UK General Election: What are the foreign policy implications?

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Saudi air strike on Sanaa, Yemen, 11 May 2015.

Voters are caught between choice and media disinformation, writes Mark Curtis.

The upcoming election has two key features. One is that voters have a genuine choice for the first time in a generation. But the other is that media disinformation backing current foreign policy and attacking Jeremy Corbyn is so great that the election cannot possibly be free and fair. Britons will vote without being properly informed of their country’s role in the world and what is really at stake.

Conservative foreign policy has significantly gone underground, using troops and drone strikes in at least seven covert wars – in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. These wars, some of which are illegal, are kept secret since the government knows the public and parliament might oppose overt action.

Another war is in effect being fought on human rights, with Theresa May having deepened relations with many human rights abusers in the past nine months, notably Egypt, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Turkey. The government is also advertising its willingness to train such states in ‘internal security challenges’ (i.e. repression).

The current government has reinvigorated the special relationship with Trump’s US at probably the most dangerous period in international relations since the early 1980s. The UK is increasing military co-operation with Washington while embarking on a £178 billion (USD$231 billion) requipment programme developing new offensive capabilities. Whitehall is preparing for more wars, while the Royal Navy's openly-declared goals are to control resource-rich regions and threaten those who challenge this.

Corbyn’s proposed foreign policies challenge the militarist neo-liberalism that Labour and Conservative have inflicted on the world in recent decades, but are far from radical. Labour’s manifesto does not pledge to end arms exports to human rights abusers, but to halt sales where there is ‘concern’ they will be used to violate international humanitarian law. Even arms exports to Saudi Arabia are to be suspended only until a UN-led investigation has reported on alleged violations of international law.

However, government policies are so extreme that moderate Labour pledges represent a big break. Labour has pledged to support recognition of Palestine, lead multilateral efforts to create a ‘nuclear free world’, promote the right to return of the displaced Chagos Islanders, and review arms and training programmes to repressive regimes – all of which policies challenge the elite consensus and will surely be bitterly fought by Whitehall.

Labour is also committed to ‘working through the United Nations’ and ending ‘support for unilateral aggressive wars of intervention’. These policies are taken for granted in most countries, but in Britain the bipartisan elite has become so fanatical that it should perhaps be a requirement for all manifestos to commit to stop destroying other countries (such as Iraq, Yemen or Libya).

But mainstream media disinformation, which may be at record levels, prevents the public truly exercising this choice. One aspect of a free and fair election is ‘nonpartisan’ coverage by state media. Yet BBC reporting on Britain’s foreign policy is simply amplifying state priorities and burying its complicity in human rights abuses. The BBC is unable to report even that Britain is at war – in Yemen, where the UK is arming the Saudis to conduct mass bombing, having supplied them with aircraft and £1 billion worth of bombs, while training their pilots.

From 4 April to 15 May, the BBC website carried only 10 articles on Yemen but 97 on Syria: focusing on the crimes of an official enemy rather than our own. Almost no BBC articles on Yemen mention British arms exports. Theresa May’s government is complicit in mass civilian deaths in Yemen and pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation; that this is not an election issue is a stupendous propaganda achievement.

Most British foreign policies showing how contemptuous the state is of democracy and human rights are not being reported. I’ve documented 41 policies that have been almost entirely ignored by the 24/7 mainstream media in the run-up to the election, from Britain’s role in maintaining the world’s tax havens to the new special relationship with the increasingly repressive regime in Egypt. The government has said it has the right to undertake military drone strikes even outside areas of armed conflict. The head of the Royal Navy has declared the military’s role in backing the UK’s ‘growing global economic ambition’, an echo of the imperial era. There are at least five foreign policies where the government is violating international law. The list goes on.

Corbyn’s agenda has been misreported and attacked from day one by virtually every mainstream newspaper, from the Mail on the right to the ‘liberal’ Guardian/Observer. Although many journalists say their opposition is about Corbyn’s leadership abilities, smearing began immediately after he was elected Labour leader and is largely ideological: Corbyn’s human rights-focused agenda is a threat to the right/liberal Atlanticist establishment that believes it is above international law, has the right to militarily intervene at will, and has special relations with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The UK ‘Editors Code of Practice’ demands that ‘the Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text’. How many times a day is this broken? It is not being enforced and resulting in the mass production of ignorance. Beneath its sophisticated, democratic façade, British elite culture is a primitive warmonger, and the mainstream media is doing everything in its power to maintain elite political and corporate interests. Once the election is over, we must challenge and change the way the mainstream media operates, otherwise ‘British democracy’ will just remain a good idea.

Mark Curtis is an historian and analyst of UK foreign policy and international development, and author of six books. Website: markcurtis.info. Twitter: @markcurtis30

Charity or justice

Are bingos part of the solution or part of the problem? I have long pondered this question while working in the British development sector for the past 12 years. I think the balance sheet is mixed, and that many bingos have a lot of explaining to do.

Propaganda war: two responses to the 'Make Poverty History' demonstration against the G8 in Scotland.

Photo: Michael York

To me, the most important issue is whether they are helping to transform current power structures and promoting democratic alternatives. This means challenging an essentially ‘neoliberal’ economic model that promotes privatization, trade liberalization and corporate deregulation. Without such change, poverty will remain endemic and inequalities between and within many countries will continue to rise.

But do bingos see this as their goal? Although few would disagree with it, and some of their activities are directed towards it, most NGOs have much more reformist aims. The Make Poverty History coalition called for more and better aid, dropping the debt and promoting trade justice. Yet, as some of the more progressive groups in the coalition realized, the real problem was unstated – the very economic model that underlies all these policies. The fact that the coalition was unable to agree a call to oppose economic neoliberalism speaks volumes for the reformist majority in Britain’s development lobby.

