The danger with accusing your opponents of “rank hypocrisy” is that, if you’re not careful, you run the risk of being accused of exactly the same charge yourselfby Steve Bloomfield / September 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
Robin Cook’s foreign policy “with an ethical dimension” lasted just two months. In July 1997 it was revealed that the British government was selling fighter jets to Indonesia, a country at that time run by a dictator. The deal had been struck by the previous Conservative government but the new Foreign Secretary had decided not to renege on it. The doctrine became a punchline, even more so six years later when the Iraq War began.
But two decades on Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, wants to revive it. In her conference speech on Monday, she promised a foreign policy with human rights at its heart. Its centrepiece would be the full implementation of the International Arms Trade Treaty—a policy that would, for instance, mean the end of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It was a popular call inside the hall and, one suspects, it will prove popular outside too. Defending the sale of weapons to autocratic regimes is not a good look for any government.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the UK government’s support for it, was a theme that Thornberry returned to again and again—Yemen was mentioned six time, surely a record for a speech at any UK party conference.
She rightly criticised a foreign policy with “no values or ethics, no rules or principles” and, following the Conservatives criticism during the summer of Nicholas Maduro’s actions in Venezuela, attacked Theresa May’s government for “loudly condemn[ing] those they regard as enemies but then fall[ing] utterly silent when it is their friends in Bahrain rounding up, torturing and executing civilian protestors or their friends in Saudi Arabia dropping cluster bombs on innocent children in Yemen.”
But the danger with accusing your opponents of “rank hypocrisy” is that, if you’re not careful, you run the risk of being accused of exactly the same charge yourself. Thornberry revelled in attacking Donald Trump, even comparing him to a “rogue dictator”. But in a 2,300-word speech that focused on human rights and the rule of international law, Thornberry somehow failed to find time to mention Russia or Vladimir Putin.
Two days later her leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was similarly reluctant to name-check a country and a leader that in the past three years has annexed part of a European nation, carried out indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Syria, and tried to disrupt democratic elections in the United States, France and Germany.
The refusal of the Labour leader to criticise Putin is not surprising – Corbyn’s anti-imperialism appears to apply just to the US, not Russia. Only when pushed into a corner has he seen fit to admonish the Russian president, and even then, it has tended to come in the form of a plea to “all sides” to seek peace. It’s also worth recalling that before becoming leader Corbyn was a regular guest on the Kremlin-backed propaganda news channel, RT.
International ideological blind-spots have never been a barrier to 10 Downing Street—and Corbyn can claim to have shown more concern with human rights abroad over the years than most prime ministers of the past. But the failure to wrestle with Russia raises questions about Labour’s ability to “put peace and justice at the heart of foreign policy,” as Corbyn said today.
Both Corbyn and Thornberry talked about the importance of the United Nations, but if these are going to be anything more than warm words then they both need to grapple with the reason why the UN Security Council so often fails to deal with the world’s major crises—big powers, predominantly the US and Russia, wielding their vetoes. Since the Syrian crisis began, Russia has blocked a series of Security Council resolutions from humanitarian aid to sanctions on the Assad regime. (Syria, incidentally, was another country that Corbyn decided he didn’t have time to talk about).
An ethical foreign policy, as Cook quickly discovered, is far easier to talk about than to put into practice. If Thornberry and Corbyn are going to make it work, that means engaging in the sort of uncomfortable conversations that they rightly accuse their Tory rivals of ducking.