Britain is divided, and the British Labour Party even more so, over its role in leading Western nations. So does it offer lessons for New Zealand?

Last week Britain voted for airstrikes in Syria against Islamic State. The parliamentary debate that preceded the vote was illuminating in the way it mirrored the divide in Britain about its place in the world.

Britain us a united kingdom of four nations. But that is likely to shrink by at least one. 

Scotland is governed by the independence party SNP. Virtually all Scotland’s Westminster representatives are also from the SNP. They have no doubt where they stand; they voted against the resolution. In many ways Scottish representatives are already acting as if Scotland was independent. A small nation of 5 million people is unlikely to view the issues of Syria in the same way as a larger nation. An appeal from France for solidarity is only going to have real impact on nations that are its peers, as is the United Kingdom.

This brings the issue of England to the fore. England comprehensively voted Conservative in the last election. But much of the north of England, Wales and parts of London remained Labour. And it is the Labour Party that is divided. The division in Labour is not just about its internal politics, it also reflects a wider division in England. What sort of nation is it?

For Conservatives this is a relatively easy question to answer. England, and by extension, the United Kingdom is a leading nation in the West. This is partly based on the imperial legacy and partly based on British economic strength. But most particularly it is derived from England’s historic role as one of the most important nations in Europe.

Labour is more uneasy about this heritage. That is why Tony Blair is reviled by the Left in a way the GW Bush is not in America. The confident assertion of traditional international leadership by Tony Blair never sat comfortably with the left of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural leader for this group. They see a new role for England.  It would not be a nuclear power. It need not be a P5 member of the UN. It certainly would not be a leader of traditional western causes. Corbyn’s England would be a middle nation in Europe, perhaps much like Italy, Poland or Spain.

That is why Jeremy Corbyn can so easily say that he can see no situation in which British combat troops would be deployed overseas. Whether he would continue to hold that view if a NATO nation was actually invaded is unknown, but realistically that proposition will not be put to the test. The Syrian situation is a much more probable circumstance where western forces will be deployed. And in Corbyn’s world view, this will never justify the deployment of British troops or airpower.

But Corbyn and his supporters are not the whole of the Labour Party. Hilary Benn in a brilliant speech at the close of the Commons debate eloquently expressed traditional Labour internationalism. This does mean accepting the mantle of western leadership, not in the crusading nature proselytised by Tony Blair, but certainly if the case is clear enough, not to shirk away from this role.

So where does contemporary England stand? In many respects it is a country divided. A clear majority, including traditional Labour internationalists, see a role for England to be a leader in the west. There is however, a passionate minority who oppose such a view. It may ultimately mean Labour will divide into two parties, reflecting this disposition.

That is why the debate in England is so much sharper than in New Zealand.  We are never going to be faced with a question of western leadership. Therefore, what we expect to do is much less. The deployment of trainers to Iraq is incapable of stirring up passions in a way that actually bombing another country will do.

There are of course issues that do stir New Zealand passions. 

In the foreseeable future this is more likely to involve environmental issues than what happens in the Middle East. On these questions many New Zealanders, across the political spectrum, do see us being able to take a greater international leadership role. I suspect in coming years these issues will test New Zealand politics to a much greater extent than they currently do.

After all, even smaller countries can lead, so long as they know what they want and how they can influence others.

Comments (17)

by Rich on December 10, 2015

why Tony Blair is reviled by the Left in a way the GW Bush is not in America

Bush is a Republican, last time I looked - he didn't get elected in the cause of a nominally left wing party. 

by Voice_of_Reason on December 10, 2015

Hilary Benns speech was eloquent yes, but it is still wrong. Going back and repeating the same mistakes as Iraq isn't much of a strategy and although it may make politicians feel better about doing 'something' since when does bombing far to few targets with far to many bombs solve anything? 

by Fentex on December 10, 2015

The confident assertion of traditional international leadership by Tony Blair never sat comfortably with the left of the Labour Party. 

I don't think this is why people hate Blair. What he lead them into, not the mere fact of asserting leadership, is more the issue I would think.

by KJT on December 10, 2015

Britain should learn from their own example. Germany bombing the crap out of them, just made them more keen on fighting.

Which is why Benn, and our National party, are so wrong.

Murder/ (sorry, collateral damage) The West Bombing and killing and maiming  people is the best recruitment tool Daesh have.

"Let's do more of it".

by onsos on December 11, 2015

At the moment, the leaders in the west have not got a plan for Syria which will deliver success. Until they produce that plan, the whole discussion is misplaced. A successful plan would involve Turkey changing its stance, which would give the NATO powers both a moral and a practical framework for success. 


