Labour manifesto rejects “bomb first, talk later” – but there’s tension in its foreign policy

Symon Hill argues Labour's foreign policy is conflicting

Arms dealers don’t call themselves arms dealers. “Defence industry” is their preferred euphemism for their dirty trade in human lives.

It is a euphemism that seems to have been accepted by the writers of Labour’s manifesto, which declares, “The UK defence industry is world-leading and Labour will continue to work with manufacturers, unions and export partners in line with Labour’s foreign policy to support innovation in this sector”.

My heart sank as I read this. While Jeremy Corbyn is not a pacifist, he is a lifelong opponent of the arms trade. Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith, however, frequently emphasises her support for the “defence industry” and her enthusiasm for military spending.

The tension between these two tendencies within the Labour Party is visible between the lines – and even within the lines – of Labour’s manifesto.

The manifesto states that “Labour will put human rights, international law and tackling climate change at the heart of our international policies”. It rejects what it calls the “’bomb first, talk later’ approach to security”.

This is very welcome indeed. But how does it fit with the statement that Labour will support the arms industry “in line with Labour’s foreign policy”?

The UK is the world’s second biggest arms exporter. Ditching “bomb first, talk later” will surely mean making fewer bombs (and other instruments of war)?

“My heart sank as I read this”

I’m sad to see nothing at all about initiatives to replace the arms industry with alternatives, providing guarantees of re-employing arms workers in industries such as renewable energy. This is just the sort of idea that would fit with the radical approach to policy that Labour takes in other areas.

This is far from being the only contradiction inherent in Labour’s “defence” policies. The manifesto criticises the Conservatives for presiding over a reduction in the size of the armed forces, implying that Labour will increase the numbers. There is no clue as to what these enlarged armed forces will do while the government pursues a policy focused on conflict prevention rather than war.

One encouraging point in the manifesto is a promise of a War Powers Act, to ensure that the government cannot send troops to war without the approval of Parliament.

But despite Corbyn’s statement that he would not press the nuclear button, the manifesto states simply that “Labour supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent”.

This suggests there will be a nuclear weapons system that can be used only with the authority of the Prime Minister, who will refuse to use it.

Admittedly, Labour is not the only party with an incomprehensible policy on nuclear weapons. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto promises a “minimum nuclear deterrent”. Perhaps this will be similar to Trident but somehow “minimum”, so that the millions of people it kills will be slightly less dead.

The Labour manifesto speaks of support for NATO and links NATO with working for peace, as if that were NATO’s purpose. The Lib Dems go further; they are so keen on NATO that they mention it five times in their manifesto.

“The Labour manifesto includes a strong emphasis on nonviolent conflict prevention”

The only main parties in Britain to oppose NATO membership are the Greens and Plaid Cymru, with even the Scottish National Party offering to sign up an independent Scotland to what is basically an aggressive, nuclear-armed military alliance driven by the US. With NATO meeting in London the week before the election, Labour will be under pressure to explain why they are so keen on it.

Labour has been divided over issues of peace and war since at least 1914, when Labour MPs split almost equally over whether to support World War One. As a member of the Peace Pledge Union, which includes supporters of many parties and none, I am glad that there are people within Labour, the Lib Dems and other parties who are seeking to push their parties in a pro-peace direction.

I am delighted that the Labour manifesto includes a strong emphasis on nonviolent conflict prevention and international co-operation, and that it criticises recent military interventions. However, this approach is not compatible with support for the arms industry, enlarged armed forces, Trident and NATO.

If Corbyn enters Downing Street in December, the new government will face some of its most determined opposition from arms dealers and military leaders. If Labour ministers are to pursue their new-look foreign policy, they must be prepared to stand up to them.

Symon Hill is Campaigns Manager of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and a history tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association. The PPU includes supporters of many parties and none.

2 Responses to “Labour manifesto rejects “bomb first, talk later” – but there’s tension in its foreign policy”

  1. Tony

    ‘any prime minister should be extremely cautious about ordering the use of weapons of mass destruction which would result in the indiscriminate killing of millions of innocent civilians’

    This statement appeared in the draft version of Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto.

    However, it was too much for the sick minds of Labour’s nuclear mafia and was thus deleted from the final version. Nor does it appear in the 2019 Labour manifesto.

    The British General Election of 2017 by Philip Cowley and Denis Kavanagh, p182/3.

  2. Tony

    “Labour supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent (sic)”.

    Nuclear deterrence is nothing more than a theory:

    “All our political lives we have been nurtured on the theory of nuclear deterrence.”
    —-David Cameron
    “Call Me Dave” by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, p169.
    If this theory fails, then billions of people will die.

    This is clearly not considered a problem by the likes of Nia Griffith.

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