UK General Election: What are the foreign policy implications?

by Mark Curtis

Published in New Internationalist, 18 May 2017

The upcoming election has two key features. One is that voters have a genuine choice for the first time in a generation. But the other is that media disinformation backing current foreign policy and attacking Jeremy Corbyn is so great that the election cannot possibly be free and fair. Britons will vote without being properly informed of their country’s role in the world and what is really at stake.

Conservative foreign policy has significantly gone underground, using troops and drone strike in at least seven covert wars – in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. These wars, some of which are illegal, are kept secret since the government knows the public and parliament might oppose overt action.

Another war is in effect being fought on human rights, with Theresa May having deepened relations with many human rights abusers in the past nine months, notably Egypt, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Turkey. The government is also advertising its willingness to train such states in “internal security challenges” (i.e, repression).

The government has reinvigorated the special relationship with Trump’s US at probably the most dangerous period in international relations since the early 1980s. The UK is increasing military cooperation with Washington while embarking on a £178 billion requipment programme developing new offensive capabilities. Whitehall is preparing for more wars, while the Royal Navy’s openly-declared goals are to control resource-rich regions and threaten those who challenge this.

Corbyn’s proposed foreign policies challenge the militarist neo-liberalism that Labour and Conservative have inflicted on the world in recent decades, but are far from radical. Labour’s manifesto does not pledge to end arms exports to human rights abusers, but to halt sales where there is ‘concern’ they will be used to violate international humanitarian law. Even arms exports to Saudi Arabia are to be suspended only until a UN-led investigation has reported on alleged violations of international law.

However, government policies are so extreme that moderate Labour pledges represent a big break. Labour has pledged to support recognition of Palestine, lead multilateral efforts to create a ‘nuclear free world’, promote the right to return of the displaced Chagos Islanders, and review arms and training programmes to repressive regimes – all of which policies challenge the elite consensus and will surely be bitterly fought by Whitehall.

Labour is also committed to ‘working through the United Nations’ and ending ‘support for unilateral aggressive wars of intervention’. These policies are taken for granted in most countries, but in Britain the bipartisan elite has become so fanatical that it should perhaps be a requirement for all manifestos to commit to stop destroying other countries (such as Iraq, Yemen or Libya).

But mainstream media disinformation, which may be at record levels, prevents the public truly exercising this choice. One aspect of a free and fair election is ‘nonpartisan’ coverage by state media. Yet BBC reporting on Britain’s foreign policy is simply amplifying state priorities and burying its complicity in human rights abuses. The BBC is unable to report even that Britain is at war – in Yemen, where the UK is arming the Saudis to conduct mass bombing, having supplied them with aircraft and £1 billion worth of bombs, while training their pilots.

From April 4th to May 15th, the BBC website carried only 10 articles on Yemen but 97 on Syria: focusing on the crimes of an official enemy rather than our own. Almost no BBC articles on Yemen mention British arms exports. Theresa May’s government is complicit in mass civilian deaths in Yemen and pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation; that this is not an election issue is a stupendous propaganda achievement.

Most British foreign policies showing how contemptuous the state is of democracy and human rights are not being reported. I’ve documented 41 policies that have been almost entirely ignored by the 24/7 mainstream media in the run-up to the election, from Britain’s role in maintaining the world’s tax havens to the new special relationship with the increasingly repressive regime in Egypt. The government has said it has the right to undertake military drone strikes even outside areas of armed conflict. The head of the Royal Navy has declared the military’s role in backing the UK’s ‘growing global economic ambition’, an echo of the imperial era. There are at least five foreign policies where the government is violating international law. The list goes on.

Corbyn’s agenda has been misreported and attacked from day one by virtually every mainstream newspaper, from the Mail on the right to the ‘liberal’ Guardian/Observer. Although many journalists say their opposition is about Corbyn’s leadership abilities, smearing began immediately after he was elected Labour leader and is largely ideological: Corbyn’s human rights-focused agenda is a threat to the right/liberal Atlanticist establishment that believes it is above international law, has the right to militarily intervene at will, and has special relations with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The UK ‘Editors Code of Practice’ demands that ‘the Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text’. How many times a day is this broken? It is not being enforced and resulting in the mass production of ignorance. Beneath its sophisticated, democratic façade, British elite culture is a primitive warmonger, and the mainstream media is doing everything in its power to maintain elite political and corporate interests.  Once the election is over, we must challenge and change the way the mainstream media operates, otherwise ‘British democracy’ will just remain a good idea.

Mark Curtis is an historian and analyst of UK foreign policy and international development, and author of six books. Website: Twitter: @markcurtis30

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