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Domestic splits and foreign policy choices

By GARY KENT 12/9/2018
After an often torrid and horrid summer of nasty and shouty politics, the UK seems to be nearing massive internal and external change. The long tail of the 2008 financial crash is sweeping away long-held assumptions and could split both major parties.

The Conservatives have been politically weakened by the impact of a decade of austerity and the connected bitterness of Brexit, which gobbles up the bandwidth of government. Brexit critics say it could prove disastrous economically. It's possible that it's always darkest before the dawn and that a last minute deal between the UK and the EU is feasible. If that is followed by the consolidation or the dignified departure of the current Conservative leader, Theresa May in favour of a unifying figure willing to tackle the burning injustices she identified it could mean the Tories are out of the woods. There are many big ifs in that equation, however.

Or May could be challenged. It's said that the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson is up for replacing May before she makes the wrong deal with the EU and before we formally leave the EU in March. But it's difficult to distinguish likely moves in all the noise and often coups are unannounced.

But a challenge could unleash a bitter debate judging by the reaction to Johnson's remark that May's negotiating strategy has "...wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to [EU Brexit negotiator] Michel Barnier." His former deputy, Sir Alan Duncan tweeted that this "...marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I'm sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn't now, I will make sure it is later. #neverfittogovern." A Johnson victory could prompt the exit of some centrist Conservatives.

A split of some sort in the Labour Party also seems likely, regardless of the outcome of Brexit, and despite the UK's first past the post electoral system chilling the possibility of electoral success for new entrants.

Brexit divides Labour because most Labour members were for remain while many Labour voters embraced Brexit, and reversing Brexit could lose heartland seats. But Labour's divisions are deeper than even Brexit. Labour has always been a broad church but evangelists cannot stand the sight of some fellow members. Labour centrists have been outraged by an upsurge of anti-Semitism, which dominated party debate over the summer. Labour debate is often vicious and raw.

Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, once an irrelevant, sometimes reviled yet tolerated enclave in the Labour mosaic, have mobilised anger over the neoliberal economic model whose weaknesses and injustices encouraged and were exposed by the crash. Its definition includes market dominance, privatisation, an enabling rather than more active state, low taxes, light regulation of finance capital, and weak labour bargaining power, plus austerity to preserve that balance.

They have inspired hundreds of thousands of people to join the party, Corbyn survived a coup by the vast majority of Labour MPs, won a fresh internal election, and did much better than expected in the last election. They now have full control of the party and local members are seeking the scalps of dissenting high-profile Labour MPs in deselection campaigns. They say it is their party, the old guard has failed, and they want their people to be its representatives.

Labour is increasingly a new party where its leader and many members scorn its legacy, whether it is support for Nato, support for the state of Israel, scepticism about Russia, and economic strategy seen as too business-friendly. There is an overwhelming loathing of Tony Blair. Jon Lansman – one of Corbyn's key lieutenants - says "Tony Blair was never in the right party and there will never be a return to his politics in UK Labour."

Key to their antagonism to Blair is Iraq, which is seen as an utter disaster, based on deceit and toadying to President Bush, the cause of the deaths of a half a million or a million people in Iraq, and the partial cause of the rise of Daesh.

There is much more to this debate: there were genuine problems with Saddam that needed to be solved for the sake of the peace and the safety of the Kurds in particular; Baathist resistance to Saddam's overthrow was inevitable while one can argue that American actions in particular worsened things; Al Qaeda and then Daesh emerged from this and maybe would not have got traction if Saddam has survived although we will never know how his decreasingly secular regime would have behaved; and Al Qaeda and Daesh gained momentum because Baghdad, under new management, continued to apply the centralised model of governance, which alienated many Sunnis and drove them towards Daesh in desperation.

I have given talks about Kurdistan and these issues to Labour meetings and have been received warmly because there is some understanding of how important the overthrow of Saddam was to the Kurds. But it's quite different on Twitter, where so much "debate" now takes place, and where any appeal to consider the context of the liberation of Iraq and the possibilities for a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy will be slapped down often in the vilest possible way with accusations of bad faith. I still fail to understand why some opposed the use of airstrikes by the UK to stop Daesh taking control of Kurdistan or to stop Daesh in Syria. There is little or no possibility of persuading many activists that there was any merit in the invasion of Iraq: a generation defines it forever and deeply in the worst possible light.

If the Conservatives are pole axed by Brexit, Corbyn's Labour Party could be in pole position to win an election and that will have a radical impact on British foreign policy in a swirl of change. Brexit means that the UK is no longer necessarily tied to EU foreign policy and the UK and Europe have to respond to America's abandonment or reduction of activity and alliances, unless President Trump falters or is impeached.

The battle to convince political activists and the wider British public that British military, economic and political power can be a force for good remains vital to those who can see circumstances in which long-suffering peoples like the Kurds are going to need help.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has this week issued a report arguing that in specific circumstances, proportionate and necessary force should be available to use as a last resort to alleviate extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale. It concludes that its absence can result in grave consequences for civilians and that the price of inaction in Syria has been unacceptably high.  It adds that the UK must bear its share of the responsibility for the atrocity crimes in Syria and examine the repercussions of its decisions not to do more on its own or collectively. An independent inquiry, it says, into the decision-making processes would enable lessons to be learned to prevent similar humanitarian crises happening in the future and offer a more effective response.

Let's hope such wise counsel does not get lost in the swirl of events. The coming few months will be decisive for the UK and its place in the world.

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


The Kurdish Painter | 12/9/2018
An excelent piece of writing , for a long time missed. Thank your Gary
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