One of the themes today is defence and the broader theme of national safety. This is an area where it’s thought that Theresa May has a substantial advantage over Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, you may already feel that. But politics is partly about challenging established belief, so I’ve a little challenge for you. Will you suspend any disbelief for five minutes and let me test you?
The facts here are pretty well-established. Corbyn, as he’s saying in a speech today, is not a pacifist, but he’s extremely cautious about engaging in military intervention unless all other options have been exhausted. He opposed the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and opposes us getting involved in the Syrian civil war. I supported the first two and have come to see I was mistaken (I apologised for the mistake when I stood last time). Where there’s a clear-cut case, as in World War II, Corbyn supports military action.
What is new is Theresa May’s policy. There has been remarkably little discussion of it so far, but in a speech explicitly authorised by Mrs May, Boris Johnson has announced that if Donald Trump decided to attack Syria, our Government would find it “extremely difficult” not to join in. What’s more, it would not be necessary to consult Parliament. See the BBC report here:
This is entirely different to any previous British Government policy, Conservative or Labour. It outsources the decision on whether we go to war. The decision is now not a matter for Parliament, or even for the British Government. It is a matter for President Trump. This takes the “special relationship” to the ridiculous stage. It’s fine to have a good friend. But whether we get into a war should be a matter for us.
If Mr Trump was noted for his caution and thoughtful judgment, this might not in practice mean very much. But I don’t think his best friends would argue that. Indeed, it seems to me more than likely that he will launch a war against someone. Syria? North Korea? Cuba? We really don’t know. But if he does, we should, precisely as Corbyn argues, be “extremely cautious” before getting involved.
Is Mrs May cautious (or strong and stable, as she keeps saying) in this respect? Not at all: indeed she has said that she doesn’t rule out first use of nuclear weapons. Let’s assume that Mr Trump decides that a nuclear strike is needed to take out the deeply-embedded North Korean nuclear development facility, and asks us to join in. Do we really want to agree without even debating it, just because he asks?
The thing about military intervention, as I came to realise over Iraq, is that it’s very easy, and indeed popular in instant polls, to start a war, but extraordinarily difficult to finish it – especially if, as in Syria, there are multiple factions and we don’t fully understand what they’re all about. I share the disgust at the horrors in Syria. I think it’s right to be extremely concerned about North Korea. But before we sign up for any more wars, let’s be careful.
But does Britain not have a duty to act, as a proud former Empire with interests across the globe? This rings a patriotic chord in many. But actually, no. We don’t have a duty to support one faction in Syria and kill supporters of another faction. We are a medium-sized European country in some economic difficulty, facing a complex and challenging outlook. Getting into another civil conflict in the Middle East should not be a priority. And doing it merely because Mr Trump says we should is not a sign of patriotism. It is a sign of weakness.
In cosmetic ways, there’s no doubt that Mrs May fits the image of a patriotic Prime Minister. It’s easy to imagine her enjoying afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace, where one suspects Mr Corbyn would be polite but privately wishing he was on his allotment. It’s easy to imagine Mrs May singing Land of Hope and Glory, difficult to conceive of Mr Corbyn doing so, though I know him personally and he loves the quiet decency of the British people and our democratic traditions.
But these are serious, dangerous times. Patriotism should mean more than symbolism: it should mean keeping Britain safe. And I feel far safer with a prospective Prime Minister who is reluctant to get us into war than one who goes out of her way to give notice of precisely that intention.
Sometimes war is necessary: I come from a military family and I yield to nobody in respect for the Armed Forces. But it should not be undertaken lightly, or at the behest of Mr Trump. A dignified, restrained, independent foreign policy that puts peaceful solutions first and retains our freedom of action is better. And that is what Mr Corbyn is asking you to support.
We have got used to intervening all over the globe and getting into one mess after another. Mrs May’s policy will accelerate that. It is neither strong nor stable, and despite all the imagery that you’ll be bombarded with in Conservative leaflets, we will in reality be safer with a cautious leader like Mr Corbyn. If that sounds a surprising conclusion, it’s because we are used to martial posturing. This is a dangerous world, and we need to adjust to it.
I’ll leave it to you to consider!