NATO: on solidarity

Labour is collectivist by instinct and culture. Founded by the trade unions, it could hardly be otherwise. The welfare state the Attlee Government did so much to build was founded on collective insurance. Labour has stood in solidarity with oppressed groups, minority communities, countries under attack and many others in the past.

Collective security is solidarity by another name. It’s wholly fitting, therefore, that the Attlee Government took the United Kingdom into NATO as a founding member. As the Cold War deepened, western Europe needed the United States to guarantee its security. Not all NATO’s members were always democratic, but it nonetheless bound free Europe to the US. Since then, it has formed the bedrock of British defence policy. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides almost our ultimate insurance – our fallback in an existential crisis.

When the Iron Curtain lifted and the Soviet Union fell, new eastern European democracies wanted to join NATO. Given their history, it’s hardly surprising. On a continent where collective security lost its meaning, Chamberlain and Daladier browbeat Edvard Beneš into signing away the Sudetenland in September 1938. Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Hitler the following March. A Franco-British guarantee meant nothing. In September 1939, Britain and France did honour their guarantee to Poland. Poland still suffered years of unspeakable horror. In 1945, eastern Europe came under Soviet control: the ‘people’s democracies’ only fell in 1989. Again, the West stood aside. You might say the West had little alternative in 1945-8: it’s a sobering and unedifying story nonetheless.

That so many of those countries have now joined the community of Western democracies is a cause for celebration. Churchill’s ‘capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe’ no longer languish behind an Iron Curtain, but have joined with their sisters to their west. NATO has provided the anchoring for a community of states linked by law to grow together.

The last Labour Government was a good friend to eastern Europe – championing its right to a place in the Western world. And until now, no Labour leader has ever wavered in their support for the Atlantic Alliance. Michael Foot opposed nuclear weapons, but he kept Labour pledged to NATO. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence at present and in public, and his hostility in the past and probably in private, is unique. His opposition to NATO deployment in eastern Europe as a deterrent to a revanchist Russia is deeply misguided. His refusal to say he would defend NATO allies under attack is profoundly dangerous.

In 2017, eastern Europeans have good cause to value their NATO membership. In February 2014, Russia and Estonia signed an (admittedly unratified) agreement finalising their border. In March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea because Ukraine wanted to sign a deal with the European Union. Both countries have large Russian minorities. Both once formed part of the USSR. Granted, Ukraine is central to Russia’s sense of self in a way which doesn’t hold true for the Baltics (of course, this doesn’t make its aggression any better). But another crucial difference is the guarantee under Article 5.

It would be unwise enough in normal circumstances to disdain our current insurance policy with no alternative in mind. In these abnormal ones, it is almost farcical in its foolishness. In 2014, a great power annexed a neighbour’s territory on the continent of Europe for the first time since 1945. Its leader is hostile to the liberal international order on which the UK relies, and nothing in his history suggests ‘relationship resets’ or a pacifying stance will appease him. It has links to far right (and radical left) parties in democratic Europe. It props up a toxic but anti-Western regime in Syria. It interfered in the US presidential election and may have even affected the outcome.

Thanks in no small part to the US election, NATO has rarely faced greater threats from within. In eight days’ time, a man whose commitment to European security is questionable will become President of the United States. That Donald Trump and Theresa May agreed on the importance of NATO in a telephone call is of limited comfort, even if he meant what he said. Credibility means everything in deterrence: it matters that Trump once said he wouldn’t mind too much if NATO dissolved, not just whether he continues saying such things as President. This is exactly the moment at which European governments must try to ensure NATO does not wither on the vine. It’s also a moment when NATO’s word must be seen to be its bond. I struggle to imagine a worse time to argue for undermining its shared deterrence strategy in Europe.

History makes clear that Britain cannot ignore the rest of Europe, that its security is bound up with its continent. Brexit does not change the essential fact, however much Nigel Farage might like it to. If the US disengages, Europeans will need to look to our own security: the UK has no opt-out. But in any event, it would be profoundly wrong to let Putin dictate policy in eastern Europe – and even more so to regard any NATO ally as somehow dispensable. I see nothing left-wing about old-style spheres of influence. I see nothing progressive in ignoring eastern Europeans’ right to choose their own destinies. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became liberal democracies by their own free choice. They are our allies. They deserve better than to be treated as our buffer states.

Collective security is vital for democratic Europe. It has not faced such severe threats from without for many years. It has rarely, if ever, seemed more besieged from within. Britain could never separate itself from the fallout if it broke down. And even if it could, it would be an appalling act to abandon our friends and allies to Vladimir Putin. No true progressive should countenance it.

