In a previous interview, Jeremy Corbyn said: «I would like to see a world where we start to ultimately disband all military alliances.» Is this kind of naïve with today’s wars in Ukraine and Gaza? Modern Times Review asks this previous leader of the British Labour Party about such conflicts – when I got an hour alone with him in Oslo:
«Well, there has to be a peace process in all conflicts; otherwise, you may end up with the only peace – being the peace of the graveyard. So, there has to be a way forward. There has to be ceasefires. There must be a process that looks at the underlying causes of the conflict in the first place. That applies in Ukraine, but also in Yemen – in so many other places around the world. But we have an imperative at the moment, which is about increasing arms expenditure and militarism around the world – a rapidly growing new Cold War between the Anglosphere and Russia and China. We also have a growing division in the world where Africa, Latin America, and some South Asian countries are more interested in developing their own relationships than what Europe or North America wants.
Sometimes, people in Europe – because of the way our media reports these things – ignore the attitude of the rest of the world regarding Ukraine. It’s very clear Russia is wrong. It should not have invaded Ukraine and should not be trying to occupy it. But there must be a way out. Otherwise, the war and the destruction will get worse. The number of refugees, the number of dead civilians, and soldiers from both sides in Ukraine will grow. It could become a war between Russia and NATO – it’s almost like the run-up to the First World War.
The UN should have intervened to try and bring about a ceasefire and a peace process – but it has either been unable or unwilling to do that.»
«I have to say he seems to have rather too much to say about Ukraine when Ukraine is not a member of NATO – and he seems to be trying to push NATO to be more and more involved in this conflict. Do we really just have to stand by and watch these huge military build-ups by NATO on one side and Russia on the other – without thinking this could lead to something very, very dangerous in the future? I want a Europe of peace. That means there has to be a relationship.»
Ukraine and weapons
I ask Corbyn if he would have been elected Prime Minister – how could he have contributed to stopping the Ukraine war build-up. He was very close to being PM in 2017 – and also based on the critical It’s time for real change, as the Labour Party Manifesto 2019. So, instead of how Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to Zelenskyj to tell him to keep on with all the support he would need – what would he have done instead?
«It would have been different. But remember, at the time of the 2019 election, the Ukraine conflict had not begun in the sense of the invasion by Russia. But there was already the long conflict in the Donbas, sadly, where possibly 14,000 had died already. My view would have been to engage with Russia in 2021–22.
In the past, I have criticised Russia for its human rights record, their treatment of lesbian and gay people, the treatment of Chechen people, and more. Also, when Toni Blair and other Western leaders welcomed Putin, I was part of the criticism. So, the idea that I’m some stooge of Putin is nonsense. But there has to be an alternative to the war.»
But would Corbyn have said ‘no’ to sending weapons to Ukraine?
«I would certainly be opposed to sending aggressive weapons that could and may well be used to extend the conflict into Russia. But I mean, I’m not the prime minister, unfortunately. My strategy from the very beginning would have been to try to build some relationship with Russia, to prevent a future conflict. It’s important now to take it back to that stage.»
«I supported a complete ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.»
In the mentioned Labour manifesto, there is an ‘internationalism’ chapter. Here, Corbyn’s party is promising to introduce a war power act – against the ‘bomb first, talk later’ mentality: «We worked a lot to prepare a War Powers Bill to be put before Parliament. The British Parliament should be able to vote on whether or not there should be an involvement in an international conflict or not.»
Another point in the manifesto was about selling arms to countries in conflicts: «We had a decision going back to the 1997 parliament, where a parliament committee could review export licenses for armaments. Obviously, it’s difficult to find out what happens with the end use of weapons. Weapons you sell to somebody who is apparently responsible end up with somebody who is clearly totally irresponsible. I supported a complete ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia because of their war in Yemen. This was heavily challenged by arms trade interests in Britain because the volume of sales to Saudi Arabia – mainly by British aerospace systems- has been in the billions over the years.
I wanted us to move in the direction of an economy producing advanced technology equipment for peaceful purposes, not war. Britain is now one of the biggest arms manufacturers, and today’s government is increasing defence expenditure to 2.5 percent of the gross domestic product, making it one of the highest in Europe.
I also wanted to ensure that the huge skills of the armed forces were used for peaceful purposes because they have amazing technology and skills in dealing with emergencies – in the safety of people, dealing with civil contingencies such as earthquakes, fire, flood, and so on. For example, the Italian Navy once a direct conversion of its ships into hospital ships.
Defence expenditures don’t always have to go to weaponry and do not have to be a force for aggression, either. I supported the British medical military involvement in Sierra Leone, dealing with the Ebola crisis. They were very successful and effective. They told me how proud they were of what they achieved. I also met many in the Navy who were, for a while, involved in saving the lives of people off the coast of Libya – they said it was the most useful thing they’d ever done. So armed forces don’t always have to be a force for bad things.»
When Labour wrote about human rights in their manifest, I remind Corbyn in our conversation about the blockade and attacks at Gaza, previous bombings of hospitals in Syria, and rape in war – as done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Do they think the United Nations can prevent such human abuses in the future?
