Sunak, Shapps and Starmer beat the war drum

In a speech1 delivered at Lancaster House in London on Monday 15 January 2024, titled Defending Britain from a more dangerous world, UK Defence Minister Grant Shapps evoked the spirit of previous war-mongering Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to prepare the British public for war. War on many fronts. War that will be an ever-present, escalating fact of life. War that workers will have to pay for, while struggling to pay their bills.

“In five years’ time,” Shapps said, “we could be looking at multiple theatres [of conflict] involving Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.”

He announced increases in military spending and in military aid to Ukraine.

Shapps’ speech confirmed what Marxists have been arguing for years – that the war in Ukraine is a prelude to a future global war, affecting all parts of the world, with cities destroyed and millions killed. Workers should not back either side. The USA is increasingly seeing its economic and military domination of the world threatened by the rise of China. The USA – and its allies in NATO – is preparing for a confrontation with China which is coming sooner or later unless the world’s working class and all those who oppose war are mobilised to stop it.

Israel’s war against the Palestinians in Gaza (not forgetting the continued raids and killings by the Israeli Defence Force in the occupied West Bank) must be seen in the same context. 

The US, UK, the EU and others back Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, refusing to call for a ceasefire, with over 24,000 Gazans killed so far by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing. Two million Palestinians have been turned yet again into refugees, displaced, living in tents and other makeshift shelters, deprived of food, water, sanitation and medical aid. It is not a war against Hamas alone, but against the whole Palestinian population. The Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 has, inevitably, been used by Israel’s extreme right-wing government as an opportunity to ethnically cleanse Gaza of its Palestinian population.

Democracy under attack

Democratic rights of free speech and freedom of assembly are being trampled in a determined attempt to stifle any opposition voice. In the USA, students and academics are being silenced, attacked and removed from office for daring to oppose the actions of the Israeli government. In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, pro-Palestinian protests, flags and chants have been banned2. In the UK, the Conservative Home Secretary told police chiefs that waving the Palestinian flag or chanting “from the river to the sea” should be considered as criminal offences3.

The western governments realise that as they ramp up their military actions and ratchet up the preparations for global war, the working class and youth of the world will not sit silently and passively. They will mobilise as they have done in protest against the mass murder in Gaza. These attacks on democracy will become even greater as war unfolds.


The Israel-Palestine war threatens to envelop the whole region of the Middle East and beyond, as the US and UK carried out air strikes4 against the Houthis in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world , with the support of Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands. Sunak justified the attacks on the basis of self-defence. There is no issue of self-defence. US president Biden revealed a different reason when he said that the air strikes sent “a clear message that the US and our partners will not tolerate” disruption to commercial trade. It is profits that concern them. Behind this is a determination to show support for Israel.

About 15 per cent of global sea trade passes through the Red Sea. It costs a lot more for ships to make the long sea voyage round Cape Horn, adding to transport costs. Yet that is what the majority of companies involved in oil and containers traffic have decided to do. That the US and UK have, instead, used the Houthi attacks to justify the air strikes and threaten more, indicates a determination to seek conflict. The raids increase, not decrease, the likelihood of further conflict. Socialists should demand the withdrawal of the US and British warships and that shipping companies use the longer, more expensive routes. It’s better than war. The international working class and the socialist movement has nothing to gain from a widening regional war or its escalation into world war.

As a multi-millionaire5 and bona fide member of Britain’s capitalist elite, Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is unremarkably showing what a loyal ally to the US he is, hoping to get some preferential economic reward for his class. Possibly he also hopes to get some domestic electoral bounce from his jingoistic call to arms to defend the ‘national interest’, as Thatcher did in 1982 from the Falklands War. But his ‘national interest’ is that of the ruling business class and their profits, not that of the majority working class. It will be the working class who pays the price for war. The interests of the two classes are incompatible.

There’s always money for war in the interests of big business but never enough to provide for health care, housing, pensions and decent wages.

Sunak restated his commitment to war with a promise to carry out further raids6 if the Houthis do not desist from attacking shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. While saying he doesn’t want to escalate the conflict, he acts to ensure escalation. We now have the danger, if not the inevitability, of the war dragging in Iran and others. 

Starmer backs Sunak

Not to be outdone, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who as leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition was consulted in advance by Sunak about the planned air strikes, duly supported them and has justified them as wholly necessary, even defending Sunak against the criticism that he failed to consult or get the endorsement of parliament. Starmer is showing yet again that he can be completely relied upon to act in the interests of US imperialism and the obedient British ruling capitalist class. He has nothing in common with the interests of the British and international working class, that is, with the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. Any future Starmer-led Labour government will act no differently from a Sunak-led Conservative one.

In any war it is always the working class who suffers. It is the working class which is sent to fight. It is the working class which is bombed. It is the working class which pays the price through increased taxation or through cuts to the social wage and benefit system to divert resources to military spending.

It is a disgrace to the trade union movement that the 2022 TUC Congress backed a motion7 from the GMB union, supported by Unite, which called on the government to spend more money on arms manufacturing, justified by the myopic view that this will provide jobs for their union members8. We need a revolution inside the trade unions to overcome this reactionary outlook and to put the interests of the international working class first.

On the eve of destruction

Now, with the full backing of the TUC, Shapps announced, 

“Today, for the very first time this government is spending more than £50bn a year on Defence in cash terms, more than ever before.

“And we have made the critical decision to set out our aspiration to reach 2.5% of GDP spent on defence.”

“And as we stabilise and grow the economy, we will continue to strive to reach it as soon as possible.   

“But now is the time for all allied and democratic nations across the world to do the same.

“And ensure their defence spending is growing.”

