Anti-war Corbyn sparks a new Battle of Britain

The Labour party has arguably just elected its most anti-war, anti-arms and pro-Palestinian party leader in history

Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle
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Watch out capitalist roaders and reactionary bourgeois authorities… the great ‘Red Peril’ is returning to Britain. The Thought Police will be out on the streets and Big Brother will take over.

Well, not quite. But the political and media hysteria over the victory of far-left Jeremy Corbyn in being elected the leader of the British Labour party might lead you to believe so. (Apparently he rides a Chairman Mao-style bicycle, according to one report).

Most people living in the Middle East will be used to British prime ministers giving loud warnings about threats to national security. But it was not ISIS or Al Qaeda that David Cameron was warning about this week.

He tweeted on 13 September: “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.”

The Prime Minister will have to debate with this “security threat” every week and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Corbyn at national ceremonies.

Many might also be forgiven for believing that Corbyn was actually now running Britain and was already tearing down the monarchy.

So – stripping out the hype – what has happened? Is this an earthquake or a tremor in British politics?

A major earthquake would be if Corbyn were to be elected Prime Minister in 2020, at the age of 70.

Corbyn is anything but modern – a retro politician, whose conviction is clearly genuine.

Chris Doyle

Corbyn’s victory in the party leadership election was astonishing, every bit as dramatic as a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders victory would be in their respective parties’ primaries in the United States. And there is something in common. All three are their own people, who have their own distinct styles, views and are prepared to break the mould of the modern, smooth-talking politician.

Corbyn is anything but modern – a retro politician, whose conviction is clearly genuine. With many modern politicians electorates are not sure whether to believe them or not; U-turns and half-truths come all too easily to them.

Corbyn has not changed his views throughout 30 years of politics, as demonstrated when he opted not to sing “God save the Queen” at a Battle of Britain memorial service owing to his lifelong Republican beliefs.

But even though most Conservatives can barely disguise their glee at Labour’s turmoil, many argue they would be unwise to underestimate a man who clearly has energized a popular base of support.

The Labour party has arguably just elected its most anti-war, anti-arms and pro-Palestinian party leader in British political history.

Chris Doyle

Domestically Corbyn will stir things up, promoting anti-austerity economics and greater equality in Britain, with policies even many in his party cannot agree with.

Yet in foreign affairs the Labour party has arguably just elected its most anti-war, anti-arms and pro-Palestinian party leader in British political history.

Gone are the days of a cozy cross-party consensus on Middle East matters. Back in 2003 when Tony Blair pushed for war in Iraq, the Conservative party had already been calling for Saddam Hussein’s removal. Typically on Palestine, there has been precious little to separate party leaderships.

So even if Corbyn never becomes Prime Minister he has the opportunity to focus on key areas of disagreement.

Corbyn will support the recognition of a Palestinian state – no ifs or buts. He will also not just call for the banning of Israeli settlement products but a two-way arms embargo with Israel. He advocates talking to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, something many diplomats have argued for years. (Some question whether he is too uncritical of these groups.)

These will be popular positions in Britain if the opinion polls are accurate – but will not get him many invitations to dine with the Israeli Ambassador.

But Corbyn is also an arch anti-interventionist and chair of the Stop the War Coalition (which war? Any war?). He can barely imagine a situation in which he would send in British troops. He will face up to British prime ministers such as David Cameron, who supported the Iraq War in 2003, pushed for intervention in Libya in 2011 and wanted to bomb Syria in 2013.

Jeremy Corbyn will strenuously oppose any extension of the current operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, joining many rebels in Cameron’s Conservative Party. Here again, Corbyn may not be so out of touch with a popular mood that is fed up with costly British military adventures overseas after Afghanistan and Iraq. But many Syrian opponents of the Assad regime will be wary of Corbyn’s less-than-fulsome critique of their President’s misdeeds. And does Corbyn have a realistic plan to end the war in Syria or in Libya?

But just perhaps all this might trigger a genuine and well-thought debate about exactly when and how Britain and its allies should or should not intervene overseas.

Similarly Corbyn, this time with clear backing in Labour Parliamentary ranks, will push for Britain to accept far more refugees, including those from Syria. Cameron will shift only marginally on this.

Trickier for Corbyn will his stances on NATO and Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Most Labour MPs do not agree with his position on withdrawing from NATO and becoming non-nuclear – and nor does the public. Only about a quarter believe Britain should abandon its nuclear weapons. Perhaps he will have to sacrifice these two core campaigns to salvage some degree of party unity.

But will he dampen his anti-arms trade positions? Britain sells a huge amount of weapons to states with poor human-rights records. Corbyn would ideally like to stop that but will his fellow Labour MPs back him given that many constituents depend on their jobs for this? Yet he could make it uncomfortable for the government to justify some of these sales.

He has carved a career out of being a campaigning, conviction politician. Backing off is not in his makeup.

Chris Doyle

And where will he stand on Britain’s place in the world? He clearly wants to abandon – even apologize for – Britain’s imperial colonial past. He has promised to apologize on behalf of Labour for the Iraq War and believes that Tony Blair (still a member of the Labour party) might be put on trial for war crimes. But he is a Euro-skeptic leader of a broadly pro-European party in an increasingly anti-EU Britain. He aspires to lead a country that has long established political, economic and cultural ties with the United States but abhors many of its policies, not least in the Middle East.

These are early days. There are many in his party who will seek to dampen Corbyn’s more radical positions but he will not feel comfortable. He has carved a career out of being a campaigning, conviction politician. Backing off is not in his makeup.

Corbyn may be anti-war but he will be taking on Cameron, many in this his own party, and the foreign policy establishment in a most passionate and divisive battle over Britain, its future and place in the world.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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