Context? Who needs context! James Strong, Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion

Context? Who needs context! James Strong, Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Political Studies Association blog
5 November 2015

On 23 September 2015 James Strong wrote a blog titled ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s views on British defence policy lie far outside the mainstream’. I replied to this blog on 15 October 2015. Strong has now replied to my response.

I have a number of criticisms of Strong’s response, which I’ll go through below. However, the key part of this blog is the last part which focusses on what I consider to be the most productive and worthwhile aspect of this debate – trying to move the conversation beyond the basic poll data to look at the context – the hugely unequal power relations and propaganda – that are central to any discussion of Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion.

You can’t be neutral on a moving train

Strong begins by attempting to subtly undermine my argument by intimating my broadly pro-Corbyn politics have clouded my judgement, leading me to conflate “whether Corbyn’s views are a) right, b) representative and c) likely to shift the mainstream towards his position.” As I think it is the content of one’s argument that should be central to discussions, I won’t respond to this other than to say we are all, of course, biased. As the American historian Howard Zinn was fond of repeating, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train. The world is already moving in certain directions – many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.” Indeed, by referring to Trident as an “independent nuclear deterrent” (it’s not, as Corbyn knows), not putting scare quotes around or the words “so-called” before the phrase “war on terrorism”, stating the 2001 attack on Afghanistan was supported by the United Nations Security Council (this is highly debatable – see below) and defining mainstream opinion as mainstream parliamentary opinion (see below), Strong inadvertently highlights his own establishment-friendly sympathies.

Criticising a straw-man

By basing his arguments on ‘my’ assertion that “Corbyn’s views on foreign policy issues are representative of the electorate as a whole” Strong is attempting to knock down something of a straw man. This sentence is not mine, but written by the one of the editors at Open Democracy – presumably to entice readers to read my article. My actual conclusion was more nuanced: “Corbyn’s positions on the big foreign policy questions has the support of significant sections of public opinion, and majorities on Iraq and Afghanistan – arguably the two biggest foreign policy questions since 2001.” My point was to highlight where Corbyn did reflect public opinion – on the two biggest and most intensely felt foreign policy issues of recent times – and also to consider why he may not on other issues. (I should say Strong is correct to point out I misrepresented John Curtice’s quote about public opinion and Trident as being about the UK, when it was about Scotland. This was a mistake and I’ve added a comment at the bottom of my original article correcting this).

Confusion over what constitutes mainstream opinion

Strong seems to be confused about what constitutes ‘mainstream opinion’. For example, he argues “I thought the whole point of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for Labour Party leader was that he is not mainstream.” I can’t speak for everyone who supported Corbyn, or his campaign team, but Strong’s description doesn’t fit with the debates that I was aware of and wrote about myself. Corbyn supporters commonly had a more nuanced, reality-based understanding than Strong. Far from not being mainstream, many people supporting Corbyn’s leadership bid understood that many of Corbyn’s positions had large scale support amongst the general public but not in the mainstream media or in Westminster. The mainstream media’s ignorance of this paradox was likely one of the reasons why many commentators were shocked when Corbyn started to pick up significant levels of support in the contest.

This explanation goes some way to responding to Strong’s belief that I contradict myself because my point that “Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, if he is given a fair hearing, should significantly widen the debate on foreign policy, bringing long excluded voices, arguments and facts into the public debate” sits in opposition to my belief Corbyn represents mainstream opinion on key issues. Strong: “Corbyn can’t simultaneously represent the mainstream and the marginalised.” To be clear, Corbyn and many of his views have been marginalised for a long time. At the same time his positions on issues like Iraq, Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Libya and Trident, have received large scale public support despite being marginalised by the media and parliamentary politics. This is the key point – and a hopeful one at that, because a widening of the national debate may well increase support for Corbyn’s broad positions.

