Iraq still Polarises Labour as Much as Ever

By Adam Peggs

The experience of the Iraq War in the UK’s political imaginary and its devastating consequences across the Middle East remain much as palpable today as ten, or even fifteen years ago.

Gary Younge was right to note back in March that the war is still ‘poisoning’ British politics and one such illustration of this is that the ideas and assumptions which led to the war remain almost as powerful as ever. Though neo-conservative-leaning commentators occasionally speak of ‘Iraq Syndrome’ it may be more relevant to speak of the persistence of battle-cry interventionism. After all, we live in a world where Corbyn is decried for insufficient deference to the orthodoxy in war policy. One where the Trump administration’s aggressive barraging of the Middle East doesn’t even elicit criticism. And one where bragging about firing nuclear weapons is treated as the respectable position by middle class journalists.

Blair’s decision to take the United Kingdom into the Iraq War and his role in initially legitimising the war on the international stage, continue to haunt both Labour and British politics more widely. But less immediately evident is the shift in thinking from Labour’s military interventionists from conceiving of the war as a mistake (but ultimately a small, single blip) to visualising it as now an irrelevance. There embryonic view is increasingly that the war is simply a club being used to beat the Labour right with and that discussion of Iraq lacks any contemporary relevance. The possibility that divisions on international affairs within the Labour Party could be down to principle seems to be missed.

That Labour, the party of internationalism, provided the decisive support to an unlawful war led from Washington, is virtually glossed over and its ideological and calculated nature is missed entirely. For the left, Iraq continues to symbolise a tawdry low-point in the party’s history, while the right’s memory of the conflict has become less and less coherent and more and more depoliticised.

There has been a tendency to see Iraq as the exception, rather than the rule, when overviewing the last two-decades of British war policy, with repeated clamours between 2003 and now to repeat the experience of Iraq and begin fresh military interventions. So it is worth emphasising, that while Iraq was the most egregious illustration of a bellicose foreign policy, it was also part of a pattern which included Afghanistan in 2001, New Labour’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011. In that sense at least, the war was a prime example of New Labour’s worldview rather than the aberration some have sought to depict it as.

For a time, a certain subsection of the Labour right virtually dominated Labour’s entire political orientation and delegated our foreign policy to the US Republican Party. That this was a betrayal of the values of a party founded by Keir Hardie was glossed over.

Even when the results produced sectarian violence, disfigured children, deployment of white phosphorous and an unending death toll, New Labour’s doctrine remained largely in place. Support for interventionism dimmed a little but the rationale and assumptions that led to the bloodshed continued to trudge on, even to this day. The banking crisis, with the challenge it posed to the UK’s economic model, provoked a greater degree of rethink than the ideology that led New Labour headlong into war.

Those from the ideological traditions in the party that had supported the war have largely abandoned any apologism for the criminal endeavour, instead they have shifted to dismissal and downplaying. The war was long ago, its victims were just the price of a liberated Iraq, policy at home could justify injustice abroad, an array of fatuous excuses continue to be deployed to re-varnish New Labour. Insinuations that we should just get over it or that the war’s legacy is a preoccupation of an extreme left, still seem to gain traction with a vocal group of Third-Way votaries.

That a part of Corbyn’s foreign policy hinges on a repudiation of military adventurism and arrogant exceptionalism is treated as a symptom of an extreme, fringe worldview — despite the prevalence of that view across most of British society. And despite, equally, that worldview being a socialist tradition dating back to William Morris, Keir Hardie and Margaret Bondfield, one that is effectively in the left’s blood.

Running parallel to that tradition though has been another outlook, dating back to Labour’s earliest years but reaching a crescendo of sorts in the Blair-Brown era. A preoccupation with an internationalism which meant raining down fire over the Middle East, arms trading and relatively little else. The Afghanistan War, Iraq, Lebanon and arms sales to just about any authoritarian, the New Labour doctrine remained entwined with the cynical logic of the Bush administration. Just as before where Labour’s ‘moderates’ had remained glued to the rationale first of the British Empire, then of American post-war foreign policy.

That different internationalism deployed the rhetoric of human rights but to essentially similar ends as before. Couching it in slightly different language, and perhaps adding some progressive commitments, but ultimately resting on the same practices. This commitment to human rights nearly always fell short, draconian regimes like that in Bahrain were shored up in exchange for cooperation, the United States’ gross mistreatment of prisoners was taken as normal and refugees were for the sake of political expedience.

While Corbyn’s leadership has unseated this, Corbynism has yet to shift the thinking of the party’s Corbynsceptic wing in terms of international affairs. While Labour’s centrists flirtations with the ideas and assumptions of what was once the New Right are starting to fade, it’s assumptions about what constitutes a progressive foreign policy remains much the same. The Labour right’s commitment to a geopolitics based around the priorities of UK statecraft, as a key power exercising its influence abroad, has remained virtually intractable for much of the party’s history. Likewise, there is a deep-rooted ‘understanding’ that no matter how far Labour’s values are from Conservativism, that British foreign policy is integrally bi-partisan and based around national-political unity, rather than a distinct set of ethics.

From Arthur Henderson’s backing of the First World War to the extensive brutalities during the Attlee government’s involvement in Malaysia and the Wilson administration’s partial support for US actions in Vietnam, belligerence has unfortunately been a current in the party’s history. This has involved some of the darkest episodes of the last century of British history, including crimes and injustices across swathes of the globe – though it is worth recalling that Labour cast itself as an opponent of Tory belligerence at key junctures, including the duplicitous invasion of Egypt in 1956.

It is a mistake to blame this lingering logic on Corbyn for insufficient advocacy of a left foreign policy, he has laid out his approach in multiple speeches and this approach has been reflected in numerous areas of policy. It owes a good deal to the thinking of the sixties-era New Left, to currents like ethical socialism and perhaps to moral logic underpinning ‘Just War’ theory. Yet the assumptions of the centre and the right seem more deeply ingrained when Labour looks out at the rest of the worldAn encompassing view of the world is subtly ever-present in Corbyn’s thinking but the extent to which this diffuses across Labour, its membership and its institutions is far less clear.

There is room for pride on a manifesto which last year promised to cleave Britain away from arming repressive regimes, including the government of Saudi Arabia, but there have also been few signs of a sea change. Britain is still talked of as a power whose job is to throw its weight around – primarily in the Global South, reliving the days of Victorian buccaneering and gunboat diplomacy.

A sturdy sense of international justice has long motivated Labour’s left and a left-led Labour government would near-certainly represent a sharp break from the ideology of the past. This break needs to be projected outward and across British politics to provoke a real reconstruction of Britain’s place in the world. The left’s opponents have failed to grasp that Iraq was just one part of a patchwork of injustices, while the justifications for the unlawful act linger on in the way the centre views the world.