As three of the four key powers in NATO, Britain, France and the US have a key role in pressuring Turkey into properly supporting Kurdish and other opposition forces instead of actively opposing them. This could change a lot of the realpolitik of the situation. Until this happens, the current brawl will continue, and only Assad/Putin or ISIL look like winning.


That is what leadership in England, or the UK, would entail.

by mikesh on December 11, 2015

Does Britain want to pursue an indendent policy in Syria, or follow the US? The latter seem more interested in ousting Syria's legitimate government than in fighting ISIS.

by Wayne Mapp on December 11, 2015
Wayne Mapp

There seems to be a view on the Left that it is impossible to defeat ISIS in the territory they occupy in Syria and Iraq. But local forces backed by air strikes can do that, especilly if special forces assist. that seems to be happening in Iraqwith the Iraqi Army and the Kurds slowly rolling back ISIS. It is abut more difficult in Syria given the conflicting agendas, but the West seems to be accepting the Russian view that the Syrian Army will be a player in defeating ISIS.

My question is what is the Left's solution. it certainly seems they oppose all military action against it. So does that mean they just accept that ISIS is effectively a new state, albeit that it does not follow international norms? And that the only response should be sanctions, and perhaps not even that.

And for major terrorism originating from ISIS well I guess we just have to deal with it as a normal police matter since many on the Left also oppose intelligence agencies as well. 


by Fentex on December 11, 2015

People arguing that standing back and pissing fuel on a fire (meaning bombing campaigns without much strategy) are not arguing that an army supported from the air will not defeat Daesh.

The problem is there hasn't been much evidence of an effective army at work. The Shiite dominated Iraqis aren't much welcome, the Kurds aren't interested in advancing beyond protecting their population. and intruders will stoke resistance.

The Iraqi army is improving, it is gaining confidence from experience of success at Ramadi and will hopefully be Daeshs nemesis. But it will be some time before the arduous slog of re-taking urban territory reduces Daesh. Immediate bombing campaigns do not serve their progress but only occur as salving vengeance where not in direct support of tactical actions.

And the violent Jihadi Ideology feeding terror attacks will survive Daesh's occupation of territory. It is a related but separate beast not prevented but fed by a narrative of vengeful bombings.

Some hope, now a tacit understanding that Assad must retake control of Syria seems to be forming, that the Syrian army will become the local force that coalition forces can support in destroying Daesh. I'm not sure that's a good plan that will be realised, but if it is it's still a while away.

by Lee Churchman on December 11, 2015
Lee Churchman

My question is what is the Left's solution. it certainly seems they oppose all military action against it.

Not really. It's a problem of competence. The people in charge of "our" response don't have a credible, long term plan no matter how many times you claim otherwise. These are in most cases the same people largely responsible for the current mess. 

I don't personally oppose military action to deal with ISIS. I oppose the people on our side currently tasked with organising it, but they won't go away and we systems seem incapable of replacing them, so forgive me if I don't support yet another Sicilian expedition.

by Stewart Hawkins on December 11, 2015
Stewart Hawkins

Bombing the vast areas of Britain's inner city Muslim controlled "no-go" zones would effect a higher kill rate of Islamists together with a lower collateral damage rate than bombing Syria. So logically.....

by Wayne Mapp on December 11, 2015
Wayne Mapp

My previous post had a few spelling errors by virtue of being done from an iPhone. 

I probably rather overstated the case about the Left view of ISIS. The moderate left clearly do want to deal with ISIS, and they recognize that it requires more than a conventional role for the police.

However, the group that is Stop the War in the UK (and similar groups here) certainly seem to think nothing should be done. And in my view, even if by omission, such groups get extremely close to tacitly accepting that ISIS should be able to establish their state.

This poses a real dilemma for the UK government. Obviously in a situation of deploying troops to actual combat it is always best if the two major parties support such action. However, under Corbyn's leadership the majority of Labour no longer subscribes to a view of western unity on such an issue. Thus if Corbyn becomes the PM, obviously in coalition with SNP, the UK foreign policy will radically change, though probably not to the extent of the UK leaving NATO.

Alternatively Labour cannot win with Corbyn, and a new moderate leader will arise. I imagine that this is most likely to occur after a defeat in 2020, since in my view Corbyn, given his mandate, will last through to the next election. The only real caveat to that is that he may find the pressure of being the Leader of a highly divided party too much and will resign the leadership prior to the election. But I suspect he is made of sterner stuff and will be able to handle the pressure.

New Zealand politics seems very calm in comparison, with the main debates being conducted essentially around the centre. 


by mikesh on December 12, 2015

The fact that we feel we need to have a "plan" for Syria, Iraq or any other Middle East country seems to disguise the fact that these countries should be allowed to formulate their own "plans". Why don't we all just get out of the area and leave Middle Easterners to sort out their own problems.

by Lee Churchman on December 12, 2015
Lee Churchman

However, the group that is Stop the War in the UK (and similar groups here) certainly seem to think nothing should be done.

