Impractical and dangerous – a so-called ‘Peace Pledge’ would drive Great Britain into a diplomatic purdah

by Gray Sergeant

On 3 October 1957, Aneurin Bevan, champion of the Labour Left, delivered a thumping blow to his loyal followers in an about-face conference speech opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. His words attacking Resolution 24 have become legendary. To disarm, he warned attendees, would be like “sending a British Foreign Secretary … naked into the conference chamber”.

Bevan’s points in favour of maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent remain as true today as they did in the early Cold War. His wider point that foreign and defence policy cannot be dictated by party members still stands too.

Jeremy Corbyn ignored these wise words when he polled members in late-2015 on extending airstrikes into Syria against Islamic State. Now, deputy leadership contender Richard Burgon wants to emulate with a so-called ‘Peace Pledge’ which would force a future Labour government to obtain the consent of members, via a referendum or conference vote, before using military force abroad.

What Burgon’s proposal fails to understand is that when it comes to foreign affairs stealth and swiftness can be critical. Take Britain’s retaliation against chemical weapon attacks in Syria two years ago. Speed and secrecy were essential, as was cooperation with the country’s allies. In similar circumstances it would be an administrative nightmare to conduct an internal referendum, let alone arrange a conference, in a matter of days. Even if the Labour Party could the result would be ill-informed. The party obviously cannot email members the classified material vital to making a judgement on airstrikes. In which case how can anyone expect them to come to a considered conclusion?

Members must trust the judgement of the leadership. This is not to say they should be shut out altogether. They already have a profound say on Labour’s international policy. In 2015 they demonstrated this. Jeremy Corbyn’s worldview was a fundamental change from Labour orthodoxy. Had he won an election these members, via their leadership vote, would have had a monumental effect on Britain’s standing and conduct abroad.

It is easy to laugh off the idea as an unimplementable election race gimmick.  But if it was seriously taken forward it would not be so funny. It would not be an act of statesmanship either, to echo the words of the great Welshman himself, but an “emotional spasm”. One with potentially grave consequences.

This so-called ‘peace pledge’ seeks to tie a future Labour government to a rigidly non-interventionist foreign policy whatever the consequences. Without understanding that  sometimes the threat of force is necessary to maintain peace. History teaches us that tyrants are most tempted when they believe the world’s liberal democracies will standby and do nothing. Showing an empty hand early weakens Britain’s ability to deter the aggressive impulses of authoritarian regimes. It would also diminish a future Labour government’s ability to discourage, let alone stop, the use of chemical weapons or acts of ethnic cleansing.

Burgon’s exceptions to the pledge, UN-backing and a “genuine national emergency”, hardly reassure given NATO’s noticeable absence. Strange given the alliance’s key role in maintaining peace in western Europe since the Second World War. Under Burgon’s proposal the credibility of collective security on the continent would be severely undermined. Article 5 of the alliance’s charter would be reduced to ‘an attack against one is an attack against all pending the approval of the British Labour Party’s membership’. Welcome news for Vladimir Putin perhaps but Clement Attlee would be spinning in his grave.

The stakes are too high. It is parliament, and ultimately the electorate, who a future Labour government should be accountable to if they use military force. The decision must be made calmly, and if necessary swiftly and stealthily. It should be based on the evidence from the intelligence services and the advice of experts. When necessary it should be conducted in concert with allies and abide to alliance commitments. All of these nuances are threatened by a simplistic balloting of members.

A future Labour government needs to be given latitude to act on the international stage.  If a Labour Foreign Secretary “is to have a chance”, to return to Bevan, “he must be permitted to substitute good policies for bad policies. Do not disarm him diplomatically, intellectually, and in every other way before he has a chance to turn round.”

