December 20, 2023 - 10:00am

In recent decades “pragmatism” has been the preferred maxim for those of a centrist persuasion — in word if not always in deed. Pragmatism with public finances. Pragmatism with public sector reform. Pragmatism with housing. 

But in the UK, there is one area where pragmatism doesn’t exist: foreign policy. Because while purported “common sense” at home is in order, when it comes to overseas our politicians demand that we think in grand, often overtly ideological terms. This has led to entirely avoidable, self-inflicted disasters, ranging from occupying Afghanistan to removing Gaddafi. 

The bloodshed in Gaza, and its unfolding consequences, threaten a similar kind of disaster. In recognition of this fact, both Foreign Secretary David Cameron and his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock called for a “sustainable ceasefire” last weekend. This isn’t substantially different from before — with any ceasefire still being permissible only after Israel destroys Hamas. But even rhetorical shifts matter, particularly when events move so quickly. 

With the Tories on the ropes, and Keir Starmer almost certain to become the next prime minister, this all raises an important question: what would a Labour government do? “Pragmatism” would dictate, surely, that after the hardest period for living standards since the 1950s, and with inflation now falling, avoiding further price rises (caused by shipping route blocks in the Red Sea) is the priority. “Common sense” would determine that, after the catastrophes of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is obviously foolish to confront an asymmetric actor in their backyard when an alternative remains available.

And yet it may well be that the emerging prudence of the British state gives way to more bluster, with a Labour government more disposed to abstract “principles”. Cameron has called for a “much more surgical, clinical and targeted approach when it comes to dealing with Hamas” while Rishi Sunak has said too many civilians are being killed. Starmer, meanwhile, has said nothing remotely similar — and declared in November that a ceasefire would only freeze the conflict. Ditto Wes Streeting, Secretary of State for Health, who was incredibly lightweight while discussing the issue over the weekend.

Presumably, for them, the interests of the wider region, or Europe, or Britain, are irrelevant. Maybe hundreds of thousands of Gazans being displaced and coming to Europe as refugees doesn’t matter. Maybe they simply haven’t thought about it.

There is, of course, another explanation. Namely that because demands for a ceasefire are viewed by many as supportive of Palestine, and therefore “Left-coded”, Labour’s leadership is eager to overcompensate in the opposite direction. Why else would Starmer let 10 frontbenchers, including Jess Philips, lose their jobs after voting for an SNP motion last month? That was avoidable and unnecessary, but Labour — as will likely prove to be the case in government — is eager to show its Atlanticist credentials on foreign policy. 

Jeremy Corbyn may no longer lead the party, but his legacy means Starmer will overcompensate on issues where his predecessor sought to make waves — namely foreign policy and public ownership. For all the protests, the electoral consequences of that may touch a dozen seats at most. Far more important, however, is that it is a deeply unwise approach to foreign relations in an increasingly dangerous and fragmented world order. Beware the self-appointed pragmatists in politics. They often think the least.

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.