Not for the first time, Harry has posted before me on something I’ve been chewing over: the strange way in which, on Iraq and 7/7, a lot of the left has adopted a traditionally right-wing isolationist position – “The 7/7 perpetrators wouldn’t have done what they did if we’d not been in Iraq. So if we’d wanted to be left alone, we should never have got involved in Iraq in the first place. And if we want to be left alone now, we should now get out as soon as possible. What happens in faraway countries is none of our business.”
Harry suggests that this is a new phenomenon, but I’m not so sure. I first noticed something like it 25 years ago in that rather large part of the 1980s peace movement that opposed the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain mainly because they made us more of a target.
People who thought like that were particularly resistant to the idea that anything was wrong with the Soviet Union – not because they particularly admired “actually existing socialism” (they generally took no interest in it) but because they thought that censuring Soviet foreign or military policy or the absence of democratic rights in the Soviet bloc gave succour to the nuclear hawks of the west. This was bad because it made more likely the nuclear Armageddon they so feared – so it was “none of our business” if the Soviet Union jailed dissidents, was entirely undemocratic and terrorised Afghan villagers. Those on the left in Britain who sided publicly with Solidarnosc in 1980-81 and attacked the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan were a tiny minority.
Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, the “anti-imperialist” left in Britain often came perilously close in its propaganda to accepting the isolationist right’s argument that Britain should get out of Ireland because what a bunch of psychotic paddies got up to wasn’t worth the life of a single British squaddie.
And if you go back to the 1930s, there was a significant element of “none of our business” isolationist thinking on the left over British rearmament against Germany. Time and again in left-wing newspapers of the period you find opponents of rearmament arguing that, although Hitler was bad, Germany was a matter for the Germans to sort out (and they had been badly done by at Versailles). The last thing we want is to provoke an imperialist war in which we’d be the targets and thousands would die.
It was only after Munich that this mindset was seriously challenged, though it survived long enough to be exploited by the Communist Party between 1939 and 1941 during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
Left anti-imperialism and right isolationism have played footsie for rather a long time.