Syria, British imperialism and the Labour Party: wilful delusions of the British left

The government’s defeat in Parliament over intervention in Syria has led to a predictable increase in delusions amongst the British left. Leaders of Stop the War coalition (STW) at the national demonstration on 31 August in Trafalgar Square, attempted to take full credit for the House of Commons vote. Speaker after speaker, from Tariq Ali to Jeremy Corbyn MP, declared the outcome a victory for the anti-war movement. The defeat of the government is welcome, but we must not be deluded by STW either that the imperialist campaign against Syria has been averted, or that some mass movement is behind the defeat. The Labour Party has been widely held up as an anti-war force. Across the left there have been celebrations and calls to bring down the government. At the heart of these reactions is a wilful misunderstanding of British imperialism and its role in the world. Toby Harbertson reports.

On 29 August two motions were put to the House of Commons to justify air-strikes on Syria. The government’s motion called for a virtually open-ended authorisation to use military force. The Labour Party motion called for a UN resolution, as it wanted air strikes to be deemed ‘legal’ under international law. Labour leader Ed Miliband told Parliament: ‘I am not with those who rule out action, and the horrific events unfolding in Syria ask us to consider all available options.’ Through the tactical manoeuvrings of party politics, both motions were defeated. The Socialist Worker Party (SWP), which has happily supported the ‘Syrian Revolution’ through two years of imperialist intrigue, has attempted to use this to lionise Labour. SWP ideologue Alex Callinicos is so impressed that he has to go back 57 years to find a Labour leader who matches Miliband in his anti-imperialist principles: ‘this isn’t the first time a Labour leader has discovered a bit of a backbone. Hugh Gaitskell opposed the Suez War in 1956’ (3 September 2013). What Callinicos does not tell us is that Gaitskell opposed the Suez war because the US was against it. He stated he would have supported military action against Egypt if Britain had US or UN backing (Suez 1956, Barry Turner, pp231-2). However, the SWP does not want us to see the long-standing link between the Labour Party and British imperialism.

STW has conjured up a non-existent ‘anti-war movement’ to put themselves at the head of. National officer John Rees listed the reasons for Cameron’s defeat in an article on 30 August. Number one was the ‘resistance of the anti-war movement in the UK’, whilst the ‘resistance of the Afghan and Iraqi people’ languished in third place. It is true that polls have shown a huge majority of British people to be against strikes in Syria, but this anti-war feeling is not mobilised or organised. A demonstration called by STW on 28 August hosted the same old list of speakers, from Lindsey German to Diane Abbott MP, who continued their speeches as if nothing had happened when hundreds of activists spontaneously blocked the road outside Downing Street for over an hour to show their disgust at the warmongers inside. Cries of victory by STW serve only to stifle this potential and demobilise opposition to the imperialist war-drive. They have called no significant follow up events to expose the extent of Britain’s covert war in Syria. Presumably the organisers of STW think that the ‘anti-war movement’ deserves a rest.

Counterfire, one of the main groups within STW, carried on in a similar vein. An article on 30 August by Alex Snowdon, stated STW’s ‘long-term strategic aim’ being to ‘break British foreign policy from slavish allegiance to the US’. This ignores Britain’s role as the world’s second largest imperialist power, with interests of its own to protect. Britain has consistently intervened militarily in the Middle East and North Africa since long before the US came onto the scene as a world power. Were Britain’s 48 military interventions in the region since 1945 all at the behest of the US? Snowdon continues, ‘the government suddenly appears weak while its opponents are emboldened.’ Are these opponents the Labour Party, that also supported air-strikes? The same Labour Party that launched war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supported war on Libya?

These dishonest politics serve to support the ruling class agenda, and with this comes all the distortions of the truth which the ruling class media peddle. SWP journalist Judith Orr resorts to open lies to vilify the Syrian government, claiming on 27 August: ‘Assad’s regime has killed more than 100,000 Syrians.’ This goes beyond even the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which records almost half of its 110,371 casualty figure as Syrian military and other forces loyal to the government (31 August). Another SWP writer, Simon Assaf, argues that imperialist intervention ‘will be widely seen in the Arab world as marking the failure of the revolution’, going on to cite anti-imperialist ‘statements on Youtube’ by ‘the Free Syrian Army and Islamist brigades’ (10 September 2013).

Playing down the role of British imperialism in international affairs can only serve to deflect the attention of revolutionaries in Britain away from its necessary focus – the British state in all its brutal, ruthless, reaction. Whether British imperialism is under the mantle of Labour or the Conservatives, it means the same thing for the majority of the working class and oppressed – war, suffering, and brutality. Organising around a clear anti-imperialist perspective, is the only way forward.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013


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