Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

British Imperialism

ON THE EAGLE'S WING

The British ruling class is hitched to the US war machine--a sign of Britain's long-term decline, argues Mark Thomas

Aneuran Bevan
Aneuran Bevan

Coming on the heels of Kosovo and Afghanistan, the war with Iraq, if it takes place, will be the third Anglo-American military adventure that Tony Blair has backed since his election in 1997. The Daily Mirror's headlines denouncing 'poodle' Blair have captured the extent of popular revulsion at Blair's enthusiasm for US warmongering. Yet Blair's actions are far from a novelty for a British prime minister. What is striking about foreign policy under Blair is not the break with the past but its fundamental continuity with the whole postwar period. Since 1945 British governments, whether Labour or Tory, have doggedly supported US imperialism.

The continuities exist not only between the two main parties, but also within Labour itself. Indeed, it is over foreign policy that the gap between Old and New Labour is at its narrowest. Support for the US has been a consistent factor within both the left and right of the Labour Party since the Second World War. In the immediate postwar years Ernest Bevin, then Labour foreign minister, was a key figure in the creation of Nato, the central plank of US military strategy during the Cold War. Later the Labour cabinet of which Bevin was part unanimously endorsed the US war in Korea. In 1952, by then in opposition, the Labour leadership stated its belief that 'close cooperation with the United States of America is vital to Britain and to the Commonwealth as a whole'. Interestingly, this statement was also backed by Aneurin Bevan, leader of what remains the biggest left wing revolt inside the Labour Party.

The 1960s saw no real change. Harold Wilson was a loyal supporter of the US war in Vietnam, and he 'made absolutely plain our support for the American stand against Communist infiltration into South Vietnam'. Wilson also talked of the high esteem in which he held US president Lyndon Baines Johnson and argued, like Blair does of Bush today, that Johnson's personal sincerity was beyond question. Wilson attempted to take on left critics by arguing that loyal support for the US would translate into British diplomatic leverage and allow Britain to restrain the worst excesses of US policy. There was no more evidence of this under Wilson than there is today under Blair, who used the same type of arguments to attempt to pacify dissent at this year's Labour Party conference.

The central importance of the Anglo-American military alliance for the British ruling class throughout the postwar period can only be explained by British imperial and economic decline. The key cause of decline was the remorseless erosion of Britain's economic position in comparison to its key rivals. Britain had established an unrivalled dominance over the globe during the 19th century. By 1900 Britain controlled a fifth of the earth's landmass and ruled over a quarter of the world's population. Although British land-based military forces were relatively small, the navy was maintained at such a level that it was far superior even to the combined forces of the next two most powerful navies in the world. However, by 1900 Britain was beginning to face challenges as continental Europe and the US industrialised. Despite this, as late as 1900 Britain still exported a third of the world's manufactured goods. The registered tonnage of Britain's ships was greater than the rest of the world's merchant fleets combined. London remained unchallenged as the commercial and financial centre of the world economy, and sterling along with gold continued to be the pivot of the international monetary system until the 1930s.

Facing reality

By the end of the interwar years, however, Britain faced ever greater economic and military challenges from its main rivals. By 1938 its share of total world manufacturing was down to just over 10 percent, three times less than that of the US, now the world's dominant economic power, but also narrowly surpassed by Nazi Germany and only just ahead of Stalinist Russia. These problems became acute during the Second World War. The growing gap between Britain's economic position and its military role on the world stage became too great to bridge. The total collapse of the European balance of power in 1940-42 combined with Italian incursions into North Africa and Japanese advances in the Asian Pacific to create a series of immense challenges for the British Empire. Britain was unable to meet these challenges on its own--wartime alliances with Russia and America became a necessity. The British ruling class was never enthusiastic about this strategy, but with its back to the wall it was forced to face reality and embrace alliances which inevitably involved compromises. The double-edged nature of the alliance, especially with the US, can be seen in Churchill's approach. In 1945, for example, he declared, 'There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them.' Even in wartime, Britain's relationship with the US was characterised by tension as much as cooperation. As Churchill knew, the British ruling class had good reason to be wary of US friendship. During the First World War Britain's rulers had become increasingly aware of the vast economic power of the US and sought to harness that power to British needs. But the Depression of the 1930s created bitter rows between the two ruling classes over access to the British Empire's protected markets.

Britain responded to the economic crisis by tightening its ties with its colonies and areas of informal empire. Breaking down this sterling zone and British system of imperial preference became a central US goal. When the opportunity presented itself during the Second World War, the US sought to ruthlessly exploit the situation. When Britain could not fund the imports required to fund the war effort, the US filled the gap in overseas finance through the Lend-Lease plan. But this came at a heavy price: the US used the policy to prise open British imperial markets. Not surprisingly this led to sharp divisions. Further conflicts emerged over US military plans for a cross-Channel invasion. Churchill wanted to fight a war in the Mediterranean because this was the back door to British interests in the Middle East. To US frustration, Britain also wanted to follow a similar policy in South East Asia, putting defence of its imperial interests ahead of the defeat of Germany.

