Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party. London: Biteback Publishing, 2019.
Eric Shaw has frequently written for Inroads about U.K. politics, with special emphasis on the Labour Party. In early 2019 he and a colleague published a book on the changing attitudes toward British foreign policy among Labour leaders since World War II. This is a subject of historical importance, but also a subject immediately relevant given the Brexit debate and the foreign policy attitudes of Jeremy Corbyn and his close advisers. We decided to review the book through a series of email exchanges between Eric and me.
— John Richards
JOHN RICHARDS: The book that you and your colleague recently published is unique. I know no other book that attempts to analyze British identity and foreign policy over the last century in terms of the role of the Labour Party. Central to your analysis is categorizing the beliefs of Labour leaders into “traditional patriots”, “radical patriots”, “liberal internationalists” and “socialist internationalists.” Can you give readers a succinct idea of what you mean by each of these four categories and an iconic example of someone belonging to each? My own choices are Ernest Bevin for the first and, to be topical, Jeremy Corbyn for the fourth. Not sure of my choices for the other two categories.
ERIC SHAW: These are ideal types. In practice, most Labour politicians have exhibited features from more than one type, though one element tends to predominate.
I’ve called this strand of opinion “traditional” because it was largely an expression of mainstream patriotic thinking, albeit with a labourist inflection. It reflected a belief in British “exceptionalism”: that in its love of liberty, its pragmatic spirit, its tolerance and its robust parliamentary institutions, the British state possessed a unique capacity both for domestic progressive social reform and for exercising a benevolent influence on world affairs.
This respect for the institutions of the British state historically predisposed traditional patriots to a largely benign, if by no means uncritical, attitude toward the British Empire. While condemning the reluctance to reform and the occasional resort to repression, traditional labourist patriots regarded the Empire as a whole as a progressive and enlightened force. Indeed, though the post–World War II Labour government (1945–51) granted independence to India, Ernest Bevin, the pugnacious and immensely influential Foreign Secretary and an iconic figure of Labour’s traditional patriotism, was unwavering in his attachment to the longstanding Empire state axioms and objectives of British overseas policy.
When Labour returned to power in 1964, after 13 years in opposition, much of the British Empire had disappeared. Still, inspired by traditional patriotism, the party leadership continued to insist on the vital importance of Britain’s global mission and hence of maintaining a worldwide network of bases, installations and military forces – until stark economic realities belatedly compelled retrenchment. The influence of traditional patriotism lingers, not least with the continued attachment of many on the party’s right wing to Britain’s allegedly “independent” nuclear deterrent.
This is the old radical tradition in which patriotism is equated not with the pageantry and pomp of Empire but with the long struggles of “free-born Englishmen” to break the chains of wealth, power and privilege.
The radical patriot par excellence was George Orwell. He made a much-quoted distinction between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” By “nationalism” he meant “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” It was all about national aggrandizement, fired by the twin presumptions that one’s own country was better than others and had an absolute claim on people’s loyalties.
By “patriotism,” Orwell meant “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” His understanding of patriotism also informed his ethical socialism, the belief that socialism was not an abstract, arid doctrine but the translation of working-class communal and egalitarian values into organized political and legislative action. Radical patriotism’s finest hour was the decade of the 1940s when, during both the fight against Nazi Germany and the postwar period of reconstruction, Labour tapped a popular mood in which popular patriotism was equated with the drive to social equality, articulated in notions of social citizenship and given legislative expression in the universal welfare state. Thereafter its influence faltered, though it has experienced a revival in recent years.
It is difficult to find one single figure who encapsulates liberal internationalism – perhaps Roy Hattersley, deputy Labour leader from 1983 to 1992, comes closest – but its influence has been pervasive. Its earliest advocates were radical members of the pre–World War I Liberal Party, most of whom defected to Labour after the war. It sprang from a critique of the rampant nationalism which, in the view of liberal internationalists, helped precipitate World War I; more broadly, it sprang from a deep unease with any form of patriotism. For liberal internationalists, any version of patriotism that eulogized the nation, asserted “my country right or wrong” or demanded unthinking obedience to the state was morally objectionable and politically dangerous, even disastrous. As the historian David Olusoga recently wrote, “The waving of flags, the chanting of chants and the surrender of individuality to the emotion of the crowd, none of this traditionally warms the liberal heart.”