Well, they are anti-imperialist organisations. It's not that they think that nothing should be done so much as they think that doing nothing is preferable to allowing our lot mess things up. Given the recent results of such interventions, they have a non-trivial case. In terms of raw consequences, the war on terror is/was an abject failure. 

by Vanessa L King on December 12, 2015
Vanessa L King

"My question is what is the Left's solution. it certainly seems they oppose all military action against it. So does that mean they just accept that ISIS is effectively a new state, albeit that it does not follow international norms? And that the only response should be sanctions, and perhaps not even that." 

Hi Wayne, your article on the cultural divide of Labour in the UK was interesting but in your comments you have taken a giant leap and tried to link it to an inferred divide on the left in NZ.  As a leftie and a graduate of International Relations I have to say that it isn't the responsibility of the left in NZ to solve a problem with an extensive historical basis in European and US interventionism.  This problem was exacerbated by the illegal war against Iraq by the US and the mess essentially spread to Syria. Sorry but what person in their "right" mind finds the bombing of innocent civillans in any way tenable. What is reflected here is the fact that the lives of "others" are seen as less valuable and merely as "collateral damage".  Let's also not forget who is making money out of this latest escapade...the arms dealers and aircraft manufacturers.  I also take issue with your broad statement that the left are opposed to intelligence agencies.  The reality is that many are opposed to the use of the threat of "terrorism" as an all out excuse to invade their privacy.  Many also oppose the overriding of national sovereignty using the excuse of terrorism.

Certainly neither the left in either Britain or NZ may be seen as not having a solution for the mess.  They simply don't want to add to the carnage. Blaming the left for not having a solution to the rise in ISIS is also not a solution.

by onsos on December 14, 2015

Talking about the Left is way of agglomerating widely varying viewpoints; it allows the simplistic assertion that they oppose intervention.

Most of the Left people I know are realistic enough to acknowledge the role that action can have, including actual military engagement. They are also realistic enough to know that the current model of air-strikes and ineffectual support for desirable opposition is not adequate. 

Assad and Putin are winning this war, morally, at the moment. They are also winning it strategically and politically. If the western powers want to change this, they need to change the way they are operating. That's not simply more air-strikes; it also means stopping their allies from attacking the non-jihadist opposition. 

by Andrew P Nichols on December 15, 2015
Andrew P Nichols

There seems to be a view on the Left that it is impossible to defeat ISIS in the territory they occupy in Syria and Iraq.

Doesnt sound like you've been lsitening too well. The antiwar left - not the faux war loving left.ask why  the funding of ISIS and its oil sales arent attacked. Currently the limp US bombing campaign without dealing to the funders of the ISIS/Big Al the Kyder is like trying to fight a paetrol statioon fire without turning off the fuel. The reasons this is not done are two fold. 1. The US primary goal is the downfall of the Damascus Govt and 2. the funders of ISIS are the Saudis and the other Gulf Sunni  theocracies - good US allies and customers for US/Brit weapons. This is why the Russian /Iranian campaign is a game changer. They believe the Syrians alone have the legitimate right to decide their fate and so with their coherent strategy are effectively dealing to the insurgents and showing up the duplicity of the strategy of  US and its allies.

The confident assertion of traditional international leadership by Tony Blair never sat comfortably with the left of the Labour Party.

Bliar took the UK to war on the basis of deliberate lies. The UK public dont like their war criminals even if the Deep State wont prosecute them. The US openly celebrates theirs (Bush Cheney Rumsfeld Kissinger Clintonx2).


by gregfullmoon on December 27, 2015

I guess all this places you in the war-mongers club Wayne?

Do you comprehend what you mates in the war mongers camp have unleashed on the World with their infinite 'War on Terror?'

I have followed the War on Terror with much interest. I was aghast at our NZ Government's Countering Foreign Terrorist Fighter Legislation Bill in late 2014. More impositions on the public were suggested to counter NZers who might wish to join ISIS. The Government had about 70 persons under watch, so all known likely ISIS joiners were being watched by our GCSB and NZSIS, as well as Kimdotcom and anyone viewed as an enemy of business as usual.

One of the problems we appear to have in this 'post enlightenment' age of stupid period is the over abundance of information placed in the public space without historical (or even last year's) context.

