Spartacist Canada No. 188
Britain: Banana Monarchy
Defend Jeremy Corbyn's Right to Run the Labour Party!
The article below is reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1082 (29 January), newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.
LONDON—The election of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader has so upset the British establishment that the normal protocols of the “mother of parliaments” have been flouted in favour of public threats by military officers of the highest rank to depose him. Only days after Corbyn’s election came a statement from an unnamed “senior serving general” to the Sunday Times (20 September) forecasting that members of the armed forces would begin directly and publicly challenging Corbyn if he tries to scrap the Trident nuclear missile system, pull out of NATO or if he announces “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.” According to the Sunday Times, the general said that “the army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country.” He went on to say that people in the military “would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that,” and that “you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”
Then, on 8 November, on the BBC’s flagship Andrew Marr show, the serving head of the armed forces, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, effectively declared Corbyn unfit to become prime minister. Aired amid the pomp of “Remembrance Sunday,” a day celebrating Britain’s imperialist wars, the show was a slickly orchestrated and carefully delivered warning from the British establishment that if a Corbyn-led Labour Party were voted into office, the election would be declared null and void. When Marr solicited the general’s opinion on Corbyn’s stated refusal to ever use nuclear weapons, Houghton replied: “Well, it would worry me if that thought was translated into power.” This diplomatic phrase, from a man whose reputation is that he does not “shoot from the lip” but chooses his words carefully, is nothing short of a coup threat. As he vented concern over what policies are acceptable in a government, in military dress uniform, on a day dedicated to the armed forces, the general could well have been declaring a military coup in a Central American “banana republic.” But in Britain—with its hereditary sovereign, who is head of state and head of the armed forces—“banana monarchy” would be more apt.
The general’s attack on Corbyn is part of a relentless campaign by the Tories, the capitalist press and the right wing of the Labour Party to oust him as party leader. Corbyn’s political platform goes beyond the parameters of what is acceptable to the British ruling class, who convinced themselves that, with the demise of the Soviet Union and apparent death of old Labour “socialism,” the class war had been resolved in favour of the capitalists. For the Tory establishment and the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s landslide election as Labour leader, based on talk of socialism, trade-union rights and immigrant rights, was a nasty shock. What really makes Corbyn unacceptable—the red lines he has crossed—is that his opposition to both NATO and Trident would undermine Britain’s prestige as an imperialist power and its “special relationship” with the U.S.
Not coincidentally, the same television programme that interviewed General Houghton also featured none other than Maria Eagle, then shadow defence secretary, who is seen as one of the prime candidates in the Parliamentary Labour Party to oust Corbyn. Eagle fully agreed with the general on Britain’s need for a nuclear deterrent to “defend our nation.” Moreover, she was “completely comfortable” with the Chief of the Defence Staff weighing in and “expressing himself in those terms.” The general was in fact issuing a warning against the leader of her own party who, incidentally, had been elected leader with the biggest mandate in the history of the Labour Party.
To his credit, Corbyn issued a formal complaint about Houghton’s breach of the “constitutional principle” that the military stays out of party politics. In his protest letter Corbyn argued that it “is essential in a democracy that the military remains politically neutral at all times.” But the capitalist state, with the armed forces at its core, is not neutral: it is the executive body of the capitalist ruling class.
The current favourite backed by the ruling class to oust Corbyn is the Labour shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, whose speech in Parliament banging the war drums for the bombing of Syria drew a standing ovation from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories—as well as from some of the 66 Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) who voted for the bombing, against the wishes of the leader and the vast majority of the party membership. Benn’s speech caused the establishment to go weak at the knees in adoration. It was “one of the great orations in our Parliament” gushed Tim Collins, a retired army colonel (Telegraph, 3 December). Not a modest man, Collins rated Benn’s “call to arms” in Parliament as being comparable to his very own pre-battle speech to his troops on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which was reportedly displayed in George W. Bush’s Oval Office. “We go to liberate, not to conquer,” said Collins, but will “wipe them out if that is what they choose.” Both Collins and Houghton earned their stripes with the British Army in Northern Ireland, backing the murderous, sectarian Orange statelet and the Loyalist paramilitaries; later they both commanded troops in the bloody imperialist occupation of Iraq. Corbyn’s opposition to British military interventions in the Near East makes him a particular target for the brass.
In early January, Corbyn attempted to assert political control of his shadow cabinet in a reshuffle. Eagle was replaced as shadow defence secretary, and evidently a deal was struck with Hilary Benn, allowing him to keep his job as shadow foreign secretary as long as he doesn’t openly defy the leader. Corbyn recently raised the prospect that sitting MPs might be dropped from the next electoral slate by the party membership when he said that “policies will be developed through the democratic participation of our own hugely expanded party and supporters.” This put the Blairite MPs in a state of horror, which is delightful to see, over their political futures. “A growing number of us fear a bloodbath” is how one of them put it recently in regards to upcoming changes to constituency boundaries which mean up to ten prominent opponents of Corbyn (including Benn) will have to face membership selection for new seats.
