IMAGINE it is 1967 and Sir Keir Starmer is not just leader of the Labour Party but Britain’s prime minister. We are in the midst of the Vietnam War. President Johnson is ramping up US involvement in the conflict.

American war planes are bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age. That year alone the US military has suffered 11,000 dead. Before the war is over, America will see 58,000 of its sons killed in action.

Australia, America’s Commonwealth ally in Vietnam, suffers over 500 dead and 3000 badly wounded. The Vietnamese, North and South, see more than one million dead or missing among the combatants.

Here is the question – would Keir Starmer, on what we know of his foreign policy approach from the Houthi crisis, have sent British troops and planes to Vietnam to fight alongside the Americans?

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I think the answer must be a resounding yes. Most certainly, Tony Blair – had he been in charge in 1967 – would have been among the first to respond positively to Johnson’s urgent and frequent requests for Britain to send military forces to fight in Vietnam.

In which case, hundreds and probably thousands of British soldiers and airmen would have died in that toxic and ultimately futile conflict.

But here is the strange thing. Although there was a Labour prime minister in Downing Street in 1967, for once – and only once – Britain kept out of an American war. That prime minister was pipe-smoking Harold Wilson. If Wilson has a political legacy, it is that he kept Britain out of Vietnam. And for good reason.

British military involvement in that stupid war would have divided the country for a generation. It would have wasted billions on a conflict the West was never going to win, money which would have been better spent at home.

The National: TV review: The Vietnam War

And it would have permanently sullied Britain’s political reputation in the world well before Blair did that in Iraq.

The strange truth is that Labour governments and Labour prime ministers since the Second World War have – time and time again – surrendered Britain’s domestic interests to slavishly following American foreign policy.

Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 Labour government armed the Greek fascists to suppress a popular left-wing uprising. Attlee sent 60,000 British servicemen and women to fight in the now forgotten Korean War – more than 1000 never made it home.

Attlee’s bumptious Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was the moving force in setting up Nato. Attlee and Bevin – without parliamentary debate or approval – secretly commissioned Britain’s first nuclear weapons. All this when post-war Britain hovered on the verge of bankruptcy. Which may explain Labour’s willingness to do America’s bidding in return for dollar loans – an act of national prostitution.

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In 1964, Labour returned to power under Wilson. He was one of Oxford University’s most brilliant graduates, a highly effective civil servant, a hugely funny and incisive public speaker (I heard him) and seemingly on the left of the party. Imagine someone with Blair’s charisma but with brains.

Much was expected of Wilson only for those hopes to be dashed. In foreign policy, Wilson danced to the American tune. In 1966, he happily (and illegally) expelled the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, an island atoll in the Indian Ocean and a British colony, so the US could build a military base there.

This forced exile was later found to be a crime against humanity under the Rome statute of the international Criminal Court. The US has used the base to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan.

The unlucky inhabitants of Diego Garcia were the victims of Wilson’s need to placate the White House. The British economy in the 1960s was as unproductive and as dominated by greedy bankers as it is now.

To keep from devaluing the pound (and causing inflation) Wilson needed American loans. But he had to give something in return. Johnson, an arch bully, demanded Britain send troops to Vietnam.

The National: Anti-Vietnam War protest march

But Wilson knew this would split Labour and divide the country. Wisely (and opportunistically) a devious Wilson offered Johnson a variety of political sops – including booting out the inhabitants of Diego Garcia so the Pentagon could use it.

On the subject of island colonies, in 1969 Wilson also sent an invasion force to the West Indies to stop the people of tiny Anguilla declaring independence from their forced union with neighbouring Saint Kitts. Wilson also pursued a protracted insurgency war in south Arabia in defence of Britain’s trade and oil interests.

Famously (or infamously), in July 1967, Lt Col Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders led his troops to recapture the Crater area of Aden – then a British colony, now part of Yemen – after 24 British soldiers were killed by local insurgents.

We might remember Britain’s little war in Yemen in the 1960s when we consider how the Houthis respond to us bombing them. They might not see Britain as a disinterested party but a former coloniser.

The interesting thing about Wilson is that he did not entirely forsake British interests. To have done so – by sending British troops to Vietnam – would have put Labour out of office for a generation and certainly divided the party irrevocably.

The National: Yemen

A later split, by Roy Jenkins and the SDP, was what kept Mrs Thatcher in power.

Wilson was fixated on keeping Labour united and remaining a governing party. Even Blair – though a closet liberal rather than a social democrat – kept proletarian John Prescott on side as his deputy PM.

But Starmer is different. He has spent his time as Labour leader purging anyone – parliamentarians or activists – who exhibits even the slightest left-wing tendencies or the vaguest signs of independence. That may get Starmer elected but it has reduced Labour to a one man band with little capacity to govern.

Bombing the Houthis is gesture politics. No-one thinks it will stop them, either militarily or politically. The risk is that it will provoke an intensification of the Gaza conflict, perhaps spreading it into Lebanon.

At the same time, unilateral Western military action in Yemen makes it even harder for the moderate Arab states to intervene in the crisis and broker a ceasefire in Gaza. Yet Starmer has made no move to question the strategy – or lack of it – being pursued by the White House and the Pentagon.

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France’s President Macron, on the other hand, while making belligerent noises has (so far) eschewed joining in the bombing, in order to retain some space for diplomatic manoeuvre.

The horrible truth is that the Labour Party is Atlanticist to its core. That historically, Labour in office has followed the instructions from the White House without hesitation, with Wilson’s one, notable exception in Vietnam.

Why? Working folk vote Labour in the hope of a better life. But timid Labour politicians are always frightened of challenging the British status quo (and are rewarded with peerages and directorships).

Labour in office end up a disappointment, confronting their working-class voters. As a result, weak Labour governments seek affirmation and support from the Americans, from the British establishment and from the Tory media.

That leads them into tail-ending US foreign policy. Keir Starmer will be no different. He has already started.