Gray Sergeant is a writer currently based in Taipei, and from 2010-2017 was a Labour Party activist in South Essex


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9 Responses to “Impractical and dangerous – a so-called ‘Peace Pledge’ would drive Great Britain into a diplomatic purdah”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Friday 6 PM, email Its deputy leader Richard burgon

    here, do you want to vote to stop the Kurds facing genocide
    same time Its’ leader Rebecca long bailey here, don’t answer the above email till 9am Monday, you’re entitled to have the weekend off not read your emails

  2. anosrep says:

    “Bevan’s points in favour of maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent remain as true today as they did in the early Cold War.”

    That is, not true at all.

  3. Tafia says:

    anosrep – You obviously have no knowledge of modern day nuclear weapons. We are far far more likely to use them now because the science behind them has changed dramatically.

    They are literally just a big bomb now, the days of mushroom clouds and radioactive fallout no longer exist. They are far far more effective detonated high in the atmosphere – you got a blinding flash, a fireball with accompanying heatwave and a blast wave. And a dramatically improved burst of EMP. But you get no fall-out and no mushroom cloud.

    The big minus from a government and military perspective was always the fall-out and how to deal with it, that’s all. And airbursting as they are now designed to do, removes that, making the use of them more likely.

    A nuclear device is not difficult to make anymore – all North Korea is doing is building a basic small crude reactor and then blowing it up. Any country that can build a nuclear pwerstation can build what North Korea has – that’s the easy part – the piss-easy part. It’s technologically more difficult to make a modern day car. It’s not very expensive either except for your very first one. The difficult and by far and away the most expensive a technically demanding part nowadays is the miniaturisation, the delivery system, and designing a warhead that can withstand the shock of launching. North Korea and Iran do not possess the technical ability or the money to do that.

    Always remember – you can’t un-invent anything.

  4. steve says:

    Why on earth should the supremely talented PLP be constrained by an idiot membership?

    Don’t heroic Labour MPs have enough to put up with now that the idiot electorate voted for Brexit?

    Clearly, Labour’s Westminster elite need to sort themselves out and make the LP their own personal possession to do with as they please.

  5. Dave Roberts says:

    Good to see Tafia is still about and talking sense.

  6. Anne says:

    Isn’t it Dominic Cummings who is setting his fire on BAE systems who make Trident and aircraft carriers?

  7. Tafia says:

    Here’s a little nugget. While Labour were cry-babying about the Jamaicans getting booted out, conveniently overlooking the fact that it was a full plane load of South Americans the week before, the SNP quitely booted out 48 Poles with nobody noticing.

    In addition, the BBC were quick enough to jet over to Jamaica – at licence payers expense, and interview the dirtbags. But you’ll notice they didn’t interview any of the victims – the families of the slain, the woman raped twice, the families torn apart by the drug dealers, the children abused and trafficed.

  8. Tafia says:

    Are you well Dave? Hope things are going well for you.

  9. Tafia says:

    The European Commission (the real power in the EU) is proposing a TWO YEAR conference to discuss the impact on the EU of us leaving.

    Don’t expect the EU to learn any lessons from Brexit
    Claire Fox
    Spectator.

