16th Congress of WR: British imperialism between a rock and a hard place

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The ICC's section in Britain recently held its 16th Congress. One of the responsibilities of any territorial section is to discuss the national situation. It has to look at the economic crisis, the struggle between the classes, and the national capital in the framework of inter-imperialist antagonisms. The following article is based on part of a report presented to the Congress and concerns the current position of British imperialism. As a marxist analysis it looks at the situation with a historical perspective rather than taking a quick snapshot of the latest events. We will publish further material from the Congress in future issues.

The historical framework and the situation after 1989

In 1998, in World Revolution 216 and 217, we published a text on the history of British imperialism...

"While the long term retreat of British imperialism from its 19th century position of pre-eminence is incomparable, it can't be understood in its own terms. It has to be seen in the context of the ascendance and decadence of capitalism and the different phases within that overall framework.

Specifically, in the period up to 1914, as Britain's main competitors were beginning to catch up and overtake her, we can identify a period in which the imperialist powers began to form alliances with a view to the re-division of the world market.

From 1914 to 1945 we see the emergence of the US and Germany as the main powers, in relation to which Britain could only have a secondary role.

From 1945 to 1989 there is the period of the blocs with British imperialism under the domination of the US, while still not abandoning the attempt to defend its specific interests.

Since 1989 we have seen the end of the blocs and a period of growing instability where alliances are constantly changing and where the main orientation of the British bourgeoisie is for an independent imperialist policy based on a pragmatic appreciation of how best to achieve its interests" (WR 216).

The second part went into more detail on the situation of British imperialism in the period since the collapse of the Blocs and on the development of its strategy:

"The collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989 took the bourgeoisie, in Britain as elsewhere, by surprise...The Thatcher government of the 1980s clearly represented the interests of British imperialism in the period of the relative certainties of its place in the US bloc against the 'Evil Empire' of the Russian bloc. But the new realities at the level of global imperialism that derived from the events of 1989 forced the British bourgeoisie to adapt to the uncertainties and dangers of the period of 'every man for himself' [...]

The conservative government of Major could not survive the tensions within itself... The new orientation caused difficulties for a bourgeoisie used to the certainties of the Cold War period... In this framework it is possible to see how the British bourgeoisie is divided over the appropriate imperialist orientation. There is still a minority fraction that is more emphatically anti-German and therefore more likely to see the benefits in resurrecting the 'alliance' with the US. Often described as 'Eurosceptics', they have a particular weight in the divided Conservative party [...].

But the main faction of the British bourgeoisie has appreciated that the best defence of its imperialist interests lies in pursuing an independent policy. There will be times when this necessitates alliances with other powers, but these will tend to be short-lived and unstable... The Labour government of Tony Blair will speak of its 'ethical' arms policy and insist on its desire for 'peace' throughout the world, but above all it will seek to pursue an independent course for British imperialism" (WR 217).

The Resolution on the National Situation adopted at the 14th Congress of World Revolution in 2000 reaffirmed this framework and examined the way the independent policy had been implemented in the preceding period...even though the resolution acknowledges that a temporary alliance with the US is possible, going so far as to argue that "there are areas where Britain has particular influence, and the US can see it needs to draw on this", the independent policy is presented as one that must necessarily challenge the US...

The impact of 9/11

The attack on the World Trade Centre marked a qualitative change in the imperialist situation that had developed since 1989. "After 11th September 2001 - almost certainly carried out with the complicity of the US state - the USA's global strategy shifted onto a higher level. The 'war against terrorism' was immediately announced as a permanent and planet-wide military offensive. Faced with an increasing challenge from its principal imperialist rivals...the USA opted for a policy of much more massive and direct military intervention, with the strategic goal of the encirclement of Europe and Russia by gaining control of Central Asia and the Middle East. In the Far East, by including North Korea in the 'axis of evil', and by renewing its interest in the 'struggle against terrorism' in Indonesia following the Bali bombing, US imperialism has also declared its intention to intervene in the backyard of China and Japan" (15th Congress of the ICC, Resolution on the international situation, IR 113). [...] The attack on New York gave the US the pretext to assert itself forcefully around the globe, momentarily silencing even its most determined opponents and allowing it to escalate its global strategy.