Liberal internationalism exhibited a strong antipathy to overseas entanglements, to the piling up of armaments and the reliance on force as an instrument of policy. Whereas traditional patriots, such as Bevin, were eager advocates of nuclear weaponry because it enabled the U.K. to “punch above its weight,” liberal internationalists were sharp critics and were heavily involved in the 1950s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other antimilitaristic organizations.
Liberal internationalists were convinced that international conflicts could be most effectively resolved through international conciliation and recourse to the UN. Its spirit was clearly seen in vehement opposition by many in the Labour Party to U.K. military intervention in Iraq post-2003.
Liberal internationalism can also be said to underpin pro-European – now dubbed “Remainer” – sentiment in the Labour Party. The characteristic features are very similar: a preference for international cooperation over national self-assertion, a cosmopolitan outlook and a tolerant and outward-looking spirit.
This tendency emanated from Marxist doctrines that saw any form of patriotism as ideologically and politically regressive, and all claims to national identity and allegiance as specious. Politics was essentially the conflict between political formations expressing rival class interests and visions, and the only true loyalty of workers was toward their own class in their own and other countries. Appeals to national sentiment were spurious and meretricious, designed to camouflage the reality of irreconcilable class antagonism.
Socialist internationalism was confined to the more radical fringes of the Labour left, and of all the four strands has had by far the least influence on the party – until the wholly unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. His many political pronouncements over the years have registered sympathy for what came to be the key precepts of socialist internationalism in the years after 1945: a belief that loyalties and solidarities of class trumped those of the nation, an ingrained suspicion of British patriotism in any shape or form, fervent opposition to imperialism (especially of the American variety) coupled with a fervent championing of Third World liberation movements and, perhaps most of all, a deep hostility to the United States and the Atlantic Alliance.
JOHN RICHARDS: It is easy to find examples of British imperial sins: the Opium Wars, the violent overreaction to the Sepoy rebellion in Delhi, the Boer War, the killing of 400 demonstrators in Amritsar. But arguably, the “traditional patriots” in Labour played a valuable role in aiding parts of the Empire to make the perilous transition from feudal or tribal society to modernity. Sidney Webb had a significant influence on the evolution of social policy in Sri Lanka (currently by far the most prosperous South Asian country). Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee devoted a lot of energy to trying to halt escalating communal hostility in India in the 1940s and find a federal solution for Indian independence, based on the Canadian precedent. And Ernest Bevin was among the most astute participants in the Israel-Palestine conundrum.
One of the ironies of Labour under Corbyn is not only his rejection of any version of British patriotism but his advocacy of a crude “Third World” Marxism that lacks realistic analysis of actual Third World politics. A recent example is his unqualified support of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela. His stance brings to mind Marx’s famous comment on Napoleon III: the reign of Napoleon I was ultimately a tragedy, that of his nephew a farce. Is the comparison fair?
ERIC SHAW: As I remarked earlier, our four categories are meant as ideal types. In practice, the actual makeup of politicians comprised elements from more than one category, and the politicians displayed significant variations even when one element was predominant. For example, Attlee, who had a longstanding interest in India, was more of a reformer and less committed to maintaining the Empire than Bevin, who was very much a dyed-in-the-wood traditional patriot. Incidentally, Bevin’s posture on the Israel-Palestine issue was mainly driven by his determination to maintain British paramountcy in the Middle East. Herbert Morrison, who succeeded him as Foreign Secretary, shared this outlook. The views of Stafford Cripps evolved in the 1940s, as he drifted quite rapidly from being leader of the left (influenced superficially by Marxist notions) to being one of the “Big Three” (with Attlee and Bevin) of the postwar government.
