When to arm and when to call for peace has always divided Labour

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IT IS more than a week ago now that the House of Commons broke its holiday for the emergency debate on Bosnia. Since then, some of the matters and mysteries discussed have become a little clearer.

Most of the UN hostages have been released, and more has emerged about how President Slobodan Milosevic was induced to squeeze those releases out of the Bosnian Serbs. And it has become a little easier to explain what British troops are supposed to be doing in Bosnia or, to put it another way, what the British political class thinks is the purpose of the UN Protection Force.

Mr Major and Mr Blair tried to spell it out in the debate. The Prime Minister said that there were two purposes: humanitarian and strategic. The troops were there to protect the international aid effort, and to "contain" the fighting so that it did not spread into a general Balkan war. Tony Blair backed John Major's arguments against immediate UN withdrawal, but added a third reason for the troops' presence.

He said that "the policy of containment has, by and large, worked". But he admitted that the soldiers also had a political impact: "...as a result of this, President Milosevic and Belgrade have been detached from the Bosnian Serbs... the UN's presence can act only as a platform for a diplomatic peace effort." Reviewing the debate, Andrew Marr of the Independent filled in the unspoken bits of the politicians' case: "We are not at war with the Bosnian Serbs but we are not at peace with them either. Nor - and here is the crux of the matter - are we neutral."

There was nothing bellicose about Tony Blair's speech. But it was more detailed (sometimes to the point of rambling) and distinctly more "committed" than the statement by the Prime Minister. It deserves, in fact, to be fished out of its Bosnian hostage-crisis context and looked at for itself - as Blair's first important statement on war and peace. When to arm and send troops overseas, or when to call for peace and disarmament - these issues have divided and at times disabled the Labour Party in the past. Is New Labour any more coherent?

There have always been two main strands in the Labour tradition on war. The first, now reduced almost to the verge of extinction, is a sort of simplified Marxoid view of war and peace as aspects of class struggle. Capitalist arms barons have a vested interest in the mutual slaughter carried out by deluded national proletariats forced into uniform. (In the debate, this strand reappeared in the speech by Tony Benn, contrasting American global arms sales with President Clinton's reluctance to get involved on the ground in Bosnia.) The only war which might be justifiable would be a defensive war against "Fascism". This sort of thinking was one ancestor of the belief in unilateral nuclear disarmament which gripped so much of the Labour movement for so long.

The other strand has been an enlightened, almost missionary belief in Britain's duty to help make the world a safer and more just place. British troops can and should be dispatched for active service in foreign parts as long as they form part of some international "peacekeeping" or "law- enforcing" operation, if possible under the aegis of the United Nations, whose purpose is in some way to safeguard or rescue potential or actual victims of aggression. Tony Blair adopted this line when he said that "if we allowed such force to replace the rules of international law, the reputation of the United Nations would slide into the same abyss into which the League of Nations eventually fell".

In this view, any unilateral British use of force abroad has been suspect: to be regarded as "imperialist" or "repressive" unless proved otherwise. In 1956, when Britain and France attacked Egypt in the teeth of UN denunciations, the Labour Party took its opposition to the government into the streets under the slogan "Law, not War". The Gulf War of 1990-91 was successfully sold to Neil Kinnock's parliamentary following as one of those international "law-enforcement" crusades, against the aggressor Saddam Hussein, although a minority in the party continued to condemn it loudly as an imperial "blood for oil" expedition in which Britain acted as a mere American satellite. In the famous Falklands debate of 1982, however, patriotic passion in the Commons blew Labour right off its feet and - led by Michael Foot - into full support for the sending of a British task force to the South Atlantic.

The first thing to say about these two Labour positions is that they reflect two Tory ones - although the rhetoric is so different. The Labour dislike of foreign wars, perceived as "imbroglios" in which Britain has no real interest, in some ways resembles the isolationism of the "Little England" Tory right whose voices were heard during the Bosnia debate. The Tory Eurosceptics are generally also "Bosnosceptics" (with the addition of Sir Edward Heath to the latter cause). The Labour doubters about the wisdom of reinforcing the British presence in Bosnia include some who are obsessed with the sovereignty of Westminster and the threat posed to "our independence" by the European Union. And the Falklands debate showed that those in the Labour Party who were most passionately critical of British involvement in global nuclear deterrence were precisely those most easily swept away by the summons to rescue "our people" from the Argentinian junta.

Labour's other instinct - to support an international order with British armed forces if necessary - in some ways recalls the ancient imperial confidence of the Tory (and Whig) past. Its roots are more genuinely internationalist - in the Spanish Civil War, or the Berlin Blockade. But there is the same sense that non-intervention is a dishonourable option for Britain when banditry is ravaging the world, and the same elementary confidence in the quality of British soldiering.

All this adds up to a very curious conclusion. As things stand, Labour is the "war party". That does not mean, of course, that Tony Blair wants to push British troops towards fighting a war in Bosnia or anywhere else: "we have ruled out a role as combatants, taking sides..." What it means is that Labour now finds it easier to accept British military commitments overseas - as long as they have an international, law-enforcing cover to them - than the Tories do.

The rising tide of Europhobia in the Tory party, with its open or covert supporters in Cabinet, is beginning to flood the foundations of Britain's will to keep forces under UN command. The pressure on the Government to withdraw British troops from Bosnia is still resistible. John Major is trying to stave it off by sending this astonishingly large reinforcement, designed to look, depending on your views, like the means to carry on the UN mission more securely or like the rescue force needed to cover a final pull-out. But that pressure is growing. It is generated by an old Tory hatred of the UN that reaches 40 years back to Suez, and by new Tory hatred of Europe and anything like a common European foreign policy.

There is a lot at stake. If the worst comes to the worst and the UN pulls out, that would at least be less destructive than a unilateral British withdrawal. But now there is an alter- native. If the Bosnian operation can somehow be kept going until 1997, there is a good chance that a new British government may emerge. A Labour government, or Labour- led coalition, would be a more reliable partner for all kinds of global emergency than John Major's administration, now rapidly losing control of a party which wants to stop the world and get Britain off. From the "unelectable" crew of 15 years ago, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair have managed to train up a political force which is at home not just in Middle England but in the real world outside.

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