British imperialism, like every other power, was put under pressure by the US offensive and found that its attempt to pursue an independent line was rapidly turning into a serious dilemma: "The crisis of US leadership has placed British imperialism in an increasingly contradictory position. With the end of the 'special relationship', the defence of Britain's interests requires it to play a 'mediating' role between America and the main European powers, and between the latter powers themselves [...] (IR 113, p.18).

The response of the British bourgeoisie

In the immediate aftermath of the attack in New York, we argued that the British bourgeoisie was seeking to advance its own interests through its display of support for the US: "The British bourgeoisie is hoping, by running alongside the American military juggernaut, to limit the scope of the latter's impact on its own imperialist prestige and grab for itself more of the kudos out of the coming carnage than its rivals like France and Germany" (WR 248 "Britain defends its own imperialist interests"). This argument was developed in the analysis of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Concerning, the first, we wrote in November 2001: "Today, as in the Gulf War, the British bourgeoisie has every interest in positioning itself as the best ally of the United States, with an armed force of 25,000 stationed close to the military theatre. This closeness to the United States is explained by a convergence of imperialist interests as well as by antagonistic interests to France in this region. The region of Afghanistan, like Iraq, is part of the traditional zone of domination by British imperialism... It believes it has a better chance to preserve its part of the spoils than at the time of the Gulf War, where its aid to the US brought it nothing. The resentment that resulted from this contributes to the UK distancing itself from the US in the following years. But the British bourgeoisie is lucid enough to see that today its interests lie in the game of 'loyal co-operation' with the American bourgeoisie" (WR 249, "The anti-terrorist crusade will worsen global chaos"). In fact, the US had no interest in British 'help' and seized the opportunity to teach its loyal ally a lesson, ignoring its diplomatic offensive and spoiling its attempt to take the military initiative... The British bourgeoisie had no option but to swallow its pride and keep up the pretence of being the faithful ally in order to continue in the game.

The British bourgeoisie's response to the war in Iraq was to continue to talk of the importance of using international bodies while ensuring it remained close to the US: "As the likelihood of a new war against Iraq has grown, differences have appeared within the British government. Blair and his senior colleagues have maintained the line that Iraq and Saddam Hussein pose a major threat, although they have downplayed Washington's central argument that Iraq is at the centre of the 'axis of evil'. Junior ministers and leftwing backbenchers have been more openly critical... Such critical voices have long been part of Britain's overall strategy, allowing it to face two ways at once, but this time such voices extend beyond the left-wingers into the centre of the Labour Party, the Liberals and even the Tories who talked of their 'concern' and the 'foolhardy' nature of the proposed attacks. This is not a clash over policy - the pro-US faction formerly led by Margaret Thatcher is largely marginalised - but a difference over tactics in this period. In the military storm being whipped up by the US, every state has to run with the wind to some extent. The question for British imperialism is how best to ride out the storm, it is never a question of abandoning its interests" (WR 253, "Is Britain America's poodle?"). This is a fundamental point that helps to explain both the form taken by British imperialist policy since the 11th September 2001 and the nature of the differences within the ruling class that found expression in the Hutton and Butler inquiries.

Faced with the US offensive, Britain was pushed to move towards either the US or Europe and, in doing so antagonising one or the other. In making its decision, a number of factors had to be considered. Firstly, the US, as the greatest power in the world, was quite capable of punishing Britain, as it had in Ireland in the early and mid 1990s and in Afghanistan a few months earlier. Europe, in contrast, did not have that capacity for the simple reason that there is no such thing as 'Europe' at the imperialist and military level but merely a number of lesser powers pursuing their own interests under a fictitious unity. While moving towards the US might increase tensions with France and Germany, it could reinforce relations with others, such as Spain (at the time) and Poland and so allow Britain to maintain influence in Europe. It also gave Britain more room to manoeuvre, both diplomatically through its attempts to 'influence' the US towards international bodies such as the UN, and militarily through its involvement, whether in reality or just rhetorically, in initiatives such as the European Rapid Reaction force. In short, British policy has continued to be to position itself between the US and the European powers but, today, the point of equilibrium has moved... The tack to the US is the adaptation of the existing policy to new conditions. This is evident if we consider other areas of British policy.