The implication of your question is that British colonial rule, with all its faults, has been unfairly maligned by left-wing critics who disregard its achievements. Given my scanty knowledge, I’m hesitant to make a judgement, but I am broadly sympathetic to your view. I also agree with your view of Corbyn. His perception of the world is a rather simplistic semi-Marxist one, in which players can be separated into two camps: the imperialists, driven by the United States and its allies, and the anti-imperialists. I suspect that Corbyn’s benign view of Vladimir Putin’s right-wing nationalist autocracy is influenced by the fact that it is a check on American power.
How far Corbyn’s views are shared among his supporters is difficult to say – they are very much a minority in the Labour shadow cabinet. Instinctive anti-Americanism has always been present in much of the Labour Party, a sentiment greatly strengthened by the election of Donald Trump. Corbyn’s view of the world would be echoed among the various Trotskyist and other far-left elements that have recently joined the Labour Party, and by some union leaders (notably Unite’s Len McCluskey). These far-left groups are a minority, even among the Corbyn left, and Corbyn’s enthusiasm for Chávez and Maduro, in my guess, is not widely shared.
A final point: what would happen to the conduct of British foreign policy if Labour were to be elected? My feeling is that there would be changes of some significance, but by no means as radical as some might anticipate. This is for two broad reasons. First, the bulk of Labour frontbenchers and MPs would not want a radical rupture from traditional alliances – certainly not the current shadow foreign and defence secretaries. Second, I cannot see how Corbyn could mobilize a coalition of forces willing and able to drive through fundamental changes in the teeth of opposition from the Foreign Office, the security and intelligence services and the military.
JOHN RICHARDS: Before we move to more recent events, what about Clement Attlee? Last year, Adam Gopnik (expat Canadian Jew from Montreal, now living in New York) wrote about Attlee, concluding that he played a crucial role in assuring that appeasement Tories did not prevail in May 1940, that his role in the communal war in India was constructive and that, better than any subsequent leader, he successfully contained the sectarian factionalism within Labour.1 What relevance if any does his legacy have for Labour in this century?
ERIC SHAW: Attlee’s standing is high at the moment. This is true in the academic community, where he was voted the best peacetime prime minister in the 20th century, and also within the Labour Party. John Bew’s much-applauded biography has reinforced this.2 In his lifetime, he was often overshadowed by other apparently more forceful and more charismatic figures, such as Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan, Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps. But his reputation has steadily risen and his government is widely admired (among progressives) for achieving the most impressive program of social reform ever seen in the U.K.
On appeasement, Attlee did play a major role, though it should be said he very much articulated the will of the party. On India, this was an area where he had a longstanding interest. He understood that there was no alternative to independence and, eventually, partition. But given the bloodshed that accompanied partition, the solution was far from an unalloyed success. On the Middle East, Attlee had reservations about the U.K.’s global pretensions in the area – that Britain should strive to survive as the paramount power in the Middle East, as urged by his Foreign Secretary and close political ally, Ernest Bevin. He eventually gave way to Bevin. As a result, much money was wasted to maintain a policy that was unsustainable.
On factionalism, Attlee’s position was interesting. It was different from that of his successor, Hugh Gaitskell, though similar to that of Gaitskell’s successor, Harold Wilson. Attlee seems to have maintained a good relationship with the left’s leader, Nye Bevan and, indeed, in the early 1950s, when factional divisions deepened, he blocked a foolhardy attempt by the right to expel Bevan. He was by instinct a conciliator and a good listener, who placed a high priority on maintaining party unity. He believed in managing the party via deft compromise, give-and-take and mutual accommodation.
