by Rob Marchant
Britain, it is perennially noted, is an island nation and often behaves accordingly.
It is a feature of modern British politics that, unlike some other countries whose very existence depends on their relations with larger, closer neighbours with whom they share a land border, foreign policy counts for little in the calculations of Westminster life. Elections are certainly not won or lost on it, mainly because polling shows that it features so low on the list of voters’ priorities.
So, a strange phenomenon occurs: since a governing party is chosen to govern based on everything but their foreign policy, one can find that, as the new tenants arrive at No. 10 and the FCO, what results in practice is a bit of a lucky dip. One can equally find the shrill nationalism of a Thatcher; the shameful isolationism of a Major; the strident interventionism of a Blair; or the “I want to, but I can’t” of a Cameron.
It’s a shame, because the world is clearly undergoing one of its most dangerously unstable periods since the cold war. Syria, Ukraine, Iraq and now Gaza underline how the West is facing two serious threats simultaneously: the rearrangement of geo-political powers into a multi-polar world, its most notable feature the re-emergence of Russia as a foe rather than a friend; and the seemingly ineradicable virus of jihadism.
Nowhere is that lucky dip truer than in today’s Labour party. If Cameron’s foreign policy has been paralysed by cuts to military resources and political support, Miliband’s has seemingly been by its lack of ambition and often, well, coherence. Dan Hodges, formerly of this parish, quoted a Miliband observer last week: “he’s got next to no interest in foreign policy”. While this is just one opinion, it is one that resonates.
Certainly, last year’s Syria vote is something best forgotten for Labour. But as an example of how disjointed is the policy of a party which could conceivably, in just over eight months, have a seat at the top table in world politics, we need look no further than its recent moves over Gaza.
The long-suffering people of Gaza are participants in a tragedy; a legitimate cause, combined with perennially dire political representation.
It is hard to take a rational position when modern media is filling our screens with footage from bodies and bombs from Gaza. But that same media can also distort. Today’s message is big bully Israel “shooting fish in a barrel” (the BBC with its Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen, who bizarrely claims not to have seen any instances of Hamas’ human shield tactic – which they openly admit to using – hardly helps). Would that public opinion were mobilised with equal vigour against 170,000 deaths in Syria or 500,000 Iraqi Christians currently fleeing ISIS.
What calmer observers note is that there actually three participants in the Gaza tragedy, not two: Israel, Hamas and Gaza’s inhabitants. Hamas have shown how they consider the latter to be expendable, their deaths a just sacrifice.
But it is not the abhorrent human shield strategy, Hamas’ medieval oppression of women, of dissent, or even its suicide bombing – a strategy not abandoned for moral reasons but because it was losing them support – which rankle the most. It is its treatment of the children of its own people. It indoctrinates them with its uniquely disturbing children’s TV, and turns them into child soldiers. It is a simple equation: in an environment where you expressly bring up your children to hate, peace is unlikely ever to be seriously on the agenda.
The truth is that Israel was faced with two simple choices. Endure rocket attacks indefinitely, while Hamas sacrifice their own civilians when you try to stop those attacks, and build their own tunnels under the border to murder Israeli civilians; or do something. It is not surprising that they chose the latter. If you are the only grown-up in the room, you try and do what will ultimately minimise civilian casualties, including – wherever possible – those on the other side. Hamas’ twisted logic is that it clearly wants to do the opposite. The more civilian casualties – on their own side – the more weight for their cause.
So where does Labour now stand on all this? At first, we defended Israel’s right to defend itself. Because when someone is throwing rockets at you, you can hardly sit there and do nothing.
But one cannot help but feel that Labour’s change of heart and condemnation of Israel’s Gaza incursion comes down to a few basic things. An instinctive wish to differentiate ourselves from what the Tories are saying, perhaps. Also the knowledge that the party’s soft left has for a long time been in sympathy with the Palestinian cause, without looking too hard at its leaders’ methods (not to mention the hard left, who are largely quite comfortable with their methods).
And then there is the elephant in the room: that Miliband is a Jewish-born leader in a country with a far higher Muslim population. There is not much sympathy for Israel out there in Labour’s inner-city heartlands, it is easy for him to be seen as taking sides and there is a somewhat baser political calculation to be made.
You can imagine the slightly embarrassed conversation with the party aide: “well, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s an election coming, chief. I’ve heard rumblings, we should pay attention.”
And so we end up with a party supporting Israel’s right to defend itself – not hard when rockets are raining down on their country – but then losing the courage of our convictions when the body count rises. Well, what did we expect?
Now, there are respectable, differing views; after all, Israel-Palestine is hardly a problem with a simple solution. Maybe the incursion into Gaza will turn out to have been a terrible mistake. Maybe it will ultimately bring some kind of pause in hostilities, at least. Who knows?
But what is disturbing is the hesitant, “left a bit, right a bit” approach to not just this, but foreign policy in general, which leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling about what a future Labour government might actually do if things ever got serious outside our borders.
In reality, electors do not usually mind leaders doing things they might disagree with from time to time. But they tend to be alarmed, rightly, by what they see as dithering.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left