On Britain & New Zealand's role in the western alliance

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.