The relevance for today is striking – not least with the aborted attempt by some of Corbyn’s advisers this past summer to remove Tom Watson as deputy leader. Attlee was a pluralist, whereas the ascendant Corbynistas are democratic centralists. I don’t mean the degenerate Leninist version of democratic centralism. Corbyn’s leadership style is to make decisions by ramming through the majority view rather than striving for some form of consensus. Also, his style is impatient of dissent, insistent on its claim to occupy the moral high ground, and inclined to see opponents as being animated by self-seeking and opportunistic motives.
Nothing could be further from Attlee’s style of leadership.
JOHN RICHARDS: In 1973, under a Conservative government, the U.K. ultimately joined the European Economic Community (EEC), as the European Union was then called. Then as now, the Labour Party was divided and, when it returned to power the following year, it agreed to conduct a referendum on whether to stay in the EEC. In the 1975 referendum, two thirds favoured staying in. What were the major bones of contention among senior Labour leaders?
ERIC SHAW: In the early 1970s, Labour was more seriously and evenly divided over membership in what was then the EEC than it is now. Divisions ran roughly along left-right lines: the left was almost solidly hostile to membership and most of the right was in favour, but with a large section on the centre-right either oscillating or opposing membership. In retrospect, we can see that Wilson managed the differences deftly and with considerable acumen. His own position was often ambiguous and he later complained that he “waded in shit” to hold the party tighter while others flaunted their integrity and consistency.
There were three major sources of contention. The first was damage to the Commonwealth, particularly to the economic links with the white Commonwealth. The second was erosion of parliamentary sovereignty that EEC membership would entail. And third, many feared the constraints that EEC membership would place on Labour’s capacity to pursue a socialist economic program.
The first point was particularly important to Hugh Gaitskell, party leader from 1955 to his unexpected death in 1963. Shortly before his death, he made a forceful speech before the Labour Party conference in opposition to the U.K. joining the EEC. Most of Gaitskell’s followers, such as Roy Jenkins, disagreed strongly with his views, but a few on the centre-right (notably Douglas Jay and Peter Shore) remained strong opponents of membership, mostly on economic grounds.
The second point was shared by both left and right, but the most fervent exponent was Michael Foot, the leading left-winger and senior cabinet minister from 1974 to 1979.
The third point was confined to the left. In the 1970s, the left developed the “Alternative Economic Strategy,” which involved a highly interventionist industrial policy, a major extension of public ownership and, to combat the U.K.’s balance of payments deficit, import controls. To varying degrees, the planks of this program were not compatible with EEC membership. Tony Benn, who had recently shifted from a centrist, pro-EEC political position to a much more left-wing and anti-EEC one, became the left’s major champion.
The party was divided down the middle. Feelings were intense on both sides, though there was a very important balancing group, which was basically in favour of membership but had as its first priority maintaining party unity. This group included the party’s most formidable leaders: Harold Wilson, his successor Jim Callaghan, the guru of social democracy Tony Crosland and, from 1974, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey,
Tony Benn first floated the idea of a referendum to reconcile divisions in the party. Most were dismissive, but Jim Callaghan presciently remarked that the referendum idea was “a little rubber life raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb.” Wilson in 1973 seized on this, committing a Labour government to “renegotiate the terms of entry” and then hold a referendum. The renegotiation was mainly a symbolic exercise but the government claimed it a success and the centre and right more or less united in favour of a Yes vote in the referendum.
In the referendum the Labour vote was split but solid Conservative and Liberal majorities gave a two-thirds majority to those backing membership.
Fast forward to 1983: a left-wing majority in the National Executive Committee (Labour’s central committee) adopted a manifesto pledge committing a Labour government to quit the EEC – without a referendum. In the election that year Labour was crushed and the issue effectively disappeared – for a while.
JOHN RICHARDS: In 1983, Labour ran on a platform labelled by its Labour critics as “the world’s longest suicide note.” On foreign policy, it called for unilateral U.K. nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community.