Corbyn’s campaign for and election to the party leadership have set off a class battle within Labour. Corbyn and the tens of thousands who joined the party to support him (it quickly doubled in size) have set in motion a process to reforge the party’s historic links to its working-class base. This is a reversal of the direction the party had been heading, propelled by Tony Blair, towards becoming an overtly capitalist party. Any move that weakens the grip of the Blairites within the party is in the interests of the working class in its struggles against the capitalist class. As the Spartacist League/Britain has stated from the beginning, we have a side in the class war raging in the Labour Party. Against the right-wing attempts to oust him, we say: Defend Jeremy Corbyn’s right to run the Labour Party, and in his way!
The plots against Corbyn bring to mind the 1980s book and television show, A Very British Coup, in which a left-wing Labour government is destabilised by forces including MI5 and the CIA, aided and abetted by right-wingers in the Labour Party and trade-union leadership. You don’t have to go far back in history to find evidence of the British capitalist state plotting the overthrow of a democratically elected government. In 1975, the British monarchy used its “reserve powers” to depose the Australian government of Labor Party prime minister Gough Whitlam in a CIA-engineered “constitutional coup” (see “The CIA, the Queen’s Agent and the Man Who Got in the Way,” Workers Vanguard No. 1061, 6 February 2015).
There is convincing evidence of a plot involving military and intelligence personnel to overthrow Britain’s Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in the 1970s. Wilson was a one-time leftist who moved to the right. In office he provided support to U.S. imperialism in its dirty, losing war in Vietnam. Even so, Wilson was not trusted by the bourgeoisie to bring the combative trade unions to heel in the midst of an economic crisis. The former intelligence officer Peter Wright, in his memoirs, Spycatcher, confirmed allegations that Prime Minister Wilson had also been targeted by MI5 as a suspected KGB agent. In the 2006 BBC documentary The Plot Against Harold Wilson, Brian Crozier, another former intelligence officer, alleged that the army “seriously considered the possibility of a military takeover” against Wilson. Crozier should know. According to the Guardian (9 August 2012), he had “lectured army officers about the risks of a Marxist-Leninist takeover of the ruling Labour Party in the 1970s,” and on one occasion, after telling a group of officers about the potential need for a military coup, “the audience, in his words, ‘rose as one man, cheering and clapping for fully five minutes’.”
In the same documentary, retired major Alexander Greenwood claimed that he had been building up a private army and that a speech had been prepared for the Queen to deliver as part of a coup that would have placed Lord Mountbatten in charge of the country. These claims are given credence by troop manoeuvres at Heathrow Airport at the time, about which Wilson knew nothing. Shortly after the Heathrow manoeuvres, Wilson resigned “on the grounds of ill-health.”
A historic example of the officer corps threatening a coup is the March 1914 mutiny at the Curragh military camp in Ireland, then under British rule. The Liberal government of Herbert Asquith in England had struck a deal with the Irish Nationalist leaders John Redmond and Joseph Devlin for an Irish Home Rule bill, conceding a form of devolved administration. The Protestant Loyalists in the north, organised as the armed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), rose up in opposition to the legislation, outraged at the prospect of the majority Catholic population being granted any autonomy—however restricted and tokenistic—from the British colonial rulers. When the government tried to send troops from the Curragh Camp in County Kildare to Ulster, the overwhelming majority of officers stated they would resign their commissions rather than move against the UVF. The mutinous officers had been encouraged by Director of Military Operations Major-General Sir Henry Wilson who had been conspiring with the Tories. Prime Minister Asquith had even been under pressure from the king, George V, to grant concessions on behalf of the Loyalists by threatening to withhold Royal Assent to Home Rule and even to dismiss the prime minister. Asquith backed down, and Ulster was excluded from the Home Rule bill—a prelude to the bloody partition of Ireland a few years down the road.
Lenin interpreted this episode as “an epoch-making
turning-point, the day when the noble landowners of Britain tore the British constitution and British law to shreds.” He continued:
“All saw what the bourgeoisie and the Liberals have been hypocritically concealing (they are hypocrites everywhere, but nowhere, perhaps, such consummate hypocrites as in Britain). All saw that the conspiracy to break the will of Parliament had been prepared long ago. Real class rule lay and still lies outside of Parliament. The above-mentioned medieval institutions, which for long had been inoperative (or rather seemed to be inoperative), quickly came into operation and proved to be stronger than Parliament. And Britain’s petty-bourgeois Liberals, with their speeches about reforms and the might of Parliament designed to lull the workers, proved in fact to be straw men, dummies, put up to bamboozle the people. They were quickly ‘shut up’ by the aristocracy, the men in power.”
