Election ’17: War is a Politician’s Vanity Project

Graham Horne of the anti-war campaign group Veterans for Peace (VfP) talks to S&C editor Tom Sykes about what the coming election could mean for Britain’s arms industry, foreign policy and international relations.

Tom Sykes: Will the election have any impact on VfP’s campaign work? Is VfP getting behind any of the candidates?

Graham Horne: As far as I’m concerned, it’s a case of steady as you go and keep taking the tablets. Whatever comes out of the election is unlikely to affect VfP. We are strictly politically neutral. We do not endorse candidates of any description whatsoever. At the same time, we will talk to anybody who wants to make common cause towards peace and against interventionist wars wherever they may be in the world.

TS: In the past you have interacted with a politician that will figure heavily in this election: Jeremy Corbyn.

GH: We have had one or two dealings with Corbyn, that’s true. It appears that he’s been pressured by his party to adopt a multilateralist approach to nuclear disarmament, whereas he personally has always been a unilateralist, as I understand it. Yet again, we’ve got what appears to be a duplicitous and perfidious politician who will go against his heartfelt conscience in order to gain votes. This makes me cynical, I’m afraid. I just don’t trust any of them. We at VfP have known for a long time that lobbying the Labour Party to, say, return to a unilateralist policy is a busted flush. It’s a waste of effort.

TS: If the Tories win the next election, as predicted, will British foreign policy change? What about the prospects of further conflicts abroad?

GH: Theresa May has been talking about raising defence spending. It’s what the militarist establishment and the military-industrial complex like to hear. It wouldn’t surprise me if the politicians were planning for a war in the near future, given their track record in recent years. They may dress it up as they usually do with the doublespeak of ‘humanitarian intervention’. ‘We’re bringing food or liberation to an oppressed part of the world,’ something like that. Remember the same rhetoric about Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan? And look how worse off those countries were after we’d finished with them.

We know May’s going to walk through the door with a thumping majority because of our corrupt first past the post system. She’ll want a war because prime ministers in the past, Labour and Tory, have had one. Attlee had Malaya and the Greek Civil War, Eden had Suez, Heath and Wilson had Northern Ireland, Thatcher had the Falklands, Blair had Iraq and a load of others. War is a vanity project for a politician. May might come to be affected by ‘the Falklands factor.’ Now I don’t know if you remember 1982?

TS: Just about.

GH: In the opinion polls in 1981, Thatcher’s government was looking like it’d get a beating in the 1983 election. She’d come in on an anti-working-class ticket and she’d hit the ground running, attacking everything in sight. It was a bit like what the Tories are doing at the moment. Thatcher was thrown a lifeline in the form of General Galtieri of Argentina, who himself was dealing with a lot of internal political pressures. His invasion of the Falkland Islands was an answer to her prayer because, when you bang the nationalist drum and declare a war for a ‘righteous cause’, next thing you know your party’s in power for the next 15 years.

TS: So if things get rocky for May in the next few years she might call on the ‘Falklands factor’?

Graham Horne, Veterans for Peace

GH: No doubt about it. Where she will get into trouble is on these relentless assaults on welfare and the NHS. There will be anger as more and more people get sick and become destitute and drop dead, as they have been doing since austerity kicked off.

TS: If Corbyn did somehow win in June might his Labour Party offer something different to that scenario you’ve just outlined?

GH: I don’t see a lot of difference between the parties. Neither wants to radically change our society. The only difference between them is the degree to which they are prepared to intervene in the economy. You go to the left of our narrow political spectrum and you get the type of social engineering that preserves or increases welfare. You go to the right and you get a different kind of social engineering that reduces welfare. Neither side is addressing the key issue, which is that the welfare system would be rendered obsolete if we didn’t have the inequality and alienation that is essential to our economic system.

Corbyn comes across as a nice guy. But he’s just one person and behind him are a lot of Blairites who are effectively ‘Tory lite.’ They’re every bit as war-happy, every bit as bomb-happy as anyone riding the Theresa May gravy train. The whole Trident issue proves that hands-down. From my perspective as a peace activist, whoever wins this election – Tory, Labour, LibDem, Screaming Lord Sutch if he were still alive – the war system and the military-industrial complex ain’t going anywhere.

TS: So when it comes to shaping our foreign policy it’s those unelected, unaccountable power interests that really hold sway?

GH: I think so. When the left talks about internationalism, it means achieving solidarity between working people across the world. But there’s also a form of internationalism when it comes to funding and financing the military-industrial complex. Whether we talk about Trump in the US, May in the UK or Putin in Russia, these national politicians are in hock to the war system both in their respective countries and globally. Politicians that toe the war system’s line will get rewarded in all kinds of ways – just look at the ‘revolving door’ between parliament and arms companies in Britain or the fact that the Obama administration oversaw more arms deals than any other in US history.

TS: If our elected representatives won’t dissent with the war system how can the public resist or oppose it?