Referring to Sunak’s recent visit to Ukraine, Shapps said,

“The start of a 100-year alliance that we are building with our Ukrainian friends.

“It sees us increasing our military support to £2.5bn – taking the total of UK military aid to more than £7bn. With even more gifted directly from the UK’s equipment inventory.

“£200m will be pressed into producing and procuring thousands of drones, including surveillance and long-range strike drones.”

Shapps outlined the various military blocs in which Britain participates.

“[T]he UK has committed nearly the totality of our air, land and maritime assets to NATO.

“But, in 2024, I am determined to do even more.

“Which is why I can announce today that UK will be sending some 20,000 personnel to lead one of NATO’s largest deployments since the end of the Cold War, Exercise Steadfast Defender.

“It will see our military joining forces with counterparts from 30 NATO countries plus Sweden, providing vital reassurance against the Putin menace.”

“But NATO is only part of our rich tapestry of partnerships.” 

Shapps referred to the AUKUS9 partnership, and to the Global Combat Air P10artnership (or GCAP) with Japan and Italy, and to the coalition backing of Ukraine.

Oppose the rush to war

Shapps’ speech, Sunak’s actions, and Starmer’s support all show that the British and western imperialist nations, with full support from the major parties of all colours, are tooling up for a massive global confrontation. The working class must realise the threat and act on it. We must get organised. We must oppose the increased spending on arms. We must oppose the erosion of our democratic rights, won by centuries of struggle. We must march, protest, and continue to speak out. 

Most importantly of all, we must form working-class parties committed to breaking the rule of the profit system and its war-mongers. We must form socialist/communist parties that stand for the abolition of capitalism and its war machine. We must fight for a world without nations and national rivalries, without economic competition but with the world’s resources owned by all for the benefit of all.

Socialists must oppose all moves towards war, not only by the US, the UK, NATO but also by Russia, China, Iran or North Korea. The working class has nothing to gain by a victory for either side in the coming global conflict. We must map out an independent programme for the international working class. The workers of other countries are not our enemies. The bosses of our own countries are our class enemies. We must turn opposition to war into opposition to the capitalist system.

Not one penny for war. Not one man or woman for war. Fight the bosses and their profit system.

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One thought on “Sunak, Shapps and Starmer beat the war drum

  1. This article rightly calls out the very real and present dangers of a new world war developing between capitalist blocs. But I think that we have to engage with the concrete form of developments right now. There is a national liberation struggle being waged by Palestinians against a colonial settler state that acts as an agent of western imperialism in the middle east. Obviously as socialists we have to support that struggle, and the agency of Palestinians to fight for their own freedom in ways of their own choosing.

    There is not a “war” between Israel and Hamas, Gaza or Palestine: this is a brutal repression, ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian people by one of the most powerful military forces in the world, underwritten by an apparently open cheque from America. This did not start October 7th, but is the latest chapter in 75 years of Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine, through land grabs, expulsions, military occupation, settler violence, random and targeted slaughter, starvation, withdrawal of utilities and collective imprisonment. Indeed, it didn’t even start in 1948 – Zionists used both terrorism and military force throughout the first half of the 20th century to attack, undermine, demoralise and fragment the nascent Palestinian nation.

    Hamas is not Isis. Indeed, Isis is a tool of US aggression in the middle east and beyond. This was exemplified recently when Isis were wheeled out to bomb the funeral in Iran. As socialists we disagree with the politics of Hamas, just as we have disagreed with the politics of the leadership of every national liberation movement across history. But every anti-imperialist struggle is confronting and challenging capitalism, whether its leadership know it or not. And every anti-imperialist struggle requires our support. We are not neutral by-standers when it comes to “war” between an oppressed people and its oppressor.

    The Islamophobic “war on terror” doctrine was a tool of western imperialism simultaneously to retain control over the middle east and at the same time to divide and rule communities at home. No end of blood-shed was built on this narrative, including the Iraq war, to say nothing of the brazen disregard of international law in relation to Palestine. The narrative was fatally undermined when Corbyn called out the real causes of the terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge and gained the explicit support of victims’ families. The “war on terror”, which the west were so keen to revive after October 7th, has lost all credibility, and Starmer has misjudged the public mood on the doctrine. It is clear to the working class around the world now that the real terrorists are the imperialist aggressors … except perhaps to the Israeli working class.

    We have seen an unprecedented, world-wide and working class anti-war movement emerge since October 7th, and it has been out on the streets in its millions week after week, resisting all state attempts at repression. The problem with that movement is its leadership, not its class base. In the UK, most of the trade union bureaucracy have chosen to stay silent, and refused to mobilise for the demonstrations. Stop The War seem intent on delivering the movement into the lap of Corbyn and the Socialist Campaign Group, whilst sections of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign seem to have reached an accommodation with Zionism and continuation of the occupation under the guise of an already hopeless two-state solution.

    The Houthi forces of Yemen are right to intervene around the shipping lanes of the Red Sea in solidarity with Palestine. Any “war” between the US/Britain and Yemen cannot be characterised as a war between two capitalist powers blocs, and we are not neutral by-standers who can simply decry the war and call for peace. We demand the US and Britain disengage and cease their attacks, but we don’t demand the Houthis cease their solidarity with Palestine. Just as we demand that Israel ceases its bombardment of Gaza, but we don’t demand that Palestinians abandon their resistance to the occupation.

    The progression towards a new world war will not be through some abstract declaration between power blocs, but through specific imperialist conflagrations like that in Palestine. Socialists can only prepare for (and resist progress towards) a new world war by engaging with and supporting the anti-imperialist struggles that arise. Anti-imperialist struggles are the engine of international working class solidarity – they are not counter-posed to each other.

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