Tag Archives: Tariq Ali

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the papers “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: “The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties”.

“Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage ‘casualty averse’ public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
7 October 2016

“We’ve got to win in Cardiff North. We’ve got to win in Nuneaton. We’ve got to win in Milton Keynes”, asserted Owen Smith in the recent leadership campaign. “We’ve got to get Tories and Greens and Liberals to vote Labour.”

In the mainstream commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, one thing is clear – he must claim the centre ground of politics and reach out to Tory voters. The BBC’s political coverage is often based on this assumption, with the corporation deciding to hold its 2015 televised Labour leadership debate in the well-known marginal seat of Nuneaton.

This has been the dominant, so-called pragmatic, way of doing parliamentary politics for my lifetime – what Professor Jeremy Gilbert from the University of East London calls “politics as marketing”. In this conception of politics, “there is only ever a very narrow range of opinions which can really be considered sensible, because they are predicated on an understanding of how the world really works.” Voters are rational, self-interested actors with fixed preferences. The politician is sold to the voters as likable and competent, much like a salesperson selling the party brand to customers. “The target market is almost exclusively floating voters in marginal constituencies”.

Writer Tariq Ali argues this endless battle for the mythical, ‘sensible’ centre ground has led to the creation of an “extreme centre” in British politics, with Tory-Labour bipartisanship leading to destructive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the financial crisis, privatisation, rising inequality and nasty and dangerous narratives being pushed on welfare and immigration.

Aswell as being tone deaf to radical social movements, this focus on a tiny number of voters in marginal seats ignores what has been called the largest party in British politics – the 15.7 million who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election.

Corbyn himself has repeatedly said he wants to reach out to those who don’t vote, especially young people. Noting that turnout went down from 84 percent in 1950 to 66 percent in 2015, Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Oxford agrees, arguing “the best strategy for Labour to increase its share of the vote is to target people who vote for minor parties and the much larger groups [who] have given up voting or even registering to vote.”

So, who doesn’t vote and why don’t they bother? Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary university, notes the people who don’t vote tend to be “the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested.” Speaking to voters in Manchester before the last general election, the BBC’s Emma Ailes reported that “it seems anger not apathy is turning people off voting” – an observation highlighted by polling. According to a 2013 poll by Survation the top reasons given by people for not voting were a belief that their vote will not make a difference; that the parties and candidates are all the same; a lack of interest in politics; not enough information or knowledge to choose; and that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates.

This deeply concerning reality is neither natural nor inevitable. As I note above, in 1950 general election turnout was around 20 percent higher than it is now. The Nordic countries have very high levels of voter turnout.  Indeed there have been British elections recently with very high turnouts – the Scottish referendum (85 percent – the highest turnout in any British election since universal suffrage) and the EU referendum (72 percent). Arguably, in contrast to most of the elections of the past 35 years, these two votes actually meant something – there was actually a real choice for voters to make.

This gets to the heart of the issue. Citing British Social Attitudes survey data, in 2010 Alison Park, the Research Director of the National Centre for Social Research, noted one reason for the low turnout in recent elections “is that New Labour’s move to the political centre in the 1990s has led to voters thinking there is relatively little difference between the two main parties.” Professor Bale explains turnout goes down when “the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague”.

To counter these common criticisms of modern politicians, Corbyn needs to position the Labour Party as a clear and easily understandable alternative to the Conservatives and make sure the party follows through on any promises it makes. In addition, Labour needs more working-class MPs, a problem Corbyn’s 2015 proposal to provide grants to less affluent parliamentary candidates would help alleviate.

To mobilse non-voters commentator Owen Jones has suggested Labour carry out the biggest registration drive in history. And with Labour membership standing at over 600,000 and Corbyn attracting crowds of 1,000s of people, journalist Paul Mason believes Labour supporters can play a key role by being ambassadors in their communities, engaging with the wider electorate. Trade unions, which have traditionally encouraged the working-classes to vote, also have an important role to play.

However, it is important to note the First Past The Post system means significantly expanding the electorate will not, on its own, win the election for Corbyn. This is because the people who don’t vote tend to live in Labour dominated seats, meaning a higher turnout in most constituencies would simply mean a bigger win for the Labour MP. However, it would still lead to some gains, with a Fabian Society analysis showing a 7.3 percent boost in turnout in marginal seats would lead to Labour winning 52 seats if each new voter backed Labour.

Corbyn, then, will almost certainly need to attract significant numbers of people who had voted Conservative. This isn’t as unbelievable as the mainstream media would have you believe. Polling suggests many of Corbyn’s political positions – on the NHS, on railways, on housing and foreign policy – have the support of large sections of the British public, sometimes the majority of Tory voters.

Beyond the narrow electoral math, there are a number of reasons why Corbyn’s Labour Party (and other political parties) should work hard to engage with non-voters – for their party’s own benefit and for the nation as a whole.

First, though it may not translate into immediate electoral gains, getting the support of non-voters would increase the popular vote for Labour, one source of legitimacy in political debates. In addition, it would increase the number of the poorer people who are interested and involved in Labour politics, and politics more generally. This process would hopefully mean Labour increasingly becomes more responsive to working-class concerns (such as income inequality and social housing) and begin once again to seriously represent the working-class communities who have been effectively ignored by New Labour and the Tories for decades.

More broadly, this could be the starting gun for a mass reengagement with the political system, with previously disheartened and unrepresented sections of society becoming invested in parliamentary politics and the outcome of elections. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It is clear the Brexit vote was decades in the making, the product, in large part, of the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ that the UK has endured since New Labour was established. For example, a recent Oxfam report noted the UK’s extreme level of inequality was a likely contributing factor in the vote to leave the European Union. Similarly, focus groups ran by Britain Thinks found “Britain is divided – a nation of people who describe themselves as ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’”. The research found the ‘have nots’ – who were much more likely to vote Brexit – described “a powerful sense of injustice about their situation in life” and “the feeling that systems are in place which work in favour of elites and against their best interests”.

In a similar vein the 2011 riots that swept England were informed by social and economic issues coming out of ‘the extreme centre’. In addition to difficult relations with the police, an extensive LSE-Guardian study noted rioters identified a number of motivating grievances, “from the increase in tuition fees, to the closure of youth services and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance.” The report continues: “Many complained about perceived social and economic injustices.”

If the UK is to move forward and build the progressive, more equal, tolerant, just society that Corbyn supporters and many others want, then the political system has to sincerely engage with, and listen to, all of society – not just swing voters in Nuneaton.