Jeremy Corbyn is an interesting chap. He doesn’t look all that dangerous, but he seems to have frightened the life out of the British establishment, not to mention his own political party.
True, some would say they’re one and the same, but his sudden rise to prominence is raising interesting questions about what it actually means to be “left wing”. The answer is far from clear.
While most attention has been given to Cornbyn’s economic policies, his recent statement on Britain’s defence policy is noteworthy to say the least.
When asked if he would, or indeed could, press the nuclear button, his suitably disarming response was a simple “no”. Revolutions in strategic thinking don’t get more economical.
His views drew a fairly predictable barrage of criticism, including quite a bit of friendly fire. Not only is the British Labour Party uncomfortable with “radical” economic policies, it seems, but it doesn’t care much for the strategic sort either.
And yet given that Corbyn’s rise and Labour’s demise are both intimately connected to a widespread disenchantment with politics as usual, this was a chance for some relatively cost-free product differentiation.
After all, under what conceivable circumstances would any other British leader contemplate pulling the nuclear trigger? When would it actually be useful, let alone rational or sane to do so?
The main reason Britain maintains its nuclear deterrent is that this is its last claim to being a fully paid-up member of the Great Power club. Without it Britain’s continuing membership of the Security Council would look even more implausible and anachronistic.
The membership fees are far from negligible either. Perhaps 30 billion for a new generation of submarines and another five for missiles. And that’s pounds, not Pacific pesos. It makes Australia’s plans look positively stingy by comparison.
The British strategic debate also suffers from an additional complication with which we are also familiar: we may not really need such eye-wateringly expensive military hardware either, but we’re going to have it because it keeps what’s left of the manufacturing sector going.
That’s a strategic decision, but of the political variety. At least Corbyn is upfront about his beliefs and motivations. Given that the smart money – and many of his own comrades – say he will never be prime minister, perhaps he should stick to his guns, as it were.
Having an open-ended debate about strategic policy really would be an interesting contribution to public life, and not just for Britain. The fact that it’s unlikely to happen in either in that policy arena or any other is a reminder of how constraining conventional wisdom can be.
Perhaps the big question in all this is whether political leadership actually makes much of a difference anymore. We’ve got a stake in that debate, too.