    Claire Fox relates her brief experience of The European Parliament :-

    “Looking back at my experience as an MEP, there are lessons worth noting. I had assumed that a gathering of 700 or so MEPs from all around Europe, would, at the very least, provide a fascinating exchange of views from an international perspective. But the parliament operates through artificially federalised political groupings; behind closed doors the leaders of each grouping carve up who gets to speak, for how long (typically 60 seconds), and in stage-managed terms.
    Topics for discussion are similarly preordained, prescribed by legislation initiated elsewhere. There are few opportunities for actual free discussion, so very few listen to each others’ speeches. The chamber is regularly empty save for a lone voice and the chairpersons. Interaction is reduced to a formulaic blue card system for asking questions, which in too many debates are ruled inadmissible due to time restraints and fiat. No wonder the parliamentary chamber is only full when voting takes place; because financial penalties operate if you don’t turn up for a minimum number of votes per year.
    But it’s not just the technical process that so deadens debate. Without accountability to voters back home, the atmosphere is one of a feudal court with MEPs forced to vie for favours. Interactions with other organisations are often confined to professional lobbyists. European civil society and NGOs that petition for favours and influence for their special interests are often themselves funded from EU coffers. This creates a system of patronage that encourages self-reinforcing group-think and a cloying sycophancy.
    It has to be said that one of the most impressive aspects of the parliament are the brilliant unsung translators, who ensure that whatever language you speak, you are understood. Ironically, the Lingua Franca is jargon and bureaucratic wokeness. Everyone bangs on about diversity except diversity of opinion. So whatever is being discussed, the outcome must always be further and deeper integration into the EU project. And while it is estimated that EU sceptics now represent a quarter of seats in the European parliament, a behind-the-scenes cordon sanitaire has been erected by the main political groups to ensure they are shut out of positions of influence.
    One issue that is likely to shatter the consensus has been Brexit. ………….
    ……….
    One thing we can be sure of is that Brexit will leave its mark on the EU. Indeed, the European Commission’s proposal for a two year-long conference (that’s right, a two-year long conference!) on the Future of Europe is specifically designed to counter the damaging impact of a “Brexodus”.
    In my final session at the Strasbourg parliament it was surreal how almost every contribution referred to the “lessons of Brexit”, and stressed the alienation of EU institutions from rank and file citizens throughout the continent.
    I was heartened at the prospect of an initiative that self-consciously presented itself as a necessary way of improving relations between EU institutions and its various nations’ citizens. In fact, commissioners and the most senior MEPs explicitly acknowledged that the initiative is an attempt to counter the kind of alienation and distrust of Brussels that fuelled Britain’s decision to leave.
    Sadly, it seems it is an attempt to keep members’ signed up, rather than responding to their critical dissent. As always, despite best intentions, it seems the EU’s antipathy to real debate, its self-perpetuation and its strangulated relationship with real democratic decision-making is a ploy rather than a meaningful engagement with everyday reality.
    The Future of Europe conference is supposed to be ‘a bottom-up exercise where European citizens’ voices contribute to the debate. Participation will take the form of six citizens’ assemblies – agoras – each made up of 200 to 300 randomly selected participants, demographically representative of the wider population.
    Already there are rows about the selection. Some are unhappy these representatives will only be selected from European trade unions and employers’ organisations, such as BusinessEurope. This internal selection process matters. Presumably, leaders of the Gilet jaunes, who are so committed to active citizenship that they wear yellow jackets emblazoned with the slogan RIC (référendum d’initiative citoyenne citizens’ initiative referendum), will not find a seat at the agora. The wrong kind of citizens! Chicanery aside, can 1800 handpicked people really be able to represent the views of half-a-billion citizens living in 27 member states?
    In the European parliament debate, it became clear this was not an exercise in trusting citizens to speak freely. Instead citizens will have to go through “preparatory sessions from well-established civil society organisations and other experts”. Of course, it is likely to be EU bureaucrats who decide what constitutes ‘expertise’, and which ‘experts’ will be invited to speak. And while the conference promises to gather citizens’ feedback and views through conferences, panels, multilingual websites and debates, presumably not all views are allowed.
    When the parliament voted on proposed amendments, suggestions such as “this conference is a chance for fundamental debate on the EU” and it “should be an open process without any predefined conclusions”, were voted down. So was “treaty change must be put to referenda”. It seems then these citizens assemblies are little more than a democratic veneer using a manipulated, tightly-controlled stage army to back up agendas that EU politicians have already decided on. (I spoke on this at the EP here). The announcement that arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt has been put in charge of the initiative was the last straw. It certainly bodes badly for the notion that the EU is going to learn lessons any time soon, or that the conference will offer any possible reimagining of the future of Europe in favour of more democracy.
    All the talk of listening to citizens rings hollow when actually-existing, real-life citizen’s views are ignored, or demonised. ”

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