Which British political leader backs NATO, wants to ring-fence the defence budget, and won’t commit to scrapping the UK’s massively expensively yet strategically redundant nuclear deterrent? The answer, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is Jeremy Corbyn.
The fallout from the Sergei Skripal affair earlier this week has exposed a sizeable fissure on the Scottish left.
Nicola Sturgeon supported the Tories’ aggressive response to the poisoning of an ex-Russian intelligence officer, allegedly by the Russian state, on British soil. Jeremy Corbyn said a more measured assessment of the evidence was needed before any action was taken.
For the record, I agree with Jeremy: British politicians shouldn’t launch into ad hoc diplomatic wars with Russia without being able to say, with a very high degree of certainty, what Russia is actually guilty of. That’s not pandering. It’s not Putin apologism. It’s basic due diligence.
However, the fact that Sturgeon and Corbyn are at odds on this issue does not, as a number of Scottish leftists have claimed, represent a dramatic swing to the right in nationalist thinking.
“What we are witnessing now is [a] full blooded reversal … The SNP has set out over this Russia nonsense to present itself as loyal to UK geo-strategic interests on a range of fronts, from opposition to Brexit to hostility to Russia … Make no mistake, a river very like the Rubicon has been quietly crossed and it will be difficult for those on the party left to forge a way back.”
This is, to put it mildly, total bullshit.
First of all, the SNP’s position on Europe hasn’t been recast for the sake of “UK geo-strategic interests.” Its opposition to Brexit reflects a firmly held belief among the party’s leadership that Scotland’s future as an independent country lies within the EU. That has been the case since the late 1980s. It’s still the case today. Moreover, Sturgeon is the devolved leader of a country that voted by an overwhelming margin against Brexit and, to that extent, she has an obligation to make the democratic case in favour of Scotland’s continued EU membership. Anything less would draw (justified) accusations of negligence.
Secondly, it’s wrong to argue that Sturgeon is noticeably more hawkish than Corbyn when it comes to foreign affairs and defence. To be clear, the nationalists want to abolish Trident, reduce defence spending, and keep Scotland in NATO; Labour – Corbyn’s Labour – wants to renew Trident, maintain (or increase, depending on how you interpret the numbers) UK defence spending above two percent of GDP, and keep Britain in NATO.
I realise these positions aren’t necessarily Corbyn’s positions. But they nonetheless formed part of Labour’s 2017 manifesto. And that indicates either that Corbyn is too internally weak to change them, or that he thinks adopting a more progressive stance on defence would be electorally problematic – or both.
At any rate, there is an obvious double-standard at work here.
Over the past few years, on everything from income tax to land reform, Sturgeon has been remorselessly slated by the left for being a huge, centrist disappointment. (I’m acutely aware of this, because I’ve done a lot of the slating myself.) And yet Corbyn – whose policy compromises have been just as severe – hasn’t attracted anywhere near the same amount of scrutiny. But he definitely should.
Take Labour’s approach to immigration: not only is Corbyn relaxed about ending freedom of movement for EU nationals, he also intends – completely punitively, as far as I can tell – to block the spouses of non-EU immigrants from being able to claim benefits.
Or welfare: according to analysis published by the Resolution Foundation in the run-up to last year’s election, Labour’s spending plans included £7bn worth of Tory welfare cuts, which seems brutally out-of-sync with Corbyn’s insistence that austerity is a political choice rather than an economic necessity.
Or even the deficit: in 2016, in an effort to reaffirm its ‘fiscal credibility’, Labour pledged to follow an arbitrary and potentially restrictive five year timetable, during which the gap in Britain’s day-to-day spending would be eliminated (although I assume this pledge is now moot, given the gap has already been eliminated by the Tories).
None of this discredits Corbyn.
What it does do, though, is put the limits of Corbynism as a political project into perspective. On the questions of immigration, welfare, and above all defence, there is a lot more continuity between New Labour and Corbynite Labour than Corbyn’s Scottish admirers seem willing to admit. As a result, far too many socialists hold Corbyn up as a radical alternative to Sturgeon without subjecting him to the same exacting standards of criticism.
That’s fine, to some extent. Corbyn and Sturgeon are different politicians with separate overarching agendas. But sooner rather than later, this tendency will start to look more than a little reflexive and fetishistic. In reality, it already has.