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Corbynism (or why Nuneaton has a point)

I think Jeremy Corbyn would be an electoral disaster for the Labour Party from which it would take at least 10, probably 15 and quite possibly 20 years to recover. Too many of his supporters seem either indifferent to electoral success or utterly unaware of what that requires – but they’re right that the rest of us haven’t talked enough about policy. So here are a few of my concerns about his policies.

Jeremy says some things I support but don’t believe the British people will currently buy (a clear defence of higher taxes, though not necessarily his specific ones). There are also some I support and think they might well buy (universal childcare). But much of Corbynism isn’t just unelectable, but ill-thought-through, impractical and downright wrong.

Housing policy

Jeremy is calling for rent controls, with rent levels fixed in relation to earnings. Sounds wonderful: so why doesn’t Shelter buy it?

If you just cap prices in a situation where you haven’t got enough of something and too many people want to buy it, odd things start to happen. In this case, lots more people might sell rather than buy. Granted, we’ve all been saying we want more people to be able to buy homes. But what happens to people who can’t afford a deposit (or the still-uncapped mortgage payments) if the rental stock reduces too rapidly and the total housing supply doesn’t increase fast enough to match?

Will landlords just become more discriminating about people’s characteristics rather than the price they charge (‘No DSS’)? Will they cut back even further on things like repairs? Or will they subdivide properties more and more? More nuanced policies might be a different story (look at the rest of Europe, or the 2015 Labour manifesto), but just legislating a problem of supply and demand out of existence won’t work.

Jeremy is also proposing to extend some kind of ‘right to buy’ to the private sector. First of all, that seems a very odd spending priority for housing: our primary problem is insufficient stock, so why spend however much money on yet more subsidised ownership? (And since people in social housing have lower average incomes than private renters who can afford even a discounted property, isn’t it an odd distributional choice too?)

Second, how on earth would you control the cost? Right to buy may have done great damage, but at least councils actually owned the asset which was being flogged off: here, the state would have to pay the difference to landlords. (I suppose we could theoretically just take people’s property and give it to someone else at an enormous discount. Good luck getting that past the European Court of Human Rights.)

Third, why would you ever rent out a property if you could have it taken off you at any time? Like it or not, plenty of people can’t or don’t want to buy: they need a reliable private rented sector. By all means talk about how to improve it. But treating private rent with such abandon could really harm people who desperately need somewhere to live.

NATO membership

Jeremy has said he wants to leave NATO – our principal defence guarantee. Right now, our ‘if all else fails’ policy is NATO and, via NATO, the US commitment to Europe. We know that Jeremy doesn’t intend to raise defence spending way beyond 2% of GDP – it’s just about the only thing he’d definitely cut. There’s arguably an implicit defence guarantee in the EU treaties, and we have a European Defence Agency to co-operate on procurement, but these are a) pretty vestigial and b) exactly the kinds of things Jeremy won’t want the EU doing (assuming we stay in: see below).

So, given the rapidly rising costs of defence, Corbynism is offering us a radically reduced domestic capability, the abandonment of our key security guarantee and no replacement for either. That is not a defence policy. It’s crossing our fingers and hoping everyone will be nice to us forever.

EU membership

Jeremy has said he wants to fight for ‘a better Europe’, though we still don’t have a definite answer on how he’ll vote in the EU referendum.

Labour should, apparently, set out its own position on reform negotiations – which is fine as far as it goes. But almost nothing on David Cameron’s shopping list is going to appeal to Jeremy – and I doubt anything on Jeremy’s list will appeal to Cameron. The only real question is how much further Cameron will succeed in taking the EU away from Jeremy’s ideal.

If Jeremy might vote No, what would be his alternative? The European Economic Area (most of the free-market regulations without any say)? A Swiss model (slightly fewer regulations, slightly more say, but not a model the rest of Europe will ever offer)? No deal at all (and new tariffs on half our trade)? What makes him think Britain would discover the joys of radical socialism after voting with UKIP? And how does it help climate change negotiations to weaken one of the better players in said negotiations?

Again, this isn’t a policy. It’s a vague statement that the EU should be different, with no route map to change it.

The list goes on. You can’t talk about a ‘wealth tax on massive incomes’, fail to recognise that wealth and income are different things, conflate annual wealth taxes with one-off windfall taxes and expect to be taken seriously. You cannot talk about £50 billion of uncollected tax as though you can easily collect it in one fell swoop and expect anyone to think your sums add up. You cannot describe ‘not reducing our deficit as quickly’ as ‘funding’ free tuition and expect anyone to trust you not to wreck the public finances.

We’re not the Green Party: we’re supposed to be choosing a future Prime Minister. You cannot ask to govern a country with policies like these – not because they’re unelectable, but because they’re unworkable. Nuneaton wouldn’t buy Jeremy’s pitch: but we shouldn’t even be trying to sell it.