“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issue are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia”
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 September. Saturday’s thumping victory by hard left candidate Jeremy Corbyn in the elections to lead Britain’s main opposition party has implications not just for Britain, but for allies and partners the world over. This long-time pacifist, who wants Britain out of NATO and the EU, is also a committed nuclear unilateralist and long-time ‘friend’ of Hamas and Russia. Corbyn is now on paper at least but one electoral step from becoming the prime minister of a top five world power. What are the strategic implications of Comrade Corbyn?
British politics: It is a mark of the failure of the mainstream political class on both the centre left and centre right of politics that a serial leftist rebel and protester could be elected to one of the great offices. It reflects a mood across much of the country that holds Orwell’s dictum to be true. Indeed, a huge number of British people have lost all faith in the self-important, self-obsession of a self-satisfied Westminster/Whitehall elite that has compounded strategic error with strategic error.
Countering ISIS: In the immediate future agreement over a decision to extend RAF strikes against ISIS to Syria has suddenly become far harder for Cameron to achieve. This is because decisions over the the use of British force are focused more on the so-called Privy Council than Parliament. The Council brings together the leaders of all the main political parties with senior lawyers and other key figures in the name of Her Majesty the Queen. It has traditionally reflected a much more consensual approach to strategy and action than the public impression allows for. However, for the Privy Council to work members must accept the responsibilities of official secrecy if they are to have access to key intelligence and planning documents. Corbyn is not at all sure that he even accepts the principle of the Privy Council.
Defence Policy: All the assumptions underpinning British defence policy are now at risk. The new Labour leader is particularly keen to scrap the ‘Successor’ programme that will see Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons replaced in the late 2020s at a cost of some £16bn. Corbyn also wants to set up a so-called Defence Diversification Agency that would seek to re-task those working in Britain’s large defence-industrial sector so that swords may in future become ploughshares. This ‘policy’ implies that Corbyn wants not only to unilaterally scrap Britain’s deterrent, but much of the conventional force and the industry that supports it. People around Corbyn are already talking of a root-and-branch review of how Britain engages in the world and Corbyn himself has said he could foresee no circumstances in which as prime minister he would order the deployment of British forces. There may be one cloud that has a partially-silvered lining; the idea that the defence budget can fund both a submarine-based strategic nuclear deterrent and a global reach conventional force will be revealed for it is – patent nonsense.
British Foreign and Security Policy: The election of an insurgent to lead the Labour Party has the most profound implications for Britain’s foreign, security and defence policy. Indeed, given that Cameron has only a majority of twelve in the House of Commons it is likely he will need a significant number of Labour MPs to defy their leader if he is to gain the support of the House.
EU and NATO: Corbyn himself is a long-time Euro-sceptic who has been a long-time on record of wanting Britain to quit the EU, which he believes to be a super-capitalists, super-plot. By holding such implacable views he has already set himself on a collision course with much of the Parliamentary Labour Party, not least his own new Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn. Certainly, the election of Corbyn has made a Brexit vote in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership more likely. He is equally and implacably opposed to Britain’s membership of NATO the very existence of which challenge his long-held pacifist views. Interestingly, the newly-elected deputy leader Tom Watson wants to retain the nuclear deterrent and keep Britain in NATO, which should make for some interesting Shadow Cabinet meetings.
The Crisis of Liberal Democracy: The abject failure of European leaders to deal with a cacophony of crises that they themselves have helped generate – from handing too much power to a distant, technocratic Brussels, through the eternal Eurozone crash and on to the seemingly insoluble migrant crisis – has led to another crisis; the crisis of liberal democracy. The election of Jeremy Corbyn thus says something else about politics, policy and strategy in Europe and indeed the wider West. Establishments everywhere are under pressure from insurgent politicians and their groupings. Huge numbers of electors see little or no relationship between what mainstream political leaders say, what they actually do, let alone what they achieve. This systemic failure by distant mainstream politicians to cope with crises and protect their people from dangerous change has been exacerbated by the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent austerity which has left huge numbers of people at the poorer end of societies feeling victimised.
The Rise of the Insurgents: Sooner or later one of these insurgents is going to get hold of the keys to one of the great states of the West – be it Trump in the US, Corbyn in the UK, or Le Pen in France. The world will then be in for roller-coaster politics as the insurgents, by definition anti-strategists lurch between disengagement and over-engagement.
The Death of Statecraft: However, to my mind perhaps the most dangerous strategic implication from the election of Corbyn will be the death of statecraft – the reasoned art of conducting state affairs. One reason why mainstream Western politicians have failed is because it is very hard for the Western state to ‘succeed’ in the twenty-first century in a world in which borders seem archaic and identities endless. It is Putin's Russia that will likely prove the beneficiary of this as Corbyn's starry-eyed nostalgia for a fantasy Russia will make Britain's role in deterring Russia hard to take seriously.
The Political Irony that is Jeremy Corbyn: Which brings me finally to the political irony that is Jeremy Corbyn. Seventy-five years ago today in the skies above London the decisive engagement took place in the Battle of Britain. Believing the RAF to have been virtually destroyed the Luftwaffe pressed home a daylight attack on the great city. The shock of German aircrew was all the greater when far from being faced by a few squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires to which they had become accustomed they were suddenly confronted by large formations and were defeated. It was a turning point in World War Two and is today rightly commemorated. To Corbyn and his Corbynistas the Battle of Britain has about as much resonance for a modern Britain in a modern Europe in a modern World as the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
The irony is that Jeremy Corbyn believes himself and his supporters to be the future. In fact, they are the heirs of George Orwell and as such offer all of us little more than a return to the class war, Orwellian world of the 1950s. As such they are every bit as anachronistic as the forty Hurricanes and Spitfires that will today take to the skies of Britain to commemorate The Few.