United Kingdom

Corbyn on Ukraine: “I hold no brief with the Catholic church, but I think Pope Francis should be commended”

Il Fatto Quotidiano sat down for an interview with Corbyn to discuss the British Labour Party, Keir Starmer, peace and war in Ukraine, Julian Assange.

10 Giugno 2023

He has been at the heart of the battle for the identity of the left in Britain for years now. The former leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is a politician deeply disliked by the British establishment, especially the military industrial complex, for his leftist and pacifist positions.

In 2020, he was suspended as a member of the Labour Party by the new Labour leader, Keir Starmer – a centrist and a staunch supporter of NATO – ostensibly due to Corbyn’s statement on the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on anti-Semitism in the party. Corbyn was not accused of anti-Semitism himself; he had simply stated that anti-Semitism in the party had been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons.’

Though Corbyn was later readmitted to the party, he has not been allowed to represent Labour in Parliament, thus he currently sits in the Parliament as an independent. But despite the attempts to annihilate him and the left he represents, he remains largely popular. Not just in Britain and not just among “old” lefties. In Oslo last week we witnessed even very young people, who had recognised him, stop him to talk and ask for selfies.

You were suspended as a member of the Labour Party by Keir Starmer. Do you still see it as your party?

I’m still a member of the Labour Party, so yes. I’ve been in the Labour party for all my life. The Labour party was founded by a combination of trade unions and socialist organisations. At its best it has been a vehicle for social change, but other times it has moved very much in the direction of right-wing, more liberal economics, which I don’t agree with, and I have been part of many struggles within the Labour Party all my life on policy issues.

But I have also spent my life in the social movements and peace movement outside the Labour Party, although they often cross over activists and members. The Stop the War Coalition, for example, which I am vice-president of, is a combination of people inside and outside the party, although the Labour Party has now banned local branches of the Labour Party from even affiliating with the Stop the War Coalition”.

Ken Loach, the legendary British filmmaker, has heavily criticised Keir Starmer for using ‘anti-Semitism’ instrumentally to remove people on the left from the party. Is that still happening?

The number of people who have been removed from Labour Party membership who were active members of the Jewish Voice for Labour is very considerable. So there are serious concerns that socialist left-wing Jewish people have been removed from membership on grounds, sometimes, of anti-Semitism, which strikes me as odd, to put it mildly.

The issue of anti-Semitism has been made into a very large one, politically, in Britain. I’d just say this: first of all, anti-Semitism is an evil within our society. It’s an evil, it’s a cancer, and it has existed for more than a thousand years. The history of the treatment of the Jewish people across Europe, and indeed the wider world, has been abominable. Jewish people were in fact banned from Britain from the 12th century until the 17th century, and came back under Oliver Cromwell. Anti-Semitism in literature, art, music and so on, was commonplace in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, everywhere. The Nazis, obviously, exploited it to the degree they did, and that ended up with the Holocaust.

So, I don’t take lightly any issue as bad as anti-Semitism; it is very serious. But you have to make sure that if you’re accusing someone of being anti-Semitic, you know what you are accusing them of, and that there is a case to be made. And I think that is where the problem has been. I inherited a lack of any system within the party [for handling internal anti-Semitism issues], so objections were never properly examined or dealt with. I said there should be an independent system, and the party leadership should not be the ones that decide those things; they should be decided independently of the party leadership. I did manage to get that system set up, and after 2 years it began to work. But the Equality and Human Rights Commission did criticise the party for the handling of cases of anti-Semitism. I accepted the outcome of their report, I made the statement that I did, but also said that there was an exaggeration of the number of cases, which there was. When the number of party members who were objected to on anti-Semitic grounds was less than 0.1% out of six hundred thousand…. So I have had many foul and and disgusting allegations thrown against me. I refute them all, absolutely. I have been an anti-racist all my life. I will die an anti-racist”.

Keir Starmer has repeatedly stressed Labour’s backing for NATO, and has criticised the pacifist coalition, the Stop the War Coalition, for siding with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Can peace and anti-militarism still play a major role in the left?

Well, first of all he doesn’t understand anything about the Stop the War Coalition, and secondly he seems to be standing history on its head. Apparently he was at the 2003 great demonstration against the Iraq War. He wrote a piece then, in 2003, describing the Iraq war as illegal, as a lawyer. He was then chairman of the Haldane Society of Socialist lawyers.

The Stop the War Coalition is what it says, a coalition of peace organisations. It includes the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it includes a number of different groups, including former soldiers, and many others. Religious people and so on. It’s quite a broad coalition. Some, yes, are pacifists, the majority probably not. I don’t think all of them would describe themselves as pacifists; they would describe themselves as anti-war. It was founded not to oppose the Iraq War, but to oppose the invasion of Afghanistan, which happened in October 2001. We were founded at a public meeting in September 2001, a few weeks after the tragedies of 9/11, and we grew from there. And I was a founder member of it, I was chair at various times, and now vice-president of it, and I have been in the Stop the War Coalition since the very beginning.

