The joke typically goes that if you want to know what British foreign policy is, ask the US state department. The “special relationship” between both countries has long been viewed through this lens, regardless of what shade of politics, left or right, has been in power.
Coined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the special relationship is a close alliance spanning defence and diplomacy. The US, to be clear – as is apparently now the trend – has been polyamorous, in the sense that it has “special relationships” with other countries, too (hello, Israel). But from the British side of the Atlantic, the alliance was set in stone by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan, who were ideological BFFs.
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The extent of this was summed up by Thatcher when she told the president: “Your problems will be our problems, and when you look for friends, we shall be there.”
The dynamic turned even closer with Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush during the post-9/11 years. Blair took Britain into the illegal, catastrophic Iraq war of 2003, essentially making this US-led, UN-bypassing invasion possible.
For many on the British left, this relationship seems one-sided and obsequious – corroding the UK’s standing in the world. Perhaps the only redeeming thing about the UK film, Love Actually, released in 2003, was the sight of a fictional UK prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, standing up to the US president (Billy Bob Thornton), calling him a bully and declaring an end to an abusive binational relationship. It was a silly construct, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t punch the air during that scene.
But now, Labour has a leader who doesn’t view global politics in the same way.
Jeremy Corbyn, the unexpected and unspun 66-year-old who heads the party after a landslide leadership victory, is big on participatory politics and firmly anti-austerity. He is also a vocal critic of imperialism, interventionism and military aggression. Coming from a decades-long tradition of grassroots human rights-championing leftist-internationalism, one of the first things Corbyn said during his leadership bid was that Britain should apologise for the Iraq war. Since then, he has signalled his support for a negotiated solution to the war in Syria, spoken out against the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, and made clear his opposition to renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear defence system.
... the struggle for Labour's leader and his supporters will be to reclaim what it means to be pro-British, carving out a space for policies more in line with a Corbyn-style internationalism.
Labour’s foreign policy is yet to be formulated, but its leader’s take is a sharp tack away from the broadly pro-US position that has defined British politics for so long. The trouble for Corbyn is that the parliamentary Labour Party and his hastily appointed shadow cabinet do not necessarily share his views.
His shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, holds sharply divergent beliefs – and the party has already made the differences of opinion known publicly. The trouble for them is that foreign policy for Corbyn is a core part of his political persona and his appeal.
At a time when the British public is cynical over the country’s recent interventions, Corbyn’s message is highly resonant among a reinvigorated electorate, tens of thousands of whom joined the party after Corbyn became leader and thousands of whom turn up to rallies to hear him speak.
Some issues are easier than others. For instance, over the question of Britain’s membership in the EU, which will likely be put to referendum in 2016, there is broad agreement that the UK should stay in, albeit with caveats over strengthening worker’s rights.
Room for manoeuvre
In other areas, there has been room for manoeuvre. Speaking at the recent annual Labour Party conference in Brighton, Hilary Benn said that Labour would support UK action, except the deployment of ground troops, in Syria.
But the next day, a resolution proposed by Britain’s biggest union, Unite, was passed, more in line with Corbyn’s view, that stated the Labour Party would not support a parliamentary vote for military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) unless it had UN support. This resolution was part of a diplomatic push and guaranteed asylum to Syrians fleeing their country.
The resolution isn’t binding, but there is an expectation that MPs will respect it. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to raise the issue in parliament – even though Russian air strikes have clouded the UK’s case for intervention.
Clearly, this Syria vote will be a test of Corbyn’s authority – especially since some 50 to 100 Labour MPs, including shadow cabinet members, have signalled that they might support the Conservative.
On Trident, there’s less wiggle room. When Corbyn, in a TV interview, said he would not launch nuclear weapons if he were prime minister, he sparked criticism from Benn and also shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle. Corbyn is right to claim that his leadership victory has given him a mandate. Moreover, the debate over the renewal of a Cold War-era defence system is long overdue. But, unlike the Syria issue, Trident renewal is the party position and has widespread support.
Panic in the establishment
But other signals made during the Labour leader’s recent speech at a party conference in Brighton indicated the kind of global causes he would bring into the political mainstream. Corbyn called for Cameron to “intervene now, personally” with the Saudi Arabian regime to release Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a blogger condemned to execution. His was a wider shot at Britain’s uncritical ties to the repressive kingdom.
It’s precisely this sort of politics that chimes with large sections of the British public. It also lays out the context of Cameron’s reference, during his speech at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, to Corbyn as holding a “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” ideology.
It would be fair to say there is panic in the British establishment at the potential erosion of their ideological grip on world affairs.
In this context, the struggle for Labour’s leader and his supporters will be to reclaim what it means to be pro-British, carving out a space for policies more in line with a Corbyn-style internationalism.
Support for brutal regimes mixed with military meddling has been ascendant for too long. Perhaps now there’s a glimmer of hope in the UK for a better kind of global politics.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.