Strong himself falls into the trap of defining mainstream opinion as mainstream parliamentary opinion when he argues that because Corbyn “was amongst just 2% of MPs who voted against no-fly zones in Libya” it was not “a mainstream stance at the time.” Defining what is mainstream opinion by what is happening in parliament is, of course, a very Westminster-focussed, elitist view of British politics based on the very sweet – but largely evidence-free – assumption that parliament accurately reflects public opinion. In reality, Corbyn’s opposition to the Libyan war was broadly in line with a significant section of the public, according to polls Strong quotes, and a plurality of those who gave an opinion, according to a larger analysis of polling data by six political scientists.

Repeating the British Government’s narrative

It’s not central to the debate but Strong’s straightforward and unquestioning statement that that 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya “had UN Security Council approval” sound like it was lifted from a Ministry of Defence press release. The legality of both interventions is highly dubious.

On Afghanistan, a briefing paper from the House of Commons Library notes “The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN – there was no specific Security Council Resolution authorising the invasion – but was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter.” The paper goes on to explain “The USA might conceivably have gained specific legal support from the Security Council for its action in Afghanistan, but in the end did not seek such a Resolution”. The BBC confirms this reading in an online history of the conflict, noting “while it deplored the [9/11] attacks, the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] did not authorise a military campaign.”

Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law at California’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former president of the US National Lawyers Guild, described the invasion as “a patently illegal use of armed force.” Cohn argued the bombing was not a legitimate form of self-defence under Article 51 for two reasons. First, “the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. were criminal attacks, not ‘armed attacks’ by another state.” Second, “there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the US after September 11, or the US would not have waited three weeks before initiating its bombing campaign.” Michael Mandel, Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, is in agreement on the latter point, arguing “the right of unilateral self-defence does not include the right to retaliate once an attack has stopped.”

Even if one were to agree the West’s attack was legitimate under Article 51, the House of Commons Library paper notes proportionality is central to the use of force in self-defence. “It may not be considered proportionate to produce the same amount of damage” as the initial attack, the paper notes. Writing in November 2001, Brian Foley, Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, maintained “these attacks on Afghanistan most likely do not stand up as proportional to the threat of terrorism on US soil.” This is because, as Professor Marc Herold from the University of Hampshire found by studying press reports and eyewitness accounts, more Afghan civilians were likely killed during ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ than died on 9/11.

On Libya, the UN Security Council may have approved military action to set up the No-Fly Zones. However, as Strong knows full well, the intervention quickly moved beyond this initial remit, with NATO playing a key role in overthrowing the Libyan Government and killing the Libyan leader. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton and former United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, described NATO’s key role in regime change in Libya as “mission creep on steroids”. Just over a week into the bombing campaign the Guardian was reporting that “legal experts” – Philippe Sands QC, Professor of International Law at University College London, and Professor Nicholas Grief, Director of Legal Studies at the University of Kent – were concerned “the international coalition may have overstepped what was agreed by the UN resolution sanctioning military action”.

I don’t think it is too much to ask for an International Relations scholar at one of the top universities in the UK to mention the deep grey areas and dodgy politics surrounding the legality of both of these conflicts when he is writing about the legality of these conflicts. That Strong doesn’t feel the need to raise critical questions is telling in itself, of course.

Finally, many readers will no doubt be dumbfounded by Strong’s astonishingly naïve, Alistair Campbell circa 2003-style assertion that “Britain’s armed forces cannot act without a ruling from the Attorney-General that there is at least a ‘reasonable’ legal case for using force. Every time Britain uses force abroad, in other words, a group of experienced international lawyers have concluded there are good legal grounds for doing so.” This is like reading a textbook about the theory of British Government. Back in the real world, those who followed the race to war in 2003 may well point to the almost certain political pressure successfully applied to the Attorney General – not mentioned by Strong, of course – and simply ask “So what?” Again, Strong fails to provide any of the desperately needed political context that is essential if one is to understand the issue at hand. No mention, of course, that the Foreign Office’s Deputy Chief Legal Advisor quit in protest at the Attorney General’s position on legality in 2003, referring to the invasion as “an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression”. Or the fact the Foreign Office’s Chief Legal Advisor also thought the invasion was illegal.

