Corbyn’s Labour party should promote more moderation, less extremism in UK foreign policy

by Mark Curtis

Labour’s manifesto pledges several clear breaks from current UK foreign policy which could be seen as radical given the present extremism. I recently outlined seven such policies which the UK establishment will fight bitterly.[1] But if the manifesto is implemented in its current form, it is likely to still promote extremism in UK foreign policy. Corbyn’s agenda needs to promote much more moderation in UK policy overseas if Britain is to avoid engaging in disastrous wars, supporting human rights abusers, backing states with agendas inimical to the British public interest and enhancing a neoliberal global economic order.

To give eight examples:

1. On Saudi Arabia/Yemen, the manifesto states:

Labour will demand a comprehensive, independent, UN-led investigation into alleged violations of IHL in Yemen, including air strikes on civilians by the Saudi-led coalition. We will immediately suspend any further arms sales for use in the conflict until that investigation is concluded.[2]

This is a break with current policy but it does not call for an end to arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the manifesto does not call for a change in UK foreign policy to withdraw its support for Saudi Arabia, responsible for the export of Islamist extremism for decades and currently stoking up tensions in the Middle East against Shia Iran. Is Labour going to continue a special relationship with Riyadh? It is in the UK public national interest to reverse current policy and oppose Saudi foreign policy in the Middle East.

2. On arms exports, the manifesto states:

“We will review all training and equipment contracts with repressive regimes, to ensure that Britain never colludes in the mistreatment of civilians… Labour will… implement the Arms Trade Treaty to a consistently high standard, including ceasing arms exports to countries where there is concern that they will be used to violate international humanitarian law (IHL)…. .”

These are welcome in light of current policy but the two sentences read together are ambivalent: they could be read as not committing Labour to ending arms exports to countries abusing human rights, but only to ending arms sales where they could be used for such purposes. This could continue the extreme current policy of arming virtually any state. The problem with arms exports is not only that they can be used to repress populations or countries, but that they cement relations with unrepresentative, often repressive ruling groups, whose domestic position can become consolidated. If Labour is not to end the arms trade completely, it must at least develop a ‘blacklist’ of countries to whom arms exports are prohibited.

3. On the arms industry, the manifesto states:

“The defence industry is world-leading, and Labour will continue to support development and innovation in this sector and to ensure that it can continue to rely on a highly skilled workforce. … Labour will publish a Defence Industrial Strategy White Paper, including a National Shipbuilding Strategy to secure a long-term future for the industry, workers and defence”.

This is a clear commitment to military industry and arms exports – a very worrying development.

4. On relations with the United States, the Labour manifesto states:

“Since the Second World War, Britain’s most important diplomatic relationship has been with the US. But that special relationship is based on shared values. When the current Trump administration chooses to ignore them, whether by discriminating on the basis of religion or breaking its climate change commitments, we will not be afraid to disagree”.

But is it is not just a question of ‘disagreeing’. The UK needs to change its special relationship with the US in order to challenge US policy in key areas, irrespective of whether Trump or others are President. The US is one of the world’s biggest problems in numerous areas such as climate change, the Israel/Palestine conflict, Middle East wars, neoliberal economic policies around the world etc. The UK role should be to disempower the US role in world affairs and to choose its key allies based on the national public interest.

5. On Israel/Palestine, the manifesto. It states:

“Labour is committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution – a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine. There can be no military solution to this conflict and all sides must avoid taking action that would make peace harder to achieve. That means both an end to the blockade, occupation and settlements, and an end to rocket and terror attacks. Labour will continue to press for an immediate return to meaningful negotiations leading to a diplomatic resolution. A Labour government will immediately recognise the state of Palestine.”

This is a welcome commitment to recognise Palestine, but the manifesto says nothing about how it will change the UK relationship with Israel to seriously press it to engage in such meaningful negotiations and to stop its aggressive activities. Will the UK continue to arm Israel? Will it continue to acquiescence in the illegal trade in illegal settlement products? Etc. The current government already condemns Israel for illegal settlement building but is doing nothing to press Israel to stop this. Will Labour be any different?

6. On the military (‘defence’), the manifesto states:

“The last Labour government consistently spent above the NATO benchmark of 2 per cent of GDP. Conservative spending cuts have put Britain’s security at risk, shrinking the army to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars. The scrapping of Nimrod, HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier jump-jets have weakened our defences and cost British taxpayers millions. Labour’s commitment to spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence will guarantee that our Armed Forces have the necessary capabilities to fulfil the full range of obligations, and ensure our conventional forces are versatile and able to deploy in a range of roles.”

Thus Labour would retain the Conservatives’ 2 per cent military spending commitment, entailing a vast outlay of resources, around £40 billion a year. Most of this is not for territorial defence of the UK but for offensive purposes to enhance UK ‘interests’ (as defined by Whitehall). Is Labour going to continue its historical commitment to a militarily interventionist foreign policy? This would be an extreme policy in light of all the pressing financial and ethical commitments to which a UK government should better commit.

7. On tax havens, the manifesto states:

‘Labour will act decisively on tax havens, introducing strict standards of transparency for crown dependencies and overseas territories, including a public register of owners, directors, major shareholders and beneficial owners for all companies and trusts’.

Increased transparency is urgently needed, but the problem goes beyond this: the world’s system of tax systems, much of which are UK overseas territories – must be closed down and other mechanisms enabling corporations to avoid taxes ended.

8. On aid, the manifesto states:

“Labour has a proud record on international development. We will continue to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on official development assistance, and develop a targeted development agenda based on the principles of redistribution, social justice, women’s rights and poverty reduction”.

Aside from the false claim about Labour’s historical record, this misses the main current problem with UK ‘aid’ – that it is a key part of the big British push to promote a world neoliberal economic system to mainly benefit British and Western corporations, in parallel with investment and trade policies. There is no suggestion in the manifesto that this will end beyond mentions of reviewing investment treaties with other countries and ensuring that trade policies will promote human rights.



[1] See my ‘Seven moderate foreign policies in Labour’s manifesto that are unacceptable to the extremist British elite’, 12 May 2017,


1 comment

  1. Donal Kennedy says:

    I wish you luck but the British Labour Party is n Imperialist warmongering party. The Saudis and other such states are the UK’s natural cronies.

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