By Jeremy Black*
(FPRI) — That Jeremy Corbyn, the leader since 2015 of Britain’s Labour Party, the official opposition, has long been linked to anti-Semitism is no news other than to the public. We shall come to some of the relevant aspects, but the point of this note is to look forward, rather than to reiterate the evidence, and in particular to consider the consequences of Corbyn’s anti-Semitic connections for the Anglo-American alliance.
The United States of course has several allies whose culture can scarcely be described as philo-Semitic: think about the depiction of Jews in the media of Egypt and many other states. Yet, for the U.S. and the allies, the key element in these cases is the transactional nature of the relationship. That is not really a prospect if Corbyn wins the next general election, which is due in 2022 by the latest. The attitude of the Trump administration towards Corbyn is already hostile; the ambassador has been reluctant to spend time with him. This is scarcely surprising given the reflex anti-Americanism of Corbyn’s worldview. Happy to present himself as the friend of Hamas and Hezbollah, he had been a keen participant in Russian, Iranian, and Palestinian propaganda fronts. Corbyn also has a longstanding personal and political linkage with Latin American enemies (critics is too soft a term) of the United States, notably in Venezuela and Cuba. He has never seen an anti-American cause he did not want to embrace. In this, indeed, Corbyn has shown consistency throughout his long political career, a point also true of his allies and advisors. Anti-American during the Cold War, they were automatically pro-Soviet. Indeed, it is his hostility to Washington that helps Corbyn justify his support of the Russia of Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, and some in his circle have been willing to take the largesse of Russian propaganda fronts.
Anti-Semitism is an important part of Corbyn’s worldview, though not necessarily a historical position within the Labour party. Among the British political parties, Labour was the natural home for Britain’s Jews in the early- and mid-twentieth century, not least because so many identified with progressive causes. Prominent Labour figures, such as Harold Wilson, the party leader from 1963 to 1976, had Jewish friends and were sympathetic to Israel, seeing both as linked. Tony Blair, Labour leader from 1994 to 2007 and Gordon Brown, leader from 2007 to 2010, were both pro-Israeli, as Brown’s speech in Israel in 2009 made clear. Edward Miliband, leader from 2010 to 2015, is Jewish.
The relationship between Labour and the Jewish community was challenged by Labour radicals from the late 1960s onward. To the Generation of ’68, Israel after the Six Day War was part of the American system—a “neo-imperialist,” “neo-colonialist” power. That background remains all-too-present in their thoughts. Forget the plight of Syrians, Yemenis, or the Turkish Kurds, forget dictatorship or authoritarianism in much of the Islamic world. None of those causes lend themselves to the stale but oh-so-convenient platitudes of anti-Americanism. And for Corbyn and his allies, everything is political. So, it is easy for them to suggest that Diaspora Jews, most of whom support Israel even if they are (like many Israelis) exasperated by aspects of Israeli policy, are part of the problem. Easy to argue that calling attention to Labour anti-Semitism is “weaponizing” criticism of Corbyn. And so on.
Does this matter to the United States? After all, there are Americans who share some or all of these toxic views, and they do not direct American policy. Well, in Britain, the consequences of a Corbyn victory would be very unhappy. First, although in serious decline in relative terms, Britain is still a major power and an important one for the West. In terms of military strength, it is one of the top ten in the world, and in many criteria in the top five. This is particularly so in terms of nuclear capability, naval power, and overall fighting effectiveness. Politically, Britain has links with many states and an ability and willingness to deploy strength in “out-of-area” spheres. It remains one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
For the United States, Britain’s appeal is increased by the problems posed by other allies. Germany is unwilling to invest in defense, and many German politicians appear unable to take a consistent line against Russia. Germany, India, and Japan have not been willing to deploy their forces in meaningful armed conflict to assist the United States. In each case, their relationship with the Americans is heavily transactional.
