UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE
UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

The UK’s December 12 vote is being called the Brexit election for obvious reasons. So obvious that it’s easy to forget that the winner will also head a country with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a nuclear deterrent, and the world’s sixth-largest defence budget, as well as a historically close political and security relationship with the US.

That could complicate things a lot.

Differences between the two biggest parties extend way beyond Brexit and economics. Foreign policy isn’t getting the same attention as Brexit and the National Health Service (NHS) in this campaign, but if Labour’s hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn were to form a government rather than the Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson, it would have a profound impact on Britain’s role in the world and its alliances.

On Monday, Corbyn, who has long romanticised left-wing leaders in Latin America, joined the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba in condemning the ouster of Bolivia’s Evo Morales. The fact that Morales had violated his country’s constitution, that the election was found to have been manipulated or even that Bolivia’s trade union federation called for his departure didn’t matter. Corbyn called it a “coup against the Bolivian people”.

Corbyn has never met a national liberation movement he doesn’t like, nor a Western intervention that he doesn’t condemn. When asked on Wednesday about the killing of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by American commandos last month, Corbyn suggested it would have been preferable to arrest him. He seemed to ignore or dismiss the fact that al-Baghdadi was wearing a suicide vest, which he detonated, killing himself and two of his children, according to the US government account.

Another fear is that a Corbyn government would make the UK and its allies more vulnerable to Russian election interference, intelligence operations and other meddling

This was a reminder of Corbyn’s 2015 references to the killing of Osama bin Laden as “yet another tragedy”, along with the attack on the World Trade Center and the wars in Afghanistan.

Corbyn wasn’t defending Bin Laden or al-Baghdadi; he just thinks they should be put on trial. But comments like these are hugely unsettling as they suggest a Britain under Corbyn would be more scold than ally.

The Labour leader’s views were formed in the 1960s and 1970s and have hardly changed. Corbyn has often seemed most animated when talking about foreign or global causes, whether the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign or Irish republicanism. He has opposed the EU, which he regards as too capitalist and, to his credit, the former apartheid regime in SA. He justifies his description of Hezbollah and Hamas as “our friends” by arguing that it’s important to talk to all sides in a conflict, yet it’s impossible to miss his moral equivalency.

Corbyn’s positions may be shared by his inner circle, but they’re often outside the mainstream of his own party. Labour’s 2017 manifesto pledged to renew Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent, keep the country in Nato and to spend 2% of GDP on defence, all policies Corbyn dislikes. The new Labour manifesto, not yet published, will probably be similar, although the Scottish National Party (SNP), a potential Labour partner in any coalition, is demanding the nuclear programme’s termination.

Even in coalition (which is much more likely than an outright Labour win), a Corbyn-led government would have a very different relationship with the US. In a 2017 foreign policy speech, he denounced the interventions in Iraq and Libya as part of the “disastrous wars that stole the post-Cold War promise of a new world order”. He made clear there would be “no more hand-holding with Donald Trump”.

Weakened Anglo-American ties

He has advocated closer ties with Iran and cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Given Corbyn’s views on the Middle East, and his party’s poor record of fighting anti-Semitism, Britain would be a non-existent partner in the region.

Another fear is that a Corbyn government would make the UK and its allies more vulnerable to Russian election interference, intelligence operations and other meddling, while undermining sanctions against Moscow and Tehran. After the poisoning by nerve agent of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter last year, Corbyn initially parroted Russian denials. When confronted with the intelligence evidence, he demanded it be shared with the Kremlin.

Indeed, it’s a measure of Corbyn’s weakness on this front that a visiting Hillary Clinton made more of Johnson’s refusal to publish a parliamentary report into Russian interference in British politics than the opposition leader has.

So Anglo-American ties would weaken inevitably with Corbyn as prime minister. “The only effective protection would be to downgrade the degree of intelligence sharing with a Corbyn government,” Azeem Ibrahim, a former UK government adviser on countering extremism, wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine. “This would have a broad and lasting negative impact, because close co-operation is not just essential for dealing with hostile states — it also provides greater protection against non-state actors such as IS or al Qaeda.”

Brexit, of course, is a foreign policy issue too. It’s effect on information sharing and security co-operation between Britain and the EU isn’t yet clear, but the next government will determine that and the future trading relationship. Britain has long punched above its weight by virtue of its alliances, its role as a bridge between the US and Europe, and its hard and soft power. Brexit diminishes all those.

Outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk told an audience on Wednesday that Brexit is probably “the real end of the British empire”. That’s a long way from the Global Britain that both Leavers and Remainers cling to as a brighter future. But it would suit Corbyn just fine. He’s no fan of empire.

Bloomberg