Spinning against imperialism: Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne and the Middle East

By Brian Whitaker, al-bab, October 27, 2015

When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the opposition Labour party in Britain last month I wrote a blog post looking at his public statements on international affairs and trying to draw some conclusions about how British policy in the Middle East might change under a Corbyn-led government.

While some of Corbyn’s ideas struck me as naive there were others that looked more promising. Along with his unwillingness to be drawn into military adventures his declared intention to place human rights “in the centre” of foreign policy seemed like a positive development.

Corbyn has since had some success in that area, embarrassing the government over its cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The government has been struggling to justify its eagerness to do business with the Saudis in the face of their egregious human rights abuses and on this issue the British public, together with large sections of the media, appear to be on Corbyn’s side. This is clearly one of the government’s weak spots, ripe for Labour to exploit.

Last week brought a distraction from the business of opposing the government, however, with the appointment of Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as Executive Director of Strategy and Communications – in effect, as Corbyn’s chief spin doctor. It’s the post formerly held by Alastair Campbell in Tony Blair’s government, and it gives the holder a lot of influence if not actual power. At the very least we can expect Milne to be in daily contact with Corbyn, discussing how to present Labour’s policies and respond to events.

Milne’s appointment caused a furore in both mainstream and social media, not to mention sections of the Labour party. While some debated whether to describe him as a Stalinist, an ex-Stalinist or a Stalin apologist, others raked through his old Guardian columns picking out incendiary phrases. Much has been made of one phrase in a column from 2013 where Milne said the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two Islamist fanatics “wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense”.

The phrase was certainly provocative but when it’s re-read in the original context Milne does have an arguable point: Rigby was not the victim of a random killing but had been specifically targeted as a member of the military. Milne also described his killing as “horrific” and an act of “butchery”:

“The videoed butchery of Fusilier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks last May was a horrific act and his killers’ murder conviction a foregone conclusion. Rigby was a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan. So the attack wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians.”

Inevitably Corbyn supporters have tended to shrug off criticisms of Milne as the ravings of a hostile press, similar to the earlier media hysteria surrounding Corbyn’s surprise election to the Labour leadership. There’s undoubtedly some truth in that but it would be foolish to pretend the appointment won’t cause real problems for the party.

As it happens, I have had some work-related contact with Milne. During my time at the Guardian we worked in the same building for 20-plus years, though never in very close proximity. He was always a contentious figure, to put it mildly. Some at the Guardian clearly adored him but others kept a wide berth.

I first encountered him at meetings of the journalists’ union where he was a very active member as well as an eloquent and influential speaker. When Richard Gott, who had famously interviewed Che Guevara and later identified his dead body, departed from the paper under a cloud in 1994, Milne became unofficial torch-bearer inside the Guardian for leftism of the less-libertarian kind.

The first direct conversation I can recall having with him was in 1990 around the time that Farzad Bazoft, a freelance journalist working for the Observer, was executed on the orders of Saddam Hussein. During a visit to Iraq (at the regime’s invitation) Bazoft had made inquiries about a military site – thought to be a missile factory – where there had been a mysterious explosion. He collected soil samples near the site, hoping to take them back to Britain for chemical analysis, but was arrested at Baghdad airport and hanged a few months later.

Somehow, I got into discussion with Milne about this and was startled when he sought to justify Bazoft’s arrest by the Iraqi authorities (if not his actual execution).

Although it shocked me at the time, with hindsight Milne’s view of the Bazoft affair was thoroughly predictable. You don’t need to read many of his columns to see that he views international politics almost entirely through an anti-imperialist lens. That, in turn, leads to a sympathetic view of those dictatorial regimes which characterise themselves as anti-imperialist. It’s the same with Islamist movements where they oppose western-backed regimes (Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia) though not necessarily in other cases such as Syria.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with opposing imperialism but Milne’s anti-imperialism is an especially simplistic kind. It’s one that blames imperialism for almost everything, discounting other factors that happen not to fit the narrative, and often confusing imperialism with globalisation. To get a flavour of it, watch Milne’s speech to the Equality Movement in 2011 where he shared a platform with Lizzie Phelan (aka Cocker) who achieved notoriety with her weird misreporting of Gadafy’s overthrow in Libya and later called for solidarity with the Assad regime.

Where the Labour party is concerned it’s difficult to see how Milne’s presence can enhance perceptions of its foreign policy. More likely, the effect will be to undermine its strengths and exacerbate its weaknesses.

Corbyn, like Milne, is highly critical of Britain’s historic role in the Middle East but he’s a bit more subtle about it. He has been careful not to blame all the region’s problems on the west, saying, for example, that ISIS is “not in total but in part a creation of western interventions”.

As I noted in my earlier blog post about Corbyn’s views, critiques of this kind need to be framed carefully if they are not to be misused by others. Blaming the west is a vintage excuse used by Arab dictators to distract from their own failings and it’s also a central plank of the Islamist propaganda narrative. Islamist activists in Britain, for example, specifically urge their supporters to “continue linking ‘extremism’ and incidents like 7/7 and Woolwich to foreign policy”.

On the Woolwich question, Milne’s 2013 column could not have been more obliging. Reading beyond the much-quoted phrase about terrorism, we learn that Rigby’s killing was “the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others in eight direct military interventions in Arab and Muslim countries that have left hundreds of thousands of dead”. Judging by his column, there were no other factors worth considering.

Meanwhile, Britain’s relationship with repressive (but west-friendly) regimes and the Cameron government’s apparent determination to prioritise trade – including arms sales – over human rights are issues that desperately need serious public debate. In his short time as Labour leader Corbyn has shown a commendable willingness to raise them. But it’s going to be difficult to continue doing that with much credibility when his spin doctor has shown so much sympathy for anti-western regimes that have been no less repressive.

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