towards it. Before last week’s Labour Conference in Brighton, it was announced that the Saudi embassy would be banned from attending due to its part in the deadly and devastating war on Yemen.
This was a good first step. But will Corbyn be able to follow through on his long history of activism in the Palestine solidarity movement by making a similar move to ban the Israeli embassy from Labour Conference?The current balance of forces in the party suggests not. Despite massive popular support in the party membership for the Palestinian cause (as evidenced by the standing ovation Corbyn received during his speech when he called for an end to the oppression of the Palestinians), the manufactured “anti-Semitism crisis” last year had a significant effect in order to stifle criticisms of Israel, and there are regular attempts to revive it.
The Israeli embassy also works via front groups or proxies, such as the Labour Friends of Israel, and even the Jewish Labour Movement. The prospect of expelling either group seems remote, and would no doubt be accompanied by cries of “anti-Semitism”.
The launch at conference this year of Jewish Voice for Labour, a new (pro-Palestinian) group of left-wing Jews, seems likely to improve the prospects for Palestine within the party.
Whatever happens with that, a genuinely radical Labour government must have a genuinely ethical foreign policy. A good start would be to ban all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Let’s push for that to happen.