The 1986 US air strikes on Libya, which form the backdrop to Collateral Damage, were a watershed moment in world politics.
To a degree, their significance was clear at the time because US bases in Britain had not been used for a combat mission since the Second World War.
What was less obvious was how they would lead to an era in which Britain would be enlisted in a series of US-led regime-change interventions that would become known as the ‘forever wars’.
Over the last three decades, centrist politicians in all three major Westminster parties have become apologists for and accomplices in US military aggression in other countries. In each case, there has been a seemingly plausible pretext – weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, saving civilians in Libya, protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan. In each case, these have soon been shown to be untrue, exaggerated or hypocritical.
The British elite weren’t, however, always so willing to be America’s useful idiot. What stands out, when looking back at 1986, is how much outrage there was within the political establishment about Thatcher so willingly allowing Reagan to use US bases in Suffolk to send F1-11s to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 37 civilians.
In the debate in the House of Commons on April 16, 1986, the day after the bombing, former prime ministers Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan both spoke against it as did the Labour leader of the day Neil Kinnock. There were big concerns about the legality of the action and its implications for Britain’s relations with other Arab countries.
But the speech that stands out 35 years later for its principles and prescience is the one made by Tony Benn, in which he argues against Britain allowing itself to be “taken into war through the use of bases in our country” and warns that “there will never be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians have their own state”.
Collateral Damage is set in Tripoli and London a year after the air strikes. You can find out more HERE.
The following is a slightly-abridged version of the speech Benn made.
“There has been very little support for what the Government have done, either abroad or in the country or in the House. There are three objections. One (is) the fear of Libyan reprisals. Another takes the form of the fear that this will damage British interests.
“The third objection, the one that I feel most strongly, (is) a sense of outrage at what was done and at the deaths of those in Tripoli, a fully lighted city bombed by night—and if Gaddafi’s adopted daughter was killed, it must have been because the F1–11s were chosen to pinpoint his residence.
“Yesterday, in the House, 22 peace groups met and issued a statement denouncing the attack and calling for a ban on the use of the bases in the future. On Saturday, there is to be a big demonstration in London. People will be surprised to find how much opposition there is to what has been done.
“The official explanation by the Prime Minister is that there were 330,000 American troops in western Europe preserving human freedom and that it was inconceivable that, if they were needed to kill some Libyans as a reprisal for the terrorism, she should refuse to consent.
“I was strongly reminded of the Suez situation 30 years ago. The language used about Gaddafi now was used about Nasser then. The Prime Minister said all the same things. The difference is that Eden had rather more support from his side than has the present Prime Minister, because at that time we were defending British predominance in the Middle East. I was opposed to that war because it ended in disaster for this country and did enormous damage to a whole range of British interests and to the cause of world peace.
“The Americans are in the Middle East to protect their own interests. America depends on Middle East oil, and Middle East oil is threatened, it thinks, by Soviet influence, by Arab nationalism, by Socialist agitation among Arab people and by the unresolved question of the Arab-Israeli conflict about the rights of the Palestinians.
“The United States has crudely used the Israeli Government as its instrument in the Middle East. I regret this very much because I was brought up to be a great believer that the Jews, the Israelis, had the right to a national state, and I have always held that view. However, they have no right to be an American instrument in denying a Palestinian state. The specific root of the problem is that the Americans have decided to use Israel to blank out the right of the Palestinians to a state.
“We must be careful not to mislead ourselves when we use language here that is reported outside. Imperial interests do not mix with human rights. For example, when we were an empire, we invaded Afghanistan four times; we governed the whole of India without any form of consent from the Indian people.
“The most powerful country in the world today is the United States. I have warm feelings about the American people and their traditions. However, the same is not true of the American record—the war in Vietnam, the attack on the Bay of Pigs, the undermining of Allende, the support of Marcos and Papa Doc for many years, the support of the Greek colonels and the Turkish regime, the invasion of Grenada and currently the positive financing of the killing of the people in Nicaragua.
“I hope that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will not ask me to accept that the United States is in Europe or anywhere else to protect human rights. It is there to protect its investments, economic interests and trade routes, exactly as Britain did when it was an empire. One reason why Ministers have supported the Americans so wholeheartedly is that they envy the Americans for being able to engage in the sort of gunboat diplomacy that is now beyond our resources.