«What has happened in Syria is appalling. What’s happening in Ukraine is appalling. What’s happening in Palestine is appalling. Ditto Yemen, ditto West Papua, ditto Congo. There has to be a process that brings about peace, but if the only agenda is more wars and more fighting, it seems to me that those who are now so appalled by what Russia is doing in Ukraine – and they are right to be – were the same people that supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the American and British coalition.»
And Corbyn adds: «We duly had the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Then, 21 years later, the final troops left – British, American, NATO forces, and all the rest. And what’s been left behind? In the world’s poorest country, most people are starving, and hungry girls are denied any education, human rights are non-existent, and poverty is rampant. Afghan refugees turn up in Europe, and some end up in small, leaky, dangerous boats and try to cross the channel to England … We’ve got to wise up and wake up. Refugees don’t come from nowhere. They come. In part, it was the wars created by European powers invading those countries.»
Climate justice, workers, and Norway
The Manifesto has also pointed to climate justice. Corbyn is in Norway, a land of oil production and an advanced welfare system that one maybe can say is being paid by this money – one-fifth of the state income of around 135 billion euros comes from the ‘polluting’ gas and oil in the North Sea. Any contradiction here between keeping workers in labour and keeping up climate justice?
«I think you must change away from a fossil fuel economy in the long run. I fully understand that you cannot do it overnight. That is why I spent a great deal of time preparing the Green Industrial Revolution document we put forward. It was also to protect the jobs of people in manufacturing and other industries – converting them into something more sustainable, creating new employment in green energy and green industries.
We cannot go on pumping carbon dioxide into the air. But also bad is the pollution of rivers, seas, and the destruction of the biodiversity in our lives. A conversion process is going to take a long time. I was at COP25 and COP26 and took part in many discussions. But if the next generation is to breathe clean air and not go through the catastrophic climate changes, then there have to be changes.»
The Norwegian Labour leader and Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is approving new drilling projects for oil and gas, not going in the direction Corbyn mentions:
«Right? Well, there are many views on this. Today there is probably a majority that doesn’t support new drilling on the English and Scottish areas of the North Sea. At the same time, a green industrial revolution cannot be a middle-class retreatism into buying environmentally sustainable products at a higher price and feeling good about it. It must also protect working-class living standards.»
At the same time, those in power, the fossil fuel giants, the billionaires, and the Norwegian government are not stopping drilling –destroying the healthy future of Europe. I am ashamed as a Norwegian by the ‘greed’ of this country, I tell Corbyn. But 200 000 Norwegians work in the oil drilling business:
«Listen, the coal industry was closed down in Britain largely for political reasons by the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. And I think she couldn’t give a damn about the environment. But she closed down the coal industry mainly because of the power of the union she wanted to destroy. That closure was done in the most crude and brutal way. In the same way, the coal industry in Belgium, the Netherlands, parts of Germany, and other heavy industries were closed down – leaving behind unemployment, poverty, misery, and a mental health crisis. And in many cases, there was a destruction of the politics of those communities, which led to a rise in the far right in France, Belgium, Germany, and so on.
Here, we have questions about the role of society as a whole – with changes and investments into communities with productive, more peacefully useful programs. You don’t do it if you leave it to the market; you do it by intervention and a public investment program. The debate over the North Sea is an interesting one in Scotland, which has a lot of people in Dundee and Aberdeen who rely on North Sea oil and gas extraction. The same debate is going on. It looks to me as though the Scottish Government is one that is likely to oppose new drilling in the North Sea. It is a serious and lively debate within the Labour Party at present.
«What has happened in Syria is appalling. What’s happening in Ukraine is appalling. What’s happening in Palestine is appalling. Ditto Yemen, ditto West Papua, ditto Congo.»
Corbyn’s British movement, the Project for Peace and Justice, says that movements can be a motor of change in history. In Norway, a movement is building up, with ambitions of becoming a party built on the same ideas as Corbyn’s projects for Peace and Justice – in Norway, called FOR (Fred og Rettferdighet). Corbyn made it a priority to come for a conference in the Literary House in Oslo, and he met the new movement FOR to advise them on different matters from their own movement. What about the British recent activities and future work? I ask Corbyn:
«Through the Project for Peace and Justice, we’re doing a lot of work on alternative media. We also do a lot of work in supporting Julian Assange, which is one of the reasons I’m here in Oslo these days. We have also done a lot of work in supporting the progressive movements in Latin America, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, and so on. And we’re doing work as well on the production of a book on the arms trade, which is coming out now, collectively written by people all around the world who’ve been victims of the arms trade. And we’re also doing work on artistic freedoms and endeavours in producing a book on poetry – because poets often tell truths others can’t.»
Of the topics in Oslo, imprisonment at Guantanamo was one, but also about Julian Assange:
«Julian spent his life trying to expose truths around the world, truths about the way big powers behave, truths about the way big business and corporations behave. The documents he’s produced are quite embarrassing to an awful lot of governments and corporations around the world.
