“We Must Carry On Fighting. The Anti-War Movement Is Pivotal.”
Stop the War Patron & Labour Party Merit Award-Winner, Walter Wolfgang, on how the battle for an ethical foreign policy can be won
In 2005 Walter Wolfgang was famously removed from the Labour Party conference after shouting down then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Thirteen years later, now aged 95, Walter recently received a merit award from the party for his decades-long contribution to the movement, presented by Jeremy Corbyn, himself. I have since had the pleasure of talking to Walter, discussing his award, the success of Jeremy Corbyn and the importance of the anti-war movement.
He’s typically modest about receiving the honour. “I was very pleased but I didn’t actually think I deserved it because I merely did what I thought I had to do. I have got strong Jewish ethical convictions in social justice, human brotherhood and the pursuit of peace. They prompted me to join the Labour Party and also support Jeremy Corbyn’s policies of promoting peace and freedom of discussion on Palestinian rights.”
Walter believes his award illustrates the change in the party since Tony Blair and particularly under Jeremy Corbyn. “It definitely shows how much the Labour Party has changed. When I joined the National Executive Committee as a consequence of 2005, Tony Blair said he’d been punished by having me on the executive. They sidelined me as much as possible. I tried to democratise the institution but it was kicked to the sidelines and, of course, now it’s happening. The whole situation has changed. This Labour conference was one of the best I’ve seen. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was highly impressive and he linked domestic policy to foreign policy. He was the first Labour leader since 1945 to say we must stop blindly following US foreign policy."
When I take him back to the conference of 2005, Walter recalls the incident with unwavering clarity. Reflecting on the incident now Walter says, “We tried to get a resolution on to the order paper condemning the Iraq invasion. The seconder of the motion was a young man who was soon told by the party establishment that he would get nowhere in the party and would be lucky if he wasn’t thrown out for seconding the motion. He shouldn’t have yielded but he did yield. I was terribly upset. Then Jack Straw spoke to conference. He came to Iraq and said there is only one reason why we invaded and that is democracy and I shouted ‘It’s a lie’. I hadn’t planned it. I couldn’t contain myself. Then the heavies came. A woman insisted coming in the lift with me to support me and they didn’t dare do anything to me with her there. I didn’t realise what a watershed it was until a day or two afterwards. Before I was reinstated I realised something very significant had happened. People in the country knew some in the Labour Party had lost their marbles. They even banned sweets from the conference gallery, in case people threw them at the speakers! My incident was a turning point."
That conference took place two years after the doomed invasion of Iraq. As Walter looks back at that intervention and indeed seventeen years of military intervention in the Middle East – from Afghanistan onwards, he is unflinching in his conviction. “It is a complete outrage. It’s made a mess of Iraq. What the West has done to the Middle East is a crime of humanity.”
Walter, himself Jewish, was keen to defend Jeremy Corbyn during the numerous attacks on his foreign policy in the summer. “The actions of some in the Jewish Labour Movement have hurt fellow Jews like myself, who have lost family members and friends in the holocaust, who would not support their causes. When you use the slogan of antisemitism, some people do not examine whether it’s actually true or not. The people trying to oust Corbyn are using it as a weapon and it’s outrageous.”
Walter is clear on the task ahead for the anti-war movement, both inside the Labour Party and wider. “We need a foreign policy based on human justice and brotherhood. I have always said that it is foreign policy that determines defence policy. We have not won inside the Labour Party. We appear to be winning, but we must carry on fighting. The anti-war movement is pivotal. Foreign policy and domestic policy are linked and Stop the War realised this from the beginning. You cannot isolate foreign or defence policy, you need a broad front promoting peace and equality.”