The idea that somehow or other, the Stop the War Coalition is a tool of some government, is absurd. It is an anti-war organisation, and I think it has provided a very important platform. Without the effectiveness of the Stop the War Coalition, we would not have had the size of opposition to the Iraq war that we had in Britain. Granted we didn’t stop the war, I know that, but I think we did help prevent the involvement of Britain in Syria, and also helped to reduce British involvement in Libya”.

You are a great supporter of Julian Assange, who is still in Britain’s harshest prison, Belmarsh. Do you think we can win this fight for his freedom?

Yes, there will be a day when Julian Assange walks out of prison. There will be a day when Julian Assange will be on a platform with Mansoor [Adayfi] and others who have come out of Guantanamo Bay. He will be vindicated. He is a very, very brave individual. He could have stopped his investigations, stopped the release of documents any time he wanted to. He knew the dangers of what he was doing. He was doing it so the world could know how dangerous governments and corporations can be to the environment, to peace, to justice, and the way they cynically killed innocent civilians in Iraq and other places.

Julian, as you know, is facing conviction under the Espionage Act. He has not yet been tried under the Espionage Act, he is still at the extradition stage. We are fighting against this extradition to the United States, and since he came out of the Ecuadorian embassy has been in His Majesty’s prison, Belmarsh, which is a maximum-security prison, built to deal with terrorists. It is a horrible place. Very brutal regime there, and very, very poor conditions there. Julian has been there for four years now without conviction. It’s monstrous what’s going on. And sadly, many supposedly brave journalists around the world don’t seem to understand that if Julian goes to prison under the Espionage Act, [receiving] what would be a death sentence, every other journalist around the world that comes across a potential story about illegal behaviour by governments, illegal behaviour by military, will think ‘uh-oh! Is the Espionage Act going to be used against me? Am I going to end up being extradited to the United States and put in a maximum security prison?’

It is important to support Julian Assange for all the human reasons that I’ve given, but also for the fundamental political reason that he has released documents that are uncomfortable. Actually not just for the U.S. government. If you read them through, and I am sure you have, they are uncomfortable for pretty much every government in the world, including Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy. I mean, nobody escapes the microscope of the documents that Julian Assange has disclosed.

So yes, we are going to win. But we’ve got to mount a campaign. We’ve got to be absolutely determined and confident we can win this. When I raised this with Boris Johnson in Parliament, even he, even Boris Johnson conceded that the extradition arrangements between Britain and the United States are unfair. He described them as “lopsided”. In other words, too much power to the USA, too little power to Britain. I was very surprised; it was not the answer I was expecting at all”.

The British government has provided Ukraine with some terrible weapons, like depleted uranium weapons, and whoever tries to suggest that the war in Ukraine should be stopped with negotiation, is basically treated as being “in bed with Putin”. What do you think about that?

“It’s a ludicrous argument that those who show any wish for peace in Ukraine are somehow or other in bed with Putin. The only time I went to Russia was to support the Chechen people, for the abuse of human rights that they were suffering. And when Putin was welcomed to Britain by Tony Blair, and indeed had a very nice evening out at the opera with Tony Blair – they got on fine apparently, they had a very nice evening out together – there were two people outside, in a demonstration on human rights in Russia: Tony Benn and me. The idea that I’m some kind of stooge of Putin is just bonkers. But you know, there are many things that are a bit odd in this world.

Depleted uranium in its inert state is harmless. It is used as a counter-balance weight in aircraft navigation, it’s a very dense and very heavy material. And it’s used in warheads to balance them and guide them. When there is an explosion and you get massive intense heat, it gives off radiation. It was used extensively in depleted uranium-tipped missiles in southern Iraq, after the Gulf War, when there was the famous “turkey shoot” against the Iraqi Army whilst it was retreating back from Basra. And that has caused a decade of cancers in southern Iraq, and still is. To me, it ought to be banned in use anywhere. Britain should not be exporting it anyway to anybody.

But the point about Ukraine is simply this: at some point, Russia and Ukraine are going to have to talk. Why do they have to first kill thousands of Russian soldiers, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, thousands of civilians, and lock up a lot of peace protesters in Russia? Why on earth can’t they start listening to the calls made by president Lula, [Mexico’s] president Lopez Obrador, [South Africa’s] president Ramaphosa, and the Pope?

By the way, I hold no brief with the Catholic church; I’m not a member of the Catholic church, but I think Pope Francis should be commended for his preparedness to be involved in this, and make the statements that he has made. And if they [Russia and US, etc.] can talk together about grain shipments, if they can talk about making sure no missiles were fired at Ukraine while president Biden was visiting there – that was extraordinary, apparently the United States and Russia had a discussion that Biden was going to be in Kiev, so they would make sure there was no military action around Kiev while Biden was visiting – great, why can’t they do that all the time?

Peace is possible if they really want it. A ceasefire, followed by negotiations, maybe the involvement of somebody else to ensure the ceasefire works, the UN or something. But the main thing is to stop the killing”.

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