It’s easy to ignore the siren voices that seem almost eager to send Britain to war. Yet such voices grow louder. Last week, General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff, declared that Britain must prepare a citizen army and put itself on a war footing. In a similar vein, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said that Britain must shift from being a post-war country to a pre-war one. Even Boris Johnson now claims to support conscription. Presumably the tens of billions spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the more than 600 service personnel who sacrificed their lives, were never involved in a military conflict.
In response to Sanders’s comments, the Ministry of Defence said that there were no plans to revive national service — a position echoed by Number 10. That makes sense given Britain ended conscription in 1960. If our country could end national service at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the high point of the Cold War, it seems outlandish to say its return is now necessary.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss such views as either making noise to get more resources, as with Sanders, or peacocking for attention like the former prime minister. Because, while the present debate may possess an almost surreal bent, things will feel different under a Labour government, particularly if the conflict in the Middle East intensifies. While Sunak and Shapps are happy to reject calls from the head of the British Army, Labour’s desire to win credibility on traditionally Conservative terrain, such as defence, will mean otherwise.
Precedent suggests as much. While David Cameron’s participation in the removal of Muammar Gaddafi was catastrophic, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan blunted Britain’s martial impulses during the 2010s. In contrast to the brutal fighting British forces saw in Helmand two decades ago, not a single member of the armed forces died on duty during the Johnson premiership. For any criticisms one can make of the Tories since 2010, foreign adventurism (with the exception of Libya) isn’t one of them.
So could the pendulum really swing back under a Keir Starmer premiership? The signs are certainly there. After all, when Starmer’s efforts as Director of Public Prosecutions to help extradite autistic hacker Gary McKinnon came to nothing (they were scotched by none other than Theresa May as Home Secretary), he boarded a plane to Washington the next day to meet with deputies of the US Attorney General. When May’s decision came through, the now Labour leader was said to be furious.
Then there was the case of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was subject to extraordinary rendition and torture by the US. After his release without charge, Mohamed produced evidence of British collusion in his torture — and it fell to Starmer to decide whether the MI5 officer responsible would face prosecution. He decided they would not, and would later arrive at the same conclusion for an MI6 officer accused of sanctioning the torture of detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In other words, Starmer’s record shows he is happy to genuflect to both Washington and Britain’s domestic security apparatus. This, combined with a desire to fend off claims of being too Left-wing, are a recipe for a prime minister who looks more like Blair than Boris on foreign affairs.
When vying to become Labour leader, Starmer promised to introduce a “prevention of military intervention act” that would stop “more illegal wars”. Under such legislation, military action would occur if a lawful case were made and authorised by the House of Commons. Yet all of this was dispensed with during recent airstrikes on Yemen. Whether or not one believes Parliament should be given such powers — a point of contention — this underscores how the Labour leader’s flip-flopping applies just as much to foreign affairs as it does to things like public ownership.
It’s important to note that Starmer will do anything to win. But just as importantly, he is (like the rest of the Labour Right) a full-throated Atlanticist, who possesses an almost compulsive desire to please Washington. This cohort views Atlanticism as part of their personal identity, and a tool to bash the Left, rather than something of instrumental value in policy terms. As with Brexit, the idea that Britain could ever determine its own course is unthinkable to them.
Finally, one can also see how issues of foreign policy might quickly appeal to a Labour prime minister whose opportunities for domestic reform are constrained. Unable, or unwilling, to solve the major problems impacting millions of voters — from housing to eviscerated high streets — an overseas crusade could seduce. At a dangerous moment for Britain and the world, Labour’s next premier sounds suspiciously reminiscent of its last but one. I’d wager Starmer is more likely to lead us into the next pointless war than almost anyone on the Tory benches.