Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The tragedy of Western isolationism

The Labour party has always had a proud internationalist tradition. Yet in recent years we have allowed ourselves to be bullied into thinking that any attempt by the West to intervene in the affairs of another country, regardless of the reasons for intervention, is modern day colonialism.

This thinking is not the preserve of the Labour party – it plagues decision makers across the West. The price paid is the carpet-bombing of Aleppo and the existence and subsequent dismantling of the ‘jungle’ in Calais this week.

The link between these two tragedies stretches beyond the fact that many of the refugees in Europe are Syrian. What stands out most is that both problems are exacerbated by lack of political leadership being exhibited by western leaders, most of whom seem to have been reduced to wringing their hands, passing the buck, or worse, demonising those they should be trying to help. What Syria and the refugee crisis are crying out for are leaders willing to take responsibility and find a solution.

Post-Iraq there is caution in the air whenever the subject of foreign intervention rears its head, but to me all the wrong lessons have been learned from that conflict. We are instead indulging in an identity crisis about our role in the world. This indulgence has left a vacuum currently being filled by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the Middle East – unashamedly committing atrocities far worse than any Western action (justified or unjustified) in recent years – and by isolationists across Europe. The West should be standing up to Putin, Bashar al-Assad and other leaders who are driving people to risk leaving their homes on the long journey to Europe.

In Britain, there seem to be two main schools of thought in foreign policy. The first is the centre-right idea that frames all intervention in terms of British national security. We saw this in the Syria debate last December and it is why we are in the bizarre situation now where we are taking out ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria and doing nothing about Russian and Assad bombings against innocent civilians down the road.

The second school of thought used to be centred on western humanitarian intervention and the idea that those in a position to help stop humanitarian disasters had a moral obligation to do so. Post-Iraq this has been usurped by the politics that says western intervention only makes a bad situation worse, and that every wrong in the world can be blamed on the West.

This ideology started life in the far left, but post-9/11 and the Iraq war has taken in much of the mainstream left, including the current leadership of the Labour party and, to a lesser extent, the previous leader.

This anti-western mentality has had an obvious impact in both Syria and Iraq, as well as a less obvious impact on Britain’s attitude to the refugee crisis. In Syria, the vote against intervention gave a green light to Assad to carry out his atrocities (despite contravening President Barack Obama’s declared ‘red-lines’) and has led to Russia exerting itself in the Middle East.

We see the horrific consequences of this vote in Aleppo today. In Iraq, the problem started earlier. The political pressure in the West to take troops out of Iraq quickly meant that western troops left prematurely – leading to sectarian politics taking a prominent role in Iraq and the alienation of many Sunni Iraqis. We saw the consequences of this in 2014 and the speed at which Daesh were able to take over vast swathes of land.

For the refugee crisis, I would argue that the success of the criticisms from the left about Britain’s foreign interventions has contributed to a broader discourse around Britain’s role in the world. To illustrate this with an example, many left critics of British foreign policy consistently make the argument that Britain’s actions with our US friends in the Middle East are the sole cause of rise in Islamist extremism.

They have been so successful at making this argument that we have rightwing governments across the West who are able to invert that argument and imply that any young man from the Middle East might be a terrorist, and thus we have a situation in Britain where there is minimal political will to take in refugees who are not girls under the age of 15.

The lesson for the Labour party is that the abdication of responsibility has just as many consequences as the taking of it. What the refugees and victims of war in the Middle East need is not grandstanding at rallies about the evils of western imperialism, but for political actors to take responsibility and seek solutions so they can have a place to call home again.


Grace Skelton is a former national secretary of Labour Students. She tweets at @graceskelton



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Grace Skelton

is general secretary of Manchester University Students’ Union and Labour Students' National Policy Forum re. She tweets @GraceSkelton


  • There are two Labour Parties.

    One is the party of Jeremy Corbyn, the party that last night sought to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the war in Yemen. The other is the party of the 98 Labour MPs who abstained, so that the motion was defeated by 90 votes.

    One is the party of Jeremy Corbyn, the party that stands in silent vigil outside Durham County Hall throughout working hours during this half term holiday week. The other is the party that skulks therein or in its private box at the Riverside, bailing out Durham County Cricket Club while sacking the Teaching Assistants in order to reappoint them on a 23 per cent pay cut.

    And one is the party of Jeremy Corbyn, the party that will contest the Richmond Park by-election, one hopes in the person of Barnaby Marder. The other is the party that expels people for retweeting the Greens, while demanding that Labour give the Liberal Democrats a free run at Richmond Park.

  • You may characterise me as anti-western in my mentality – I suppose to label is to seek to negate my argument rather than engage with it – however, I
    1. Have no idea what this ‘West’ is you talk of. Who constitutes it? Is it Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Norway, Sweden? Or is it only those who under the guise of something called humanitarian intervention do make bad situations worse in Lybia, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and learn no lessons and want to repeat it?
    2. Are you sure that ‘the West’ has not committed atrocities to match the Russians in any of the above. I do not like to count corpses or destroyed towns and cities but you do need to look at our interventions in Falluja and a host of other places in the Middle East.
    As Peter Hitchins once suggested to a young interventionist on ‘Question Time’, you are of military age, if you are so keen join up.

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