GH: We have just added a clause to VfP’s mission statement which says that we’re aiming to liberate the people of the world from militarism. That’s a big ask, of course! But what we try to do is raise consciousness through our campaigns. We try to take opportunities to change minds where possible. For example, a lot of trade unions support multilateral nuclear disarmament but won’t support unilateralism because of the risks to British jobs. We try to make the moral argument. We ask whether you really want to go to work producing stuff that could cause the total destruction of the planet. It’s difficult because the trade unions representing the arms industry workers are, in a sense, part of the problem – they fuel the war system with human resources.

This matter is particularly relevant to Portsmouth. When BAE Systems announced the end of its shipbuilding in the city in 2013, the unions were jumping up and down, but they didn’t mention that the new aircraft carriers that needed to be built were likely to carry F-35 fighter bombers to some conflict and kill loads and loads of innocent women and children.

TS: You served in the British Army during the height of the Cold War and I wonder what you now make of this ‘new Cold War’ mentality that’s developing in the West? There’s almost daily hysteria in the mainstream media about Russia being the world’s worst imperialist power, yet these same commentators are strangely quiet about the depredations of Western imperialism. If we try to be a little more objective about it, how does Putin compare to someone like George W Bush, Tony Blair or even Barack Obama – who was hardly a peacemaker on the international stage – in terms of how damaging his foreign policy has been to the rest of the world?

GH: Any national leader is going to put the interests of his nation first. For that reason, Putin is as much a part of the global problems of war and imperialism as anyone else. I don’t think Russia is the demon it’s been painted as, though. First of all, what do these commentators on the BBC mean when they say ‘the Russians’? Are they talking about the whole of the Russian people or the tiny bunch of dodgy gangsters who run the place?

TS: The danger is that sometimes the Western media sounds like it is generalising about the whole of Russian society which results in a form of cultural or ethnic supremacism. Take writer and former Tory MP Louise Mensch’s moronic Tweet last November: ‘Russia has nothing. Russia is joyless.’ Really? Isn’t that a blanket statement? This kind of reductionism is common in many kinds of Western writing and reporting on non-Western societies, as we know from scholars like Edward Said, Walter Mignolo and Debbie Lisle.

GH: It’s sometimes portrayed as though every single Russian is right behind Putin and wants to reduce the West to rubble. Have they forgotten about the vigorous pro-democracy movement in that country?

TS: And we too easily forget that the corrupt infrastructure that put Putin and his cronies into power was constructed by the United States through the World Bank and the IMF after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin – whose protege was Putin – won his elections with US-funded dirty tricks. Now the US is alleging Russian meddling in Trump’s victory. The hypocrisy is staggering.

GH: The other important point is that historically Russia has had a lot of problems on its western borders. It’s had trouble on its eastern border with China too, but the worst death and destruction happened because enemies invaded from the west in both the world wars.

TS: Napoleon tried to invade in 1812 too.

GH: Yes and then, in 1949, there’s another bunch of buggers massing to the west demonising Russians as the enemies of Western democracy, even though Russia had been our key ally against Hitler in World War II. Logic tells me that if your border is vulnerable you’re going to work hard to protect it. I suspect Russian militarism is ruled more by fear of what might be thrown at it next rather than any huge love of imperial aggrandisement.

TS: You only have to compare Russian aggression, which is largely limited to those border regions you mentioned, with the US empire which is currently involved in over 100 wars in several continents and has 800 or so military bases all over the globe.

GH: It’s ironic. The Latvian woman of Russian descent I’m about to marry said that, during the Cold War, she was told by the state that Britain and America were demons trying to control the world. She and I are the same age, and at exactly the same period in history, I was being told that it was Russia who were the demons trying to take over the world. Civilians on either side of the Iron Curtain came to believe this because they’d been indoctrinated to. But it’s all turned out to be nonsense.

To go back to the ‘Falklands effect’, I do think that all this Russia-hating and the positioning of NATO troops in Eastern Europe are means of distracting the public from the problems at home, if you like, whether we’re talking about poverty or healthcare or whatever. As Thatcher found, the cheapest and quickest way to bring together a divided society is to play the nationalist card. You can demonise an enemy and then claim that all British people are in it together against the Russians or whichever bogeyman you choose.

TS: Do you think this Russophobia is also a means of distracting public attention away from Western interventionism in the Middle East? The British media has made a lot of noise about Russian involvement in Syria but is almost silent about the Yemen conflict because the worst atrocities have been committed by our ally Saudi Arabia.

GH: Very much so. The simple fact is Saudi Arabia has vast amounts of oil money which it wants to spend on weapons produced by our firms. We’ve heard this talk in the past about an ‘ethical foreign policy’, but all the time you’re selling arms to anybody, it isn’t ethical! Arms kill people and killing people is not in any way ethical.

TS: The last time we spoke you mentioned a number of campaigns that VfP were running, such as Don’t Join the Army. How are those projects progressing?

GH: What’s interesting is that, from our monitoring of the figures, the army and the navy are having problems fulfilling their recruitment targets at the moment. Fair play to the millennial generation! After all, they’ll be the ones who will have to do the fighting and the killing and the dying. What impact our campaign has had on that, we don’t know. But of course we’d like to believe that we’ve made some small difference and we know from experience that these grassroots efforts can change things incrementally. That’s preferable to waiting around forever for a politician to stand up to these powerful interests.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.