Policy towards China, the Middle East and Ukraine shows Boris Johnson’s ‘global Britain’ is aligned near-completely with Washington. The challenge for the labour, anti-war and solidarity movements is to build on the widespread, if inchoate, opposition to form a mass movement for change, writes Andrew Murray
Two factors are common to all zones of confrontation in the world today – in the Far East, in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East. The first is, of course, the hegemonic presence of the USA, and its determination to prevent the emergence of any systemic or even regional challenge to its self-mandated world supremacy. This underlies the new Cold War it has launched against China; the push to bring Ukraine within NATO’s orbit and the continuing threats to Iran.
The second is that British policy has aligned near-completely with Washington’s requirements. This is not new, but the degree of compliance is nevertheless noteworthy. It seems to form the actual content of Boris Johnson’s “global Britain” post-EU project.
Take Europe first. The year has ended with sabre-rattling over Ukraine, with the US alleging a Russian invasion is imminent. The crisis is rooted in the circumstances of the break-up of the USSR, with sometimes arbitrary internal borders becoming external frontiers, and in the relentless NATO expansion eastwards, in breach of promises given in 1991. British troops have deployed to Poland and the Baltic republics as part of NATO’s Russia-facing forces.
What is urgently needed is not military escalation around Ukraine, but a new European security agreement that includes meeting legitimate Russian concerns, repairing the error of the end of the Cold War when US triumphalism trumped the opportunity for a peaceful and durable settlement.
In the Middle East, the flashpoint is around Iran. A US or Israeli attack on Iran is a possibility, ostensibly because of concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme, which the Tehran regime insists is for peaceful purposes only. The nuclear agreement reached by Obama was scrapped by Trump and has yet to be revived. However, maintaining US hegemony in the region in the face of real or alleged Iranian activities in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere is surely just as much a motivation.
Britain now has a permanent base in authoritarian Bahrain and has armed and supported the Saudi attack on impoverished Yemen, an epic humanitarian crisis brought about by British arms, British diplomatic support and British military advice. The Johnson government has refused all appeals to change course. And it stands alongside the Biden administration in policy towards Iran.
Still more striking is the Johnson government’s alignment with the aggressive anti-China policy in the Far East. Gone is the Cameron-Osborne “golden age” of Sino-British relations at the snap of a US finger. Symbolically, the maiden voyage of Britain’s new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, escorted by US warships, was to the waters of the western Pacific. The only serious message this sent was that Britain is all-in with Washington in confronting China.
Just as dramatic was the AUKUS pact unveiled with Australia and the USA to much recrimination in September 2021. This aims to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines better able to confront China over longer distances at sea.
The AUKUS agreement represents a significant escalation of the arms race in itself. Australia has never been equipped with nuclear-powered submarines before, nor felt the need to be. Its own relations with China have been deteriorating over the last two years.
In the process, the French government was rudely elbowed out of the way – its own contract to supply Australia with regular submarines was scrapped with just a few hours’ notice. This was a notable snub to a country which regards itself as a Pacific power and had invested heavily in relations with Australia.
The alacrity with which Britain joined in the pact and its indifference to the offence caused to France is a further indication of British foreign policy’s orientation towards a “global” alignment with the USA. All this reflects a desire to be seen as a global player, at Washington’s right hand, enforcing imperial order.
The response of the leadership of the Labour Party to all this has been supportive of the Tory government. Starmer has set himself on a course of wrapping Labour in the flag, establishing conventionally patriotic credentials and doing everything possible to distance himself from the anti-imperialist politics of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. This forms a key part of his effort to prove to the establishment that, unlike Corbyn, he is a “safe pair of hands” who can be entrusted with the interests of the British state. He has learned nothing, apparently, from the foreign policy disasters associated with Tony Blair.
Starmer and his shadow foreign Secretary (until November 2021) Lisa Nandy have been at the forefront of attacks on China over human rights, and have displayed an astonishing level of commitment to Israel. They are gung-ho for British possession of nuclear weapons, and back the NATO confrontation with Russia.
This is not, nevertheless, the view of the broader Labour Party. At its autumn conference 2021 delegates voted for a militant resolution of solidarity with the Palestinian people and also rejected overwhelmingly the AUKUS pact. Anti-imperialism appears to have deeper roots than Starmer wishes.
The fact is that Corbyn-era Labour foreign policies were popular, despite being more bitterly opposed by the Labour right than any other part of his agenda. His response to the Manchester terrorist attack during the 2017 general election campaign, identifying the outrage as being, at least in part, a consequence of British foreign policy decisions, proved that.
Here then is a major challenge for the labour, anti-war and solidarity movements in Britain. It is to build on the widespread, if inchoate, opposition to the foreign policy course of the government and form a mass movement for change. This means uniting anti-nuclear protest with Palestinian solidarity, and it means warning of the dangers of Britain being drawn into conflicts which have no bearing on any sane definition of “national security”, as happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Recent history shows that such a movement can be built. Separation from US policy remains the priority.
Neither Johnson nor Starmer offer a positive policy for Britain in the world. In the face of headlong climate change, the pandemic, refugee crises caused by poverty and war, global inequality and other burning issues demanding international solutions, that is not a situation that can be accepted. Peace and cooperation, not fresh cold war confrontations, is needed. It is time for mass pressure.
Andrew Murray is an author, historian, founder or Stop the War Coaltion, former advisor to Jeremy Corbyn and senior figure in the British trade union movement
Photo: Creative Commons