—V.I. Lenin, “Constitutional Crisis in Britain,” 10 April 1914
We Need Workers Republics!
While we defend Corbyn and his supporters against right-wing attacks, our Marxist worldview is counterposed to his parliamentarist programme. A fundamental difference is on the question of the state. Corbyn’s politics are a left-wing version of old Labour (or social democracy) which views the state as impartial. The function of the military, police, courts and prisons—the “special bodies of armed men,” as Lenin referred to them—is to defend the class rule of the tiny core of capitalists, who own the wealth and means of production, against the rest of the population. Parliament is a talk shop whose purpose is to provide a “democratic” cover for the class dictatorship of the capitalist exploiters and oppressors. Parliament is a facade behind which the real business of state is conducted—in the boardrooms of giant banks and corporations. The working class cannot simply take over the machinery of the capitalist state and adapt it for its own class rule. The state must be shattered in the course of a socialist revolution that places the working class in power based on workers councils.
In decisive class conflicts, the full might of the bourgeois state is arrayed against the working class and its allies without any pretence of neutrality, as was shown during the miners strike of 1984-85. Under Margaret Thatcher the capitalist rulers mobilised police-state occupation and civil war in the coalfields. The right wing of the Labour Party, then led by Neil Kinnock, and the Trades Union Congress stood in outright opposition to the embattled miners. The “lefts” in the Labour and trade-union bureaucracy expressed sympathy with the miners but refused to mobilise other unions to strike alongside them, a betrayal which ultimately led to the miners’ defeat.
Corbyn’s opposition to British imperialism’s wars amounts to a more “rational” strategy for British imperialism. In the row over Trident missiles, he has suggested that Britain could retain the submarines but without the nuclear warheads. The working class has no interest in maintaining capitalist Britain’s military capacity or its army. Invoking the slogan famously raised by German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht during World War I, Lenin summed up this principle in the words: “‘Not a penny, not a man,’ not only for a standing army, but even for a bourgeois militia” (“The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution,” September 1916). British imperialism today acts as a toady of the U.S. because the U.S. is the dominant world power and bestrides the world as Britain once did. The British rulers have accumulated enormous wealth over centuries and have a significant military capacity. The notion that “little England” could somehow opt out of the world system is a fantasy; moreover, it is based on a reactionary nationalist perspective. To fully meet the needs of the working people for jobs, decent healthcare, housing and education requires the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in Britain, the rest of Europe and beyond, led by an internationalist revolutionary party.
Rare within the Parliamentary Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is an avowed republican. In contrast, the leader of the GMB union, Sir Paul Kenny, is proving his worth as a recently appointed knight of the realm by condemning Corbyn for his opposition to Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Corbyn, as opposition leader, has been admitted to the Queen’s Privy Council, but by all reports did not kneel before “her majesty.”
When asked during his leadership campaign about his attitude to the monarchy, Corbyn said the issue could wait, as his focus was on social justice. While he obviously was trying to avoid being entangled by a media provocation, his answer does reveal a certain mindset—one that regards the monarchy as, although undemocratic, somewhat benign. The monarchy is meant to justify vast class inequality as the natural order of things, to inculcate servility and to celebrate the acceptance of one’s place in class society, free of tumultuous social struggle. The monarchy retains its power as a rallying point for reaction and, as a last resort, would likely provide a figurehead for a military takeover should the bourgeoisie be unable to contain the struggle of the working class by the traditional parliamentary means.
We say: Abolish the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established church. We are for the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales as part of our programme for working-class power leading to a federation of workers republics in the British Isles.
Against the Labourite myth that socialism can be phased in gradually through bourgeois-democratic channels, Leon Trotsky stressed in his writings on Britain that the British working class needs to learn instead from the country’s revolutionary traditions. The bourgeoisie itself came to power through the Roundhead English Revolution, backed by the lower classes of the day, against the Royalist landed aristocracy. It was compelled to fight a civil war and to finish off feudal class rule with the execution of King Charles I. The republic that followed under the bourgeois revolutionary Oliver Cromwell lasted only a couple of years after his death.
But the restoration of the monarchy and the House of Lords did not restore the absolutist monarchy. The class rule of the bourgeoisie, based on a state that defended capitalist property relations, had been secured by the revolution and, as Trotsky explained, could not be liquidated by the reactionary legislation of the Restoration because “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen” (Where Is Britain Going? ). Trotsky also pointed out that the “British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of the seventeenth-century revolution by dissolving its past in ‘gradualness’,” all the better to prevent the working class from drawing any revolutionary lessons.
A Leninist-Trotskyist party must base itself on those lessons and on the understanding that the construction of a socialist society can only take its first step through the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state. The Spartacist League/Britain seeks to build a revolutionary workers party based on that programme, which saw its fulfilment in the overthrow of the capitalists and establishment of workers rule in the October 1917 Russian Revolution.