Keir Starmer’s authority has been damaged by his stance in support of the siege of Gaza. Even his own top lieutenants are breaking rank. But he faces much worse, should he inherit the British state’s foreign policy, argues David Jamieson.
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The last three by-elections have been grim news for the Conservatives, and excellent for Keir Starmer. They recall the extent of the victories of 1997. And yet Labour is suffering serious internal ruptures – including widespread defections from local councillors, party branches, and a rebellion against Starmer’s shameless support for the bombardment and invasion of Gaza even growing in the purged parliamentary party and front bench.
Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham all distancing themselves from Starmer on the same day was clearly a co-ordinated, that is to say factional, move. Starmer’s own top team, though chiselled down in the last few years to only his closest supporters, has become unreliable. For days he has been in hiding, trying to avoid hard questions about the middle east and his damaged authority.
It is, then, an extremely contradictory period. To understand it, we need to remember that historical processes move together but at different paces. So in one register, Starmer is helping to restore order to British politics. On another, longer register, Britain’s foreign policy is in disarray, with public support down to almost nothing, and threats and problems opening everywhere.
Of course, when discussing British foreign policy, we are in most regards discussing US foreign policy and the British state’s hopeless attachment to it. A humiliating fact since the Suez crisis, which nonetheless helped to smooth Britian’s path from Empire to second rate power, American imperial power and British compradorship now both face relative decline.
So while on the home front Labour enjoys huge electoral momentum, it is in a population where it enjoys next to no support for its headline foreign policy positions. According to YouGov, 76% of the British population support a ceasefire, and just 8% support Sunak and Starmer in opposing one. This represents another milestone in the collapse of public support for a US-oriented foreign policy, and it has real long-term consequences for the viability of the status quo.
The public line being held between Sunak and Starmer is weak, and visibly deteriorating. The cant about ‘Israeli self defence’ is just for us kids. So are the ludicrous claims by Suella Braverman about ‘hate marches’ across Britian. Politicians certainly aren’t using these tired buss phrases in private – or through diplomatic channels. They are worried that they have tied themselves to a massacre that is deeply unpopular and liable to tip a strategically vital region of the world into chaos.
This current predicament indicates a dawning world of new complications. British capitalism has been, for most of its history, highly internationalised. The British Empire helped forge the modern world, and US Empire provided it with a friendly if domineering international environment. Starmer will come to power just as this happy situation for the British state begins to break down.
This will throw innumerable problems into Starmer’s lap in coming years. There’s little peace coming soon to the international scene, as the consequences of multipolarity make themselves increasingly felt. Here’s just a partial list of chaotic developments in the past 18 months: the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the outbreak of fresh violence in Kosovo-Serbia, the overthrow of west-friendly governments in the Sahel, increasing tensions in the South China Sea, the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. And now a multi-faced crisis across the Middle East, with Israel already bombing in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and even Egypt. Various non-state actors are also fighting western forces in Iraq, Syria and off the coast of Yemen, and firing into Israel from Syria and Lebanon.
A general profusion of such conflicts now seems inevitable. In 2021, as the US and Britain beat a hasty retreat from Afghanistan, it was widely said that interventionism was over. Indeed, the Biden administration (naturally speaking for Britain too) made noises suggesting such large scale and burdensome wars were a thing of the past. But the problem with having such a vast empire, is that there’s so much to defend, and so many opportunities to be dragged back into a quagmire. A history of the British Empire could tell the leaders of the US that. But now, Britian is being towed around with the commitments of someone else’s empire.
These problems are imminent for the next prime minister. A general deterioration of Britain’s global position stretches resources, tests trade relations, threatens access to key commodities and disrupts global markets. This in turn can sharpen class antagonisms. We got a taste of this process after the Russia Ukraine war added to inflationary pressures, helping to drive the largest wave of strikes in decades.
Our new, unpredictable world inaugurates endless threats of this kind. Britian has always fared well through periods of decline, adjusting pragmatically to its reduced stature and means. But these transitions were carried out by a political class of a higher quality than the one we now possess. The five Tory Prime Ministers of the last 13 years demonstrate that. What’s more, Britian’s public institutions no longer carry the support of the population.
This is why the establishment didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party – they couldn’t tolerate someone who wasn’t trusted on foreign policy in a period of rapid change. They were not quaking in their boots at the thought of a Prime Minister refinancing the NHS or rolling out better internet connection.
And so they slammed the door shut on the anti-war attitudes now mainstream in the population. When those attitudes re-manifest on the streets, as they have in the last few weeks, they are naturally demonised by a fearful political class and pundit chorus. It’s a painful reminder of how isolated their class bubble really is.
For most people, what’s happening in Palestine today is a horror show. The surreal and sick-making spectacle of an entire political scene united in support for a far-right Israeli Government making no pretence to anything but ethnic cleansing. The announced policy of Netanyahu’s cabinet is to shrink Gaza, presumably by decanting its “human animal” population into the Sinai desert. This is a plan trailed with promises from Netanyahu himself of a biblical revenge, a Manichean war light against dark.
But viewed from the point of view of elite policy makers in Washington and London, it’s something else – the latest front in the challenges to western primacy. In Whitehall and the newsrooms, they know they are between the anvil of public disenchantment at home, and the hammer blows of rivals abroad. They are happy that Starmer has arrived with a programme of stabilisation, but it comes late in a darkening day.