Economic weakness

Supporters of Ian Smith's racist rule in colonial Rhodesia
Supporters of Ian Smith's racist rule in colonial Rhodesia

The defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan appeared to restore British fortunes. In fact, Britain's position remained precarious. Economic weaknesses, manifested in a sharp balance of payments crisis in 1947, the rise of anti-colonial nationalism and growing confrontation with Russia all left Britain vulnerable. To make matters worse, the Lend-Lease agreement ended abruptly with the Allied victory over Japan and in 1946 the US effectively broke off Anglo-American cooperation over the atomic bomb.

However, despite the potential for unchallenged US superiority over Britain in the immediate postwar years, the US did not fully press its advantage. For Washington, the main enemy was the USSR and the priority became the Cold War. In this context, the US looked partly to buttress rather than simply undermine British power. A key development came with the formation of Nato. This meant that the US undertook, albeit on its terms, to defend Western Europe against the USSR. This agreement allowed the British ruling class to once again pursue its interests outside of Europe. However, even with Nato as a buffer, Britain could not defy the new reality of the postwar years. In the late 1940s it retreated from India, Palestine and Greece. New arrangements were also reached in the late 1940s which saw the US temporarily back off from its long term aim of demolishing Britain's sterling bloc.

Although the British ruling class lost some key interests like Palestine, it continued to play an imperial role in Africa and South East Asia. The growing intertwining of US and British imperialism allowed the latter an extension of life, albeit on a more reduced scale than before. The extended effort by Britain to harness US power to help maintain its own global reach was paying off.

Initially the UK saw its main interests as outside Europe. That's where the majority of its trade and investments lay. But the structure of the world economy was transformed during the long postwar boom, with an ever greater concentration of investment and trade between advanced industrial nations and a declining share taken by the former colonial world. British trade with its ex-colonies, now grouped in the Commonwealth, fell inexorably. This, combined with the re-emergence of France and above all West Germany as industrial powers, forced Britain to begin a grudging involvement with the project of European integration.

As Britain's global position eroded, the alliance with the US became ever more important. Britain was richer than ever before but simultaneously saw its competitive position weaken as key rivals consistently outgrew the British economy. The sheer scale of the postwar economic boom masked this for a period, but only to an extent. The high levels of arms spending--the permanent arms economy--maintained by the US, Russia and to a lesser extent Britain underpinned this boom. Yet, freed from the burden of military commitments, the defeated Second World War states, Germany and Japan, invested in new industries and retooled their devastated factories. Britain was increasingly unable to compete economically, and the more this happened the more the British state looked towards military strength to assert itself. This was a vicious circle--increased arms spending only further eroded economic competitiveness. A telling example can be seen in Britain's failed attempts to develop an independent nuclear arsenal. Initially committed to this by Ernest Bevin in the immediate postwar years, Britain's worsening economic position meant it could no longer afford to keep up with the cutting edge of advances and the nuclear capacity was undermined by ever greater reliance on US technology. Each twist of economic and imperial decline left Britain more dependent upon the military alliance with the US.

Allying with the US allows Britain to amplify its political and military impact, but there have always been limits to this. The debacle over Suez in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel attempted to check Egyptian nationalism under Nasser, led to a humiliating retreat when the US withheld approval. However, Britain's relationship with the US has become a vital necessity and has strengthened as Britain's world position has weakened. The transatlantic alliance is in the interests of British as well as US imperialism. Certainly, a price is paid for the alliance with the US. But if Britain wants to 'punch above its weight' in world affairs, the only way it can do so is through the alliance. It is this which explains why Britain, which in 1980 only generated 4 percent of total world manufacturing output, has a seat at the UN Security Council. But having hitched itself to the US war machine Britain's ruling class naturally comes to see any threat to US hegemony as a threat to itself. Tony Blair's instinctive grasp of these class interests underlies his zealous advocacy of US imperialism.

What does this mean for the current war drive against Iraq? The anti-war movement is pitting itself against one of the central pillars of British ruling class policy over the last 50 years. The 'special relationship' with the US is vital to Britain's position in the international capitalist pecking order. Caught between loyalty to US imperialism and revolt from below, any retreat from support for the US war drive could precipitate a serious political crisis, not just for Tony Blair and the Labour government, but for the ruling class as a whole. While Blair stands out as Bush's only main ally, such a development would also be a serious blow for the US war drive itself.


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