And, oh yes, this is also the model that is causing climate change – not a minor issue, yet still one that most development NGOs feel unable to address: many continue to see ‘the environment’ as separate from ‘development’.

Many bingos are so used to working on narrow policy issues like aid and debt that it has become easy to miss the big picture. And the biggest story here is that our current political élites have no interest in eradicating poverty or promoting real development. Aid and debt relief are not going to transform the prospects for the South. Structural changes in the North are needed. These include such big tasks as ending over-consumption – which means telling people they are part of the problem – and democratizing policy-making and governance structures.

Our political system is so élitist, secretive and unaccountable that it is no surprise that governments promote abysmal foreign policies abusive of human rights, whoever is in power. NGOs should be telling their supporters that none of the main parties offers anything to the poor world and that more radical change is needed. They should, in other words, be engaged in more ‘political education’, trying to radicalize their own supporters. Some NGOs have tried, but many have not. When criticism of government policy has taken place, it has often been very mild.

The great danger this year was that the British Government would win a huge propaganda victory following the G8 summit – it would champion Make Poverty History, preside over agreements to increase aid and reduce some debt, and then claim it was the US and others blocking further progress. It always worried me that NGOs saw Britain’s presidency of the G8 as a great ‘opportunity’. I think Britain’s role was more of a threat – not only is it the champion of neoliberalism, it also leads the world in state propaganda operations, as we saw over Iraq. And sure enough, I think the outcome of the summit will leave the poor world worse off – increases in aid and reductions in debt are all conditional on countries promoting the neoliberal model.

The bingos’ biggest strength is their ability to get issues on to the mainstream media’s agenda. If it weren’t for Jubilee 2000 – which bingos were instrumental in setting up – debt would have remained a specialized, minority issue. As anyone who has worked in a bingo press office will know, getting media coverage for poverty and development issues is an extremely difficult task, and has become far harder over the years. Many NGOs produce a constant stream of invaluable reports and analyses, without which mainstream media coverage would be even more dismal than it currently is.

The fact that Africa has been on the media agenda this year is significantly due to the efforts of some of the bingos. But the cost has been staggering – does a new generation of people now think that what Africa needs is more aid and debt relief, and that the British Government is essentially benign, having ‘championed’ Africa? If so, the campaign has been a failure.

There is a growing realization in many bingos that their supporters are even more important as campaigners than as funders

Many people believe that NGOs are seduced by governments because of the funding they receive. Yet, unlike many bingos elsewhere in Europe, most British NGOs receive only a small proportion of their funding from government. A more significant reason is the shared political outlook among many at senior level. Bingos are charities and tend to be social-democratic in orientation; they were not set up as radical organizations. Yet there are many radical voices within them, and all are constantly evolving.

Mixed bag

A major brake on their becoming more radical is the ease with which their income can grow. It is all too easy to launch a fundraising appeal for every humanitarian crisis. But what is needed more in most emergencies is an effective international government response, not small amounts of money from the public. This means further developing advocacy and campaigning capacity. It is encouraging that there is a growing realization in many bingos that their supporters are even more important as campaigners than as funders.

The rise of the global justice movement – the largest people’s movement in history – owes very little to the mainstream NGOs. Many do not regard themselves as truly part of this movement (seeing it as too radical for many of their supporters), and many of those who do are not regarded as part of it by others in the movement. The biggest recent demonstrations in British history – the Stop The War movement against the invasion of Iraq – also owed nothing to NGOs. Indeed, no bingo denounced the invasion and campaigned against it.

The bingos’ role on the ground in developing countries is a decidedly mixed bag, in my experience. NGOs’ work is often literally life-saving; and for some poor communities the only external support they receive comes from them. Some, like Christian Aid, also fund radical and cutting-edge organizations at the forefront of social change in the South. Yet many others gravitate towards urban élites and middle-of-the road organizations – few fund social movements or trade unions.

One of the most debilitating roles that can be played by Northern NGOs is undermining the forces at the forefront of social change in the South in favour of safer political forces that tend towards maintaining the status quo. Or they can help deliver the neoliberal agenda through their activities, bypassing governments and more appropriate local structures. NGOs can recreate in the South the charity-not-justice agenda that they promote in the North. This may be the main institutional reason why Northern governments fund them.

So are bingos worth supporting? I think that the smaller organizations focused on campaigning can give more bang for the buck, since they are more independent and prepared to challenge power more directly. However, those bingos with a strong campaigning arm and Southern focus can and do play supportive roles to people’s struggles in the South. The Make Poverty History coalition has radicalized some of the very mainstream organizations which previously had said nothing about debt or trade to their supporters. Many organizations have been making the transition from aid deliverers to advocates to campaigners.

The key is to go further; to become real social-change agents. NGOs need to be focused on broad political, economic and environmental change and mobilizing the public in the North to challenge and transform power here. This means seeing themselves as small players in the global justice movement. This is a more vital function than delivering aid, focusing on micro-projects at community level in developing countries and engaging in insider lobbying for narrow policy change, which invariably leads to co-option. This is also more important than increasing in size or grabbing that two-liner in the media at the expense of the competition.

Can any of this be done while NGOs maintain their charitable status? Although the charity guidelines do allow for campaigning and pressuring governments, they certainly limit political activities. Charities constantly live in fear of opponents resorting to charity law to stop even mild criticisms of government policy. But here is the fault-line. Income will go down without charitable status: so is that a price worth paying to be more politically independent? Currently, no bingo has forsworn charity status: perhaps when one does we will know that a more challenging NGO sector is in the offing.

Mark Curtis was until recently Director of the World Development Movement and previously Head of Policy at Christian Aid and ActionAid. His most recent book is Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. Web: www.markcurtis.info