Towards a more productive and useful understanding of Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy and public opinion

As I said in my original reply “Simply comparing current public opinion with Corbyn’s publicly stated views on foreign policy, while of some interest, is a simplistic and limited form of analysis.”

As Strong ignored this and simply provided a more detailed comparison between Corbyn’s views and public opinion, I’m going to try one more time to push the discussion into this more productive and worthwhile area.

Strong’s analysis is particularly limited as it treats the issue as happening in a social, economic and political vacuum, providing very little context. There is certainly no discussion of the establishment-friendly media mediating news and opinion to the public. And no mention that Western governments spend millions of pounds and considerable time and energy producing propaganda to influence public opinion. One wonders how far Strong would take this very unacademic aversion to context and understanding. For example, a January 2003 PIPA/KN poll found that 68 percent of Americans expressed the belief that Iraq played an important role in 9/11. Three years later a Harris Interactive poll similarly found half of Americans believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the US invaded in 2003. Predictably there was a close correlation between misperceptions about the Iraq War and support for the war. These were and continue to be staggering results that immediately bring to mind a number of questions. Not for Strong, who would presumably simply tell us a politician who understood there were no WMDs in Iraq and that Iraq had no connection to 9/11 was out of touch with public opinion. End of story. In contrast a person interested in making the world a better place might ask a number of questions: “Why are a large number of Americans ignorant of the basic facts?” “Has the media played a role in engendering this ignorance?” “What is the government’s role?” And even “Perhaps I should be helping Americans understand what is going on?”

This is an extreme example, of course, but there are similar issues at play in the UK. For example, a 2013 survey conducted by ComRes found 74 per cent of Britons estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the Iraq War. Amazingly, 59 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died because of the war. Only 6 per cent of the poll’s respondents correctly estimated the death toll to be over 500,000 Iraqis. What lies behind this mass ignorance? Writing about the Glasgow University Media Group’s research into UK media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict back in 2004, Professor Greg Philo noted “Television news is the main source of information on the Israel-Palestine conflict for about 80% of the population. Yet the quality of what they see and hear is so confused and partial that it is impossible to have a sensible public debate about the reasons for the conflict or how it might be resolved.” According to Philo “The gaps in public knowledge closely parallel those in the news”.

I’m not suggesting the general public are unthinking dolts pulled this way and that by competing arguments. But I am suggesting the media, academics and political parties play a key role in informing and shaping the national debate on foreign policy. And very obviously Corbyn’s positions are not presented to the public on a level playing field which allows each citizen to carefully consider all of the facts and arguments from a wide-range of competing opinions. Rather Corbyn, or anyone with his politics, will be opposed by the largely pro-military, pro-NATO, pro-‘special relationship’, pro-Trident establishment who own large sections of the media and who fund political parties. National journalists are overwhelmingly and increasingly from very privileged backgrounds, with Sutton Trust research finding over half of the top journalists were privately educated. The study found 37 percent of the top journalists who went to university graduated from just one institution — Oxford. The dominance of this middle-class, privately schooled, Oxbridge elite is also evident in the legal profession, the civil service, the armed forces, politics and academia. And as I recently noted in another article, this common background likely “produces deeply held, unconscious shared assumptions about the world — how it works, what is possible, who is a credible source, who should be in charge and who should necessarily be excluded from decision-making.” Opposed to classism, private schools and inequality in addition to aggressive Western foreign policy Corbyn is unlikely to receive support from those who run Britain. (Of course, detailed research and analysis may well find that large numbers of well informed, level-headed people simply disagree with Corbyn).

Rather than obsessively focus on poll data, surely a moral and enquiring mind would choose to think and write about the politics, vastly unequal power relations and propaganda that lie behind and have an important influence on pubic opinion? And with nuclear weapons a continued threat to the existence of humanity and over 500,000 Iraqi people dead because of UK-US actions in Iraq it seems to me that academics, with their privileged position, education and expertise have a special responsibility to move beyond such a narrow focus and start looking at the cause of things when it comes to these urgent life and death issues.

An edited version of this blog was first published on Open Democracy on 5 November 2015.

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