Within NATO, only Britain and France have serious military capability, and Britain has long tended to be more supportive of American goals and methods. Intelligence links and cybersecurity between the U.S. and Britain are extremely close. This cooperation was shown in American support for action against Russian espionage after the Salisbury poisonings, notably the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and the closing of Russian consulate in Seattle. Far from being Putin’s boy, President Trump backed these major expulsions in support of America’s closest European ally, helping to ensure that Putin could not simply shrug off Britain’s response.
Corbyn poses a danger to intelligence links, both Anglo-American and more generally. These links involve one of Britain’s high-quality contributions to the West’s wellbeing. Apparently, intelligence (including some on Salisbury) is already being withheld from Corbyn at Privy Council level as he and his entourage are not trusted. This is unprecedented in the treatment of the leader of the opposition.
Britain’s role in the West’s protection would be endangered at once by a Corbyn victory. For this, and other reasons, anti-Western powers, notably, but not only, Russia are likely to invest efforts in furthering his cause, just as Russia backs the Scottish nationalists and just as the Soviet Union armed the Provisional IRA. If America’s front line in part runs through Britain, then it is scarcely surprising that Russia wishes to undermine it. To do so would be to help wreck NATO, to make Europe neutralist, to leave Eastern Europe vulnerable, to discourage Japan (with which Britain has close and developing military links), and to undermine the American position in the Middle East.
Well, what to do? There are no easy fixes. Admonishment does not easily work, as President Obama showed in 2016 when he backed Remain during the Brexit referendum campaign. Indeed, such pressure can be counterproductive.
Subversion was long used by the Soviets, notably in Northern Ireland and in backing militant trade unions. In addition, the sudden death in 1963 of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader from 1955, after he had gone to the Soviet embassy for tea, now, in the aftermath of the Salisbury poisoning, looks even more suspicious. It opened the door to Wilson, his left-wing rival, a politician who was less close to America, and who was suspected by MI5 of being pro-Soviet: some of his friends were certainly Soviet agents. Much scholarly work on British political history is innocent of such speculations and of the entire dimension of subversion; which simply shows how naïve it is. Russia does not need to murder Corbyn. Instead, as in the 1980s, it is more likely to align with those wishing murderous harm to British and Western interests.
Corbyn’s election would definitely pose a problem for the United States; although it is worth pausing to note how far a lack of clarity over American policy in the future is not helpful. It is all-too-easy to focus on the travails of the current president, but the likely direction of foreign policy is totally unclear, whether the next administration be led by a Democrat or a Republican. At any rate, all American policymakers need to pay more attention to the problems that will be created if a Corbyn, or Corbyn-like, or even Corbyn-lite, government came to power in Britain. On the present evidence, it would be anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, and with all the noxious accompanying preferences. Trump is certainly not an anti-Semite, and an anti-Semitic British prime minister will probably alienate any American president. Greater clarity from American leadership of both parties about a common American vision for the Atlantic Alliance in general and the Special Relationship in particular is necessary.
The international stance of a notional Corbyn government is perhaps a moot point in geopolitical terms. Yet, there is also a morality at stake in politics, both content and culture. I had initially planned to write this article six months ago, but decided not to do so as I do not like to launch personal attacks. I was wrong. Every man is an enigma to himself and others, but you can know something by considering the reflexes that cast light on their attitudes, as well as by scrutinizing their associates. Jeremy Corbyn fails on every count. Historians shy away from being “judgmental” and leave morality to others. That is also wrong. Rather than being charitable and seeing Corbyn as a “useful idiot” or a “holy fool,” he should be called out as a bad man, a dangerous leader, and a major threat to his country and his party.
About the author:
*Jeremy Black, a Templeton Fellow at FPRI, is professor of history at Exeter University. Jeremy Black’s books include Britain from 1945 to Brexit (Indiana UP), The World of James Bond (Rowman and Littlefield) and Maps of War (Bloomsbury).
This article was published by FPRI.