From my evidence to the Foreign Affairs Trade and Defence (FADAT) Select Committee which considered under Urgency the above mentioned Bill (I appeared Friday 28th November 2014), link here:

Here's what I said in my evidence paper about Iraq:

'Iraq War

Does the Foreign Affairs and Defence committee recall the fire storming of Fallujah during the later part of 2004 in Iraq by our colleagues the USA and the then remaining Coalition of the Willing? We were involved in the Iraq War from mid 2003.
That was a city of 300,000 people prior to the 2003 invasion. The people of that city were singled out for special treatment by the Coalition of the Willing. The residents were encouraged to depart the city as the USA and the coalition of the willing declared a free fire zone. Some people did not leave their homes. Imagine the death from burning in the fire, or shot in the stomach without medical assistance. Are these atrocities less than the alleged ISIS atrocities? Fallujah is a city similar in size to many kiwi cities, with all the infrastructure associated with a modern metropolis. Destroyed and levelled, bombed and broken. Why?

Declared enemies of the USA led Coalition of the Willing had used the city as their base. Why did they this? Because the USA had effectively destroyed other options for them to resist.

Why did the USA led Coalition of the Willing come to invade Iraq? What pretext allowed them to ultimately fire bomb Fallujah? Weapons of Mass Destruction? What else? A whim?

A mood? A feeling that it was the right thing to do at the time? From the Wikipedia in the preceding reference is this statement from amongst many under the heading 'Conclusions';

A study co-authored by the Center for Public Integrity found that in the two years after September 11, 2001 the president and top administration officials had made 935 false statements, in an orchestrated public relations campaign to galvanize public opinion for the war, and that the press was largely complicit in its uncritical coverage of the reasons adduced for going to war.

Do our leaders similarly lie to get our Assent? Lie by omission or by untruth?
How many Iraqis died, were injured or displaced since the 2003 invasion? Estimates range - however the Lancet report gave 600,000 dead. Financial Costs of the Iraq war range in the USA$trillions;

We in New Zealand did not sanction that dirty fight with troops. We stayed away till June 3 2003. What advice had the New Zealand Government from it's intelligence and defence departments that allowed it in good conscience to refuse to condone that resultant bloodbath?

Oil for Food – Trade and War

Interestingly the issue of the oil for food program caused consternation in New Zealand's agriculture and trade lobby when it appeared NZ commercial interests would miss out on an opportunity to feed at the trough. The resultant Hansard of the Parliamentary debate provides plenty of support for the contention that war and trade is intractably linked.' (all statements are well referenced in the above evidence to the FADAT - have a read)

You know about depleted uranium weapons Wayne? These are employed by our Allies in the coalition of the willing. I assume you also sanction these? Genocidal morons who appear impervious to the idea of blowback or consequences of destroying whole nations for imperialistic whims.

We the West have created war and mayhem in the post 9/11 wars that have possibly killed 10 millions and displaced many 10s of millions more. The cost on Western budgets for the war armaments is in the multiple trillions of dollars – hundreds of millions for New Zealand's oblivious taxpayers.

All premised on 9/11. Now all premised on keeping the 9/11 lie in the shadows. Carry on there's a profit to be made.

The Hon Phil Goff is a member of the FADAT Select Committee, and offered (28 Nov 2014) that he was part of the Cabinet that made the decision to not participate in the March 2003 war theatre in Iraq. In his discussion he offered the following comment paraphrased:

We (all in the Select Committee room at the time) will be pleased to know that on that occasion our Intelligence Service provided advice (to Government) that there was no justification for the War in and on Iraq.”

We have Phil Goff's evidence that the NZ Security services knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction (or whatever else), yet our Allies; Blair in the UK, Bush in the US, and Howard in Australia - lied to their respective populations about the need to murder in premeditated genocide millions of people in Iraq. The proof is out there in the open for anyone with eyes to see. Why is it that no ethical government will call the West for its crimes against humanity? The only reason can be power - who has the power to prosecute the Western political leaders who continually involve their nations in genocidal war making?

There is no argument that launching aggressive war is a crime, and the West has now launched a number post the 11th September 2001. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Syria etc., and Palestine if one regards the Israeli (Mossad) as part of the West, though they appear to be in the shadows everywhere.

Why bag 'Stop the War' in Britain for taking the only sane approach to belligerent genocide by war mongers? They call you out for your 'war-loving' approach?

On 9/11 - read all 14 pages of my evidence to the FADAT Select Committee linked above, or try this if you can only get information from videos:

This movie from Tony Rooke who got off the charge of not paying his UK TV license fee. His evidence made an impression on the old Bailey.

But you might ask what has any of that got to do with ISIS?

Well Wayne it's a causal universe.

Western militarism and genocide is the cause - ISIS is the effect. Remove the cause and the effect goes away - keep adding cause, and you get - what you get.

As to the left - even the NZ Labour Party are confused on this issue - Andrew Little visits the Pentagon and comes out a war monger too:

You must be real happy Wayne, happy new genocidal 2016 - may the blood of millions wash through your dreams.


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