Scarcely a week after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, the Sunday Times published a statement by an anonymous serving general threatening that the army high command would prevent a Corbyn-led Labour government carrying out its programme.
The threat was made in response to Corbyn’s high profile opposition to Nato and Trident and plans to significantly reduce military expenditure. The general went on:
“The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”
It is no surprise that the general, who the Sunday Times says served in Northern Ireland “during the Troubles”, claims he is “sickened” by Jeremy Corbyn’s “refusal to condemn the IRA” and John McDonnell’s statement that those who participated in “the armed struggle” should be honoured and references to the “heroism” of hunger strikers like Bobby Sands. He says this is an insult to the hundreds of British army personnel who were killed during the occupation of Ireland.
Of course the general does not mention the crimes of “our heroes” – such as the men of the Paratroop Regiment, who gunned down 26 unarmed civilians, killing 14, in Derry on 30 January 1972 (Bloody Sunday). He does not mention that IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and ten of his comrades were left to die by Margaret Thatcher, who refused to grant them the right as political prisoners not to wear prison uniforms.
It is instructive that the general chooses to focus on Ireland. The modern, ‘democratic’ British state tried to maintain its rule over the Irish people for over a century. When it was forced to withdraw it partitioned the island and continued to occupy the North, provoking another war of independence. Though this struggle did not succeed, it forced the British state into concessions that it plainly resents and seeks to undermine.
The best and most militant sectors of the British labour movement, including the Labour Party, have sided with and supported the Irish struggle. Those most tied to British imperialism have not. That is why John McDonnell was right when he praised those who fought and died for Irish freedom and wrong when he apologised for it.
Likewise Jeremy Corbyn was right when, as an avowed atheist and a republican, he refused to sing the royal hymn that masquerades as a national anthem. To reverse himself on this in the name of “not offending” people would simply be weak-minded. It would be to doff one’s cap and bend the knee to the absurd mock-feudal paraphernalia of our rulers. All this tawdry rubbish needs to go into the rubbish bin of history. It is why the demand for a secular republic is far from being “a diversion” as some in the Labour Party claim.
A very British coup?
But what has been allowed to pass with little or no comment by the British press and the government is that a serving general was effectively calling on troops to mutiny against a democratically elected government – an act that would would be a treasonable in a republic, or any country with a proper democratic constitution.
Those Tories who have commented on the general’s statement have suggested he is an “idiot” or that it was some sort of gaffe. Not a single clear statement has been made that this was a clear breach of democratic principles – it seems he was an idiot for saying it, that’s all. It is noteworthy that no senior government politician has suggested his dismissal or even challenged his views. In fact the prime minister could easily find out who it was even if he does not already know. The sovereignty of parliament – and the people – finds few or no defenders.
The right wing press has been full of stories and editorial suggesting that Corbyn cannot be trusted with state secrets, secret service briefings etc., whilst at the same time taunting him that as a member of the Privy Council he will have to swear an antiquely worded oath of loyalty to the Queen. (He has of course taken such an oath eight times as an MP). Why he would wish to be part of this body, most of whose hundreds of members never meet, and membership of which would not guarantee him any access to secret briefings, on for example war preparations, with an oath to keep them secret, is a mystery.
The purpose of all this pomp and circumstance is to oblige each and every Labour leader to declare their loyalty to British imperialism and the dictatorship of a tiny elite both at home and abroad; one that coolly denies the sovereignty of the people whenever it infringes on the ruling class’s wealth and privileges.
It is noteworthy that whereas some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters advise not raising the issue of monarchy because it is “not important” – our rulers and their journalistic lackeys beg to differ. It is the litmus test of loyalty to them and a pledge of disloyalty to the working class.
The general’s threats should be a stark warning to the working class movement that democracy and the rule of law rest upon very shaky foundations in this country, and that any government elected on a radical programme would likely suffer an attack from all the unelected elements of the state machinery – not only the army (and the police) but from the monarchy, the judiciary and the senior layers of the civil service.
This was revealed in another of Her Majesty’s realms, Australia, back in the 1970s. A Labour prime minster (Gough Whitlam) was brought down by a revolt by all the leas democratic and downright undemocratic institutions of the state, including the refusal of the less democratic upper house of parliament (the Senate) to agree reforms or pass finance bills, passed by the more democratic lower chamber, interventions by the judiciary. And it was the Governor General (the Queen’s representative) who delivered the coup de grace and dismissed Whitlam, forcing an election. In Britain itself when the miners strike of 1974 led to the downfall of a Tory government and an election which Labour won there were widespread talks of a coup in the secret service and the military.
At home – not just in “Her dominions beyond the seas” – Mrs Windsor retains the power (royal prerogative) to dissolve parliament and to appoint or dismiss prime minsters, all of which powers could be used in a “national emergency” i.e. what the ruling class considers to be so. If the people were, via an election, to “put a maverick in charge” then clearly their error would have to be undone by an unelected millionaire (personal worth £340 million; assets as monarch expanding into the billions).
Heeding the general’s warning
So what conclusions should one draw from this little incident? With regard to democracy within a capitalist society in general and in the British imperialist monarchy in particular, the right to elect a government by universal suffrage is clearly a gain made for the working class and preceding popular classes, after centuries of struggle. However this democracy will not be applied to any decsisve issue – i.e. one that really hurts the interests and wealth of the ruling, without an equally serious struggle.
This democracy must be defended against all attempts by the billionaire class and the preponderant unelected parts of the machinery of state to subvert or overthrow it. But a working class that is unarmed and unorganised for its own defence against the army and police force which are not its defenders, will be fatally vulnerable to having its democratically expressed will frustrated and aborted.
Therefore building up organisations of self-defence for the picket line, the occupation or the demonstration is a vital part of every serious struggle. This was proved in the great miners’ strike of 1984-5 when a centralised and newly paramilitarised police force was able to overcome large numbers of militant and courageous pickets in great confrontations like Orgreave.
The police were then able to invade and intimidate the mining villages. The labour movement’s leaders’ refusal to accept that not only is “self-defence no offence” but that to win it is an absolute necessity, has been proven – alas negatively – many times.
Karl Marx observed – “One thing is certain, these thick-headed John Bulls, whose brainpans seem to have been specially manufactured for the constables’ bludgeons, will never get anywhere without a really bloody encounter with the ruling powers.” Not violence for the sake of it but because the ruling class not only defends its monopoly of force in principle but asserts it in practice with “bludgeons” in any really serious confrontation.
If we want to defend a left Labour government that wants to spend public money on welfare not warfare we will have to prepare ourselves to confront and stop all the state’s undemocratic forces. These range from the economy the ruling class totally controls (the banks, stock exchange, etc.) to the media, to the spying and provocations of the “secret state”. It extends from rom the interventions of the monarchy, the House of Lords, the judiciary to the forces of their “law and order”.
A clear democratic mandate – a majority in the House of Commons alone – will be totally incapable of enforcing its will. For this revolutionary actions against their undemocratic state will be needed and this needs to be faced up to in any programme for a working class party.