“What is terrorism? ‘Terrorism’ is a word used to define acts of violence by people we do not like. Let us be clear about that. I have never heard the BBC talk about Afghan terrorists attacking the Russian army. I never heard the Maquis in France described as terrorists when they were blowing up restaurants and cafes where the German troops were eating.
“The word ‘terrorist’ reflects the view one takes of certain actions. The attack upon people who are troublemakers—sometimes they are called terrorists or nationalists—is also part of our history. I have a long memory on this point. When I was a little boy of five, I was taken to meet Mr. Gandhi in London when he came to the round table conference. Gandhi was described by Churchill as a “half-naked fakir loping up the stairway of the vice-regal lodge to parley on equal terms with representatives of the King emperor.” So much for Churchill, the old imperialist. He had contempt for Gandhi, although Gandhi was not a terrorist. He believed that love was more powerful than guns, and I think that he was right.
“During the course of my life, I have met Nehru, who was in prison, Nkrumah, Cheddi Jagan, Makarios—who was sent away—and Kenyatta. Hon. Members should go to the Library and read the confidential annexe published by the British Government about the Mau Mau oaths, which were so disgusting that they could not even be published. Kenyatta was a Kenyan nationalist. The story of the British empire is that one begins as a terrorist and ends up by having tea with the Queen.
“The British empire ended when the British Government conceded to force. That is what Conservative Members cannot bear. It began as something beyond the pale, but in the end, they have to come to terms with it.
“The fact that so many speeches today have referred to the right of the Palestinian state to exist is not unrelated to the fact that there has been a great deal of violence around the Palestinian question. It would be nice to think that all arguments could be settled by a public opinion poll and a quick chat in the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet. The reality is that rights have often been won by force, and none have been readier to use force than successive British Governments. When force is used against what we want to hear, we dismiss it as outrageous.
“Why did the Prime Minister agree to the use of British bases? Was it because of the Falklands war? I believe that there was a debt to be discharged. We did not win the Falklands war by sending the task force; we won because the Americans had a satellite system that informed the British forces of the Argentine positions. They supplied the logistics and weapons, but above all they told us the position of the Belgrano so that the Conqueror could sink it. The Prime Minister had an overwhelming obligation—she thought—to pay the price for that American support by agreeing to the use of British bases for the bombing of Libya.
“Could the Prime Minister have refused? That is a question that I want answered. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath)—a former Prime Minister—said that he had once refused consent, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) said that she could have refused. But could the right hon. Lady have refused? We do not know what the agreements state. There are only three people in the House who have ever seen them. Why are they not published? Why are we not allowed to know the conditions under which this country could be taken into war by a Prime Minister using the Crown prerogative?
“If there are lessons to be learnt, let us learn them once and for all. First, there will never be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians have their own state. I say that as a lifelong friend of Israel—someone who wants to see Israel prosper. The Israeli Government have, in some ways, betrayed their people by allowing that state to be an instrument of American imperial policy in the Middle East.
“Secondly, Britain is entitled to self-determination. We are entitled to decide whether we want to be taken into war through the use of bases in our country. Yet we are not so entitled. Does anyone believe that Reagan would contact the Prime Minister—who might be having a bath—with only a four-minute notice period, to obtain her consent to fire missiles? Of course not. Technology itself makes it impossible to consult.
“We must now consider very carefully whether we should not close down all the American bases in Britain. It is the policy of the Labour party—and I am very glad that it is and it was a long struggle to get it—to close the nuclear bases.
“This action by Reagan was very foolish because he lost more friends and influence by what he did on Monday than he could ever make up for with all his hardware. For we learn that it was the use of conventional forces from British bases that posed the threat with which we now have to live.
“I believe most profoundly that the time has come when Britain should realign its foreign policy, not to neutrality on all sides, but to push our influence to end the conflicts between East and West and try to redirect the resources available to our generation to meet the needs of the Third World, instead of building up the nuclear madness, which may very well end with an incident no different from Monday’s bombing of Libya and trigger accidentally the destruction of humanity itself.”
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