He is obviously very, very guilty of exposing a lot of the very, very uncomfortable truths that the rest of the world has begun to understand. Also, the treatment of Julian in prison and the treatment of Julian’s case by the world’s media is something that needs to be seriously questioned. The liberal media around the world wanted to portray Julian as a hero of information and free speech, then were embarrassed about the consequences of it and have now become relatively silent on it. But even Boris Johnson admitted to me that this is one-sided and not very fair in a parliamentary answer.»
Democracy, citizen assemblies, and hope
We are concluding our conversation with ‘democracy’ – and what happens when the majority is driven by fear, an ‘enemy’ out there, without an enlightened discussion? Or when most people care more about their own welfare than international solidarity?
«Fear is a very powerful force. You can develop fear in lots of people in lots of ways if you want to do that. Traditionally, it is the fear of the ‘bogeyman,’ the fear of the person in the next village and the person in the next country. But hope is a far more powerful and more likable message, although harder to generate.·
And what about new citizen assemblies deciding important questions as they did on the abortion law in Ireland? A citizen assembly having ten months of discussions with experts, etc., chosen people by lot, doing an informed vote?
«Your point, which is a very powerful one, about how informed or not a population is before a decision is made is a very important one. And you’re quite right to draw a parallel with Ireland. On this note, I first went to Ireland as a child with my mum and dad in the 1950s. Ireland was very poor, very conservative, and dominated by very conservative elements of the Catholic Church. And Ireland remained that way.
So how on earth would Ireland ever adopt anything up to date on divorce law, abortion, women’s rights, or gay rights? But yeah, they did. And they’re now one of the most liberal countries in Europe. This wasn’t done necessarily by national politicians lecturing people. As you said, it was done much more by the building blocks of citizens, assemblies of community groups, and organisations.
You develop the imagination by inquiring about the nature of the human spirit. That way, you get a better-informed population. The Murdoch media, Fox News, and so on do not want to inform us. They want to entertain us with the idea that achievement is super-wealth. For me, the idea of achievement is what you give to the rest of humanity.»
I respond by saying that such altruism can be a too-optimistic view:
«But then I’m an optimist. You got to offer an alternative. You have to give people hope. The alternative is a society based on the needs of people, not the greed and wealth of the few. The idea is one of redistribution of power and wealth. And don’t assume that the Western intellectuals have actually got all the answers. They haven’t. Nobody has all the answers. But they come from everywhere: Just imagine what it was like to be a black person in Soweto in 1964. They got the oppression of apartheid. You had the Rivonia Treason trial, which had locked up all the African Congress leaders, and the situation was apparently hopeless. Twenty-six years later, Mandela walks free. Apartheid is over, and South Africa has a different future.
All of us expressed solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement, but the real work was done by the people who were shot and killed in Soweto and other places – to fight back against apartheid. And so, the humans actually lived through all of this.»
If Corbyn would replace the mentioned governing elite of the few, what will be a more concrete alternative?
«It’s about local localism, democracy, and accountability. It’s about people having control of their own lives. I’ll give you a very small example from the community that I represent. We’ve got about 20–25 housing cooperatives. They’re not very big. They’ve got a few dozen properties each, and they decide on how they’re run, what they build and so on. People control their own physical environment. The social attitudes there are often very different from those with the traditional relationship between the landlord and the tenant because they’re in charge of that aspect of their lives. Democracy is not just about voting for somebody to be on your council, regional government, or national government every four or five years.
Democracy is about what you say, what you do, and how much control you have over your own life. Sadly, people often have very little control over their own lives. This is why communities and community development are so important.»
«The Murdoch media, Fox News, and so on do not want to inform us.»
Corbyn ends his visit in Oslo – which can be thought of in relation to what then happened in Gaza and Israel – by stating the following: «Well, what is real security? Israel’s security, the ability to arm yourself, to kill somebody, or to kill large numbers of people. Or is real security, having enough to eat, having a home to live in? Having a school for your children to go to. Having a doctor in a hospital when you need one. Clean air, clean water, and good quality food. That’s what most people around the world want. But all this money that goes on, weapons on wars is actually money that could go to health, educational, housing, and environmental issues.»
And Corbyn adds: «It is that spirit of hope that’s actually there amongst millions of people around the world, disempowered and disenfranchised, abused and marginalized and impoverished and young people in Europe being brought up increasingly in an individualistic society where they’re told success is to make a great deal of money at the expense of the person sitting next to you in the classroom, where success should be the onward improvement of the lives of all of us and recognizing that every single human being has a right to live and a right to make that contribution to our world. So, it is opposing racism. It is opposing the appalling attacks of refugees, but it’s about giving hope, opportunity, and inspiration to young people that we may bequeath to them a better world that we inherited when we came onto this world.
It is about social justice, attacking poverty and all the injustices that are going on around the world. When we win, on Julian’s case, when we win with the closure of Guantanamo Bay, when we win with the end of the abuse of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe and other parts of the world – and the world is made a significantly better place.»
See also what Corbyn says about Media her.