Two decades later Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, sent troops to Sierra Leone, an intervention that more or less worked as planned. For this initiative Blair was recently congratulated in an unexpected place, the New York Review of Books.3 However, Blair also actively supported the U.S.-led military coalition that removed Saddam from power in Iraq – a not so successful intervention.
How should Blair’s role be interpreted? Saddam was arguably a despot in the tradition of Pol Pot and other 20th-century genocidal dictators. Does this mean Blair was the epitome of the traditional patriotism category in Labour? On the other hand, many in Labour perceive U.S. and U.K. military intervention in the Middle East as unjustifiable support of the interests of multinational oil companies and of U.S. hegemony. Given this interpretation, should the conclusion be that Blair betrayed British left-wing traditions of support for national independence movements and multinational institutions such as the UN (which refused to support the intervention)?
ERIC SHAW: The first point to stress is the tradition of bipartisanship between the two major parties in the conduct of foreign policy. This was first established by Bevin in the postwar Labour government, with the endorsement of the bulk of the cabinet. It continued until the early 1980s. In effect, bipartisanship meant that Labour accepted conventional definitions of the national interest and security requirements. All this was very much in line with what I called traditional patriotism. The 1983 manifesto represented a major break, over NATO, nuclear weaponry and Europe, but this was soon abandoned.
Blair was responsible for three major interventions: in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and Iraq. Corbyn and his allies were consistent in opposing all three, but a majority in the party supported the first two, applauded as humanitarian interventionism. Blair justified a doctrine of liberal internationalism in his speech in Chicago in 2002, a major speech in which he urged the responsibility to intervene when basic human rights were being seriously and systemically violated. His position drew upon the traditions of liberal internationalism, which emphasized the humanitarian responsibilities of government, something that has always resonated within Labour ranks.
Iraq was much more controversial within the party. Partly this was simply a matter of scale – both previous interventions were localized firefighting, whereas the Iraq war was full-scale military combat, with massive casualties. A second point: the chief justification of British involvement was not humanitarian but the (alleged) threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, whose existence had, at the outbreak of war, not been conclusively proved (recall Hans Blix’s statement to the UN). Reservations about the wisdom of the action were by no means confined to the left – many within the Foreign Office shared them. Finally, the failure to secure UN approval was very important, given Labour’s (somewhat inflated) conception of the UN’s contribution to international cooperation and peacekeeping.
There is now a very large body of literature about why Blair was so keen to commit troops – he could have followed Harold Wilson’s precedent in Vietnam and simply offered diplomatic support. The crucial reason, in my view, was Blair’s desire to sustain “the special relationship.” My guess is that the security and intelligence services and the Defence Department, all with very strong links to the United States, would have lobbied hard for this. Cultivating the closest possible relationship with the United States was a cardinal principle of Blair’s approach to foreign policy, as it has been to his predecessors, and was seen as crucial to Britain’s security and military interests. It was also seen as the only way in which an economically much-diminished country could continue to bestride the international stage (“punch above its weight” in the much-used phrase) by acting, for example, as a “bridge” between the United States and the EU. In contrast, economic factors – oil – were, in my view, not of much significance for Blair.
JOHN RICHARDS: Corbyn’s foreign policy displays obvious links to the foreign policy pursued by Michael Foot as leader in the early 1980s. Like Foot, Corbyn is sceptical of U.K. membership in the European Union. He may have opposed the Brexit deal proposed by Theresa May, but he clearly favours some version of Brexit. For a Canadian audience, it would be helpful to describe his thinking about the European Union.
As we write (in late October), we do not know whether the U.K. will leave the EU during the latest deadline extension (to the end of January 2020). Corbyn faces a dilemma: the majority of Labour Party supporters favour continued EU membership, whereas Corbyn’s supporters favour some version of Brexit. In polls, Labour support has declined dramatically from results in the 2017 election – from 40 per cent to about 25 per cent in recent polls – and many Labour supporters have switched their support to the centrist LibDems, who now enjoy popular support near that of Labour. Let us leave aside the matter of the forthcoming general election, scheduled for December 12. What do you think is the probable fate of the Labour Party over the next decade?
