The Labour leadership frontrunner comes from a rich tradition of British dissenters from left and right, from William Cobbett to Thomas Paine
With barely two weeks to go until the election of a new Labour leader, a British establishment project has been launched to stop Jeremy Corbyn at any cost.
Plan A involves halting Corbyn before he reaches the winning post. Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, Alastair Campbell and most of the leading Blairites have already been deployed.
Their mission looks like failing. So Plan B is also in place in the event Corbyn wins. The intention is to make it quite impossible for the MP for Islington North to lead the Labour Party.
Most of the mainstream media as well as the majority of Labour MPs and party donors are part of this conspiracy to nobble the front-runner.
Even though I do not share many of his views, the purpose of this article is to make the case for Mr Corbyn. My argument will be a familiar one to those who follow political events across the Muslim world.
The Western powers always assert that they support democracy. But the truth is different. The West only likes democracy when democracy produces the right result. When it produces the wrong result the West dislikes democracy very much indeed.
In Iran in 1953, in Algeria in 1992, in Egypt in 2011, Muslim leaders swept to power on a powerful popular mandate.
However, Iranian nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, as much as Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2011, failed to fit in with Western agendas and both were soon swept away in coup d’etats.
(The same happens in Europe. In 1992 Danish voters opposed the Maastricht Treaty and European monetary union. They were made to vote again. Likewise the Irish voted down the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, and were made to vote again in order to secure the correct result.)
Some Labour strategists envisage that Jeremy Corbyn should be duly defenestrated if he becomes Labour leader in 15 days time - so that Labour supporters can be made to vote again. I am not a Labour voter, let alone a member of the Labour Party with a vote in the current election. However, I am certain this would be a disaster for British public life.
Mr Corbyn is the most interesting figure to emerge as a leader of a British political party for many years.
This is because he stands for a distinct set of ideas and beliefs which set a new agenda in British politics. If he wins on 12 September, he will be the first party leader to come from right outside the British mainstream since Margaret Thatcher in 1975.
Thatcher defied the British economic and social establishment, outraging powerful interests within her own party and the country at large as she did so.
If he becomes Labour leader, Corbyn will come up hard against the British foreign policy establishment.
For two decades both main parties have shared the same verities about British foreign policy. They have regarded Britain as automatically subservient to the United States. This in turn has meant that we have interpreted the partnership with the Gulf dictatorships - such as Saudi Arabia and UAE - as central to Britain’s Middle East focus, while taking the side of the Israeli state against the Palestinians.
No matter which party was technically in power, British foreign policy has remained unchanged. David Cameron is indistinguishable in foreign policy terms to Tony Blair. (Indeed, the former prime minister has become one of Mr Cameron’s most valued foreign policy advisors.)
Jeremy Corbyn would smash this consensus.
To understand the background, it is helpful to read a work by Britain’s greatest 20th century historian, AJP Taylor. In 1957 Taylor published The Troublemakers, a compelling study of the dissenting tradition in British politics. “A man can disagree with a particular line of British foreign policy while still accepting its general assumptions,” wrote Taylor. “The Dissenter repudiates its aims, its methods, its principles.”
Corbyn is the most prominent modern representative of the British dissenting tradition as identified by AJP Taylor. This means that his antecedents include Tom Paine, author of the Rights of Man and supporter of the American revolutionaries against the British redcoats at the time of US independence.
They also include William Cobbett, who had to flee Britain to find a home in the United States in the days when the US lived up the principles of its founding fathers and really did support freedom, justice and democracy. John Bright, the liberal politician who more than anyone else stopped Britain intervening in the American civil war on the side of the confederacy, is another.
AJP Taylor’s dissenters are by no means always right. Most of them were against war with Hitler. But they also opposed the Boer War and World War One (Ramsay McDonald resigned the chairmanship of the Labour Party and Lord Morley resigned from the cabinet in protest against the war with Germany in 1914) and the 1956 seizure of the Suez Canal. In general they are Little Englanders, opposed to foreign adventures of any kind.
They tend to be unpopular and isolated. But Taylor noted that “if you want to know what the foreign policy of this country will be in 20-30 years time, find out what the Dissenting minority are saying now”.
Let’s now examine Jeremy Corbyn’s own record. He opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He argued for talks with the IRA long before this became official policy. He has been ridiculed for talking to Hamas and Hezbollah. By one of the deeper ironies of modern history Tony Blair is now (as Middle East Eye recently revealed) in discussion with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, in which enterprise he has the backing of David Cameron.
Most people would agree that on the most intractable foreign policy issues of our time Corbyn has tended to be right and the British establishment has tended to be wrong. What Corbyn does or thinks today is likely to be vindicated a few years later. Hard though it is for the British establishment to stomach, Corbyn’s foreign policy ideas have generally been more balanced and far-sighted than those of his opponents.
This certainly does not mean that he is always right. I believe that he has been naïve about Vladimir Putin, ruler of an authoritarian state which is founded on corruption and violence. He has been unwise to contemplate British withdrawal from NATO.
Denis Healey, who as Labour’s international secretary played a role in shaping Clement Attlee’s successful post-war foreign policy, was withering when Tony Benn (another antecedent of Corbyn) proposed this idea: “deserting all our allies and then preaching them a sermon”. Corbyn is open to a similar charge.
I would defend Mr Corbyn’s personal talks with terrorists. But terrorist and extremist groups need to be confronted, and their ideology rejected, even when one seeks dialogue with them.
Nevertheless Corbyn is our only current hope of any serious challenge to a failed orthodoxy. Blair and Cameron have both adopted a foreign policy based on subservience rather than partnership with the United States, which has done grave damage to British interests.
In the Middle East this approach has ensured that we are confronting a growing terrorist threat in the region with an ever-decreasing base in popular support, and actually hated by an ever-growing population who identify Britain with their oppressors. There is no country in the Middle East, or around the world, where Britons are safer, or can do business more securely, as a result of Blairite policy.
Mr Corbyn’s critics always claim that they want democracy. But do they really? They only want democracy, so long as democracy does not threaten the interests of their powerful backers.
They want a democracy which leaves everything the same. Corbyn is mounting a direct and open challenge to the British system of government of international alliances as they have worked since Tony Blair became Labour Party leader. If he wins, he must be allowed to lead his party and to make his case.
- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as Chief Political Columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying;and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye
Photo credit: Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn MP (AFP)