It isn’t quite “The Internationale” beloved by the revolutionary Communist party, spreading the works of Marx around the world from the foundation of the Soviet Union, but the wholehearted, clench fists raised, singing of the Socialist anthem “The Red Flag” at the Labour party conference is an important sign. Labour is not merely a political party, but a movement embodying the international solidarity of the working classes.
Labour, of course, cannot escape its history as a party founded to represents a class interest; an insistence on working class solidarity. Socialism as the ideology of the party came later – led, ironically, by middle class intellectuals. This is a party which was founded on the presumption that its members working in the docks of the East End had more in common with the labourers and wager-earners of Germany or the United States than the capitalists in banking or law down the road in the City of London.
It is because of this that no one has dispelled the suspicion that ideological soul-mates are given a free pass in foreign affairs by the left. By now there are many stories of the proximity of Corbyn to the government mouthpieces of Russia, Iran and Venezuela – besides the vile anti-Semitism among ranks of Labour supporters. These all add up to a sense that opposition to the policies of the West, and the United States in particular, is the only course open to the morally righteous.
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on foreign policy said nothing obviously unobjectionable. He spoke in favour of democracy and human rights. He speak out against selling arms to Saudi Arabia, their cruel war in Yemen, and Egypt’s oppression of protestors. These, fundamentally, are easy applause lines for the echo chamber he has spent a career cultivating. On the most important events happening in the world today – what did we hear? On Russian aggression, American unpredictability, the future of East Asia, and Britain’s world role post-Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn had nothing to say about the crucial issues of the day.
Yet what does it take to speak consistently at the level of events? Labour has produced some formidable international statesman and great British figures. Ernest Bevin and Clement Atlee, with the former’s bold initiatives, including the creation of NATO, supported by the latter – and Attlee’s pursuit of a British nuclear deterrent. Denis Healy as Chancellor, though he never served in the role of Foreign Secretary that he really wanted, and David Owen – though admittedly one more of potential than realised talent. Alistair Darling of recent years (and even – gulp – Gordon Brown) deserves mention for leadership in providing a coordinated European response to the financial crisis in 2008.
This is the business of foreign affairs. It is easy to appeal for Aung San Suu Kyi to use her influence to bring peace in Burma, it is much harder to devise a plan to use British influence for that end. The power of the moral example is overrated. Thinking Britain can make some unique contribution merely expressing a high moral tone is a throwback to the days when imperial proconsuls assumed the eyes of the world were constantly on Britain.
Yes, Corbyn is a former President of the Stop the War coalition – but which war? And whose war? It is one thing to push to end all wars – another to push only for an end to your own. Perhaps Labour entire approach to foreign policy can be summed up in the words of a man who, had he lived would perhaps have been a great foreign secretary, Nye Bevan: “You call that a policy? I call it an emotional spasm.”