ERIC SHAW: Let’s divide this into three questions: What, formally, is Corbyn’s public position on Brexit? What does he really feel about Brexit? And what do his supporters want?
Any answer to these questions must be a little speculative because we don’t have solid and reliable evidence. That said, my thoughts are as follows:
The position that Corbyn publicly affirms is that he wants a form of soft Brexit in which the U.K. remains a member of a customs union (not the customs union); that the U.K. should be “closely aligned” with, though not part of, the single market; and that a Labour Brexit should protect jobs, investment, and workers’, environmental and consumer rights. The problem with these vague conditions is that they amount to the U.K. being a “rule taker” and not a “rule maker.” In other words, Britain would be bound by EU rules and laws, but be in no position to participate in formulating the rules and laws.
In addition, Corbyn insists that Britain should have the right to pursue an interventionist industrial policy not constrained by EU regulations restricting state aids. The problem here is that if the U.K. is to be “closely aligned” with the single market, it will have to conform to state aid regulations.
A look into his past reveals that Corbyn has been a lifelong Eurosceptic. He has regarded the EU as embedded in free-market principles, allergic to state interventions and public ownership, and to a large extent a vehicle for the promotion of corporate interests. Whatever his exact views now, he certainly is no Europhile. He doesn’t appear to be disturbed by the U.K. quitting the EU, provided it is done on the “right” terms. Over the years, his emphasis on international solidarity has never extended to Europe. He has shown little interest in cooperating with Labour’s sister European parties. Further, the prism through which he views world affairs is the struggle between imperialism and anti-imperialism, and in that prism the EU’s position is at best deemed equivocal.
You suggest that “Corbyn’s supporters favour some version of Brexit.” It depends what you mean by “supporters.” If you mean rank-and-file Corbynistas organized in the Momentum pressure group, the majority of his supporters are emphatically Remainers. However, the Corbyn inner circle, his most senior advisers – such as Strategy and Communications Director Seumas Milne, Special Political Advisor Andrew Murray, and the head of Labour’s general election campaign, Karie Murphy – are all strong Eurosceptics, and very tepid about a second referendum. But in this inner circle, there are tensions. Corbyn’s longtime close political ally, the highly influential shadow chancellor John McDonnell, is increasingly associated with a strong pro-Remain and pro–second referendum posture.
Finally, what about Labour voters? Two thirds of those who voted Labour in the 2017 general election had voted Remain in the 2016 referendum; one-third were Leave voters. But to complicate matters, two thirds of Labour MPs represent Leave-majority constituencies. A significant number (though a minority) of Labour MPs with seats in the North and Midlands (traditional Labour strongholds) fear they will lose their seats if the party is closely associated with Remain and a second referendum. These, more than radical leftists, comprise the majority of Labour Brexiteers. The large majority of Labour MPs are themselves Remainers, who have been consistently warning (rightly) that the LibDems are siphoning off Labour Remain voters.
As for the future: it now seems that the 2017 election, which witnessed a major upsurge of support for the two major parties (over 80 per cent of the vote) was an aberration. We now have, in effect, a six-party system: Labour, Tories, Scottish National Party, LibDems, Greens and Brexit Party. Only the first three are guaranteed to win a significant number of seats (the SNP will probably win around 90 per cent of seats in Scotland).
Not only is the U.K. party system externally fragmented, but it is also internally so, with both the Conservatives and the Labour Party seriously divided internally. If the Tories win the December election – which is likely – they will (helped by their strong survival instincts) mend their differences. If Labour performs badly – which is likely – I anticipate a veritable civil war (helped by its “Thanatos instinct”) as the radical left digs in, blaming “the centrists” for the party’s defeat. The major problem for Labour is to find a credible leader to succeed Corbyn, who will certainly resign. If there is a no-holds-barred struggle for the succession, I can even imagine the party permanently splintering.