British imperialist strategy since 9/11

At the start of 2002, during his sixth international mission since September 11th Blair affirmed the determination of the British ruling class to continue to defend its interests: "We do not have an empire, we are not a superpower but we do have a role and in playing it properly we benefit Britain and the wider world...That role is to be a pivotal player. It is to use the strengths of our history, our geography, our language, the unique set of links with the US, Europe, the Commonwealth, our position within the UN, the skill and reputation of our armed forces, our contribution to debt and development issues...to be a force for good for our own nation and the wider world" (quoted in WR 251 "British imperialism is not a 'force for good'")... In pursuing this policy Britain has found itself under intense pressure for much of the time, but it continues to pursue its aims, putting up with insults and humiliations.

In Iran Britain sided with Europe against the US over the question of Iran's non-compliance with the UN. Washington's proposal to refer Iran to UN Security Council was opposed by Britain, Germany and France... Following the US election, when speculation about a military offensive against Iran surfaced, the British bourgeoisie was quick to distance itself from such talk.

In the Middle East Britain's efforts to pursue its own interests have come up against both the determination of the US to maintain its dominant influence in the region and the capacity of Israel to manipulate the situation to its advantage. In the summer of 2002 Britain defended the right of Palestinians to choose their own leaders when the US was calling for the replacement of Arafat... However, in April 2004 Blair was confronted with Bush's backing for Sharon: "As for the question of Palestine, Bush's declaration of support for Sharon's proposals to withdraw from the Gaza strip whilst maintaining settlements in the West Bank, basically tears up the 'road map' for peace in the Middle East, which Blair used as one of the main arguments in the war" (WR 274 "Contradictions pile up for British imperialism"). His public agreement with the US led to a protest by 52 former diplomats who published an open letter to Blair in which they wrote "We share your view that the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the US on both these related matters (Iraq and Palestine), and exerting real influence as a loyal ally. We believe the need for such influence is now a matter of the highest urgency. If that is unacceptable or unwelcome there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure". This was an expression of the unease within the major faction of the bourgeoisie.

In the dispute between India and Pakistan Britain tried to maintain influence with both, not least by selling them arms...

In Africa in early 2002 Britain took part in a joint initiative with France to the countries involved in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the fact that their rivalry had helped to fuel the war in the first place. Elsewhere the erstwhile allies went in different directions; in Zimbabwe Britain gave its support to the Movement for Democratic Change while France was better disposed towards Mugabe.

In early 2004 Britain launched its own initiative in North Africa, Blair visiting Libya to renew relations with Gadaffi after the latter renounced his nuclear ambitions...This was part of the effort by Blair to "win back the confidence of those who defend the main orientations of the British bourgeoisie" following the Madrid bombings and the withdrawal of the new Spanish government from the 'coalition' in Iraq (WR 273 'The Madrid bombs and the response of the British bourgeoisie').

In Ireland Britain has used its alliance with the US to try and regain the initiative it was forced to surrender with the Good Friday agreement. In October 2002 the Stormont power-sharing government was suspended following raids of Sinn Fein offices that found material 'likely to be useful to terrorists'...In May 2003 the new elections were postponed, supposedly because of lack of progress in decommissioning IRA weapons.

Even in Iraq, where it is frequently suggested that Britain is just doing the US' bidding, Britain has not given up the defence of its interests for one moment and, consequently, there have been repeated strains in the 'special relationship'. In the period leading to the war Britain adopted a two-faced policy:

"It hopes that getting rid of Saddam will allow it to regain some of the influence it used to have in the region and thereby counter the complete domination of the US. It is similar to the strategy in Kosovo, where, through a display of overt loyalty to the US, it was able to occupy important strategic positions, implicitly denying them to the US. In Afghanistan the US replied by humiliating Britain, sending their soldiers on a wild goose chase to find bin Laden in various unlikely nooks and crannies. This is the background to the decision to send a major part of Britain's armed forces to the region and to be so vocal in support of the war: London is determined to play a role and thereby stake a claim. (WR 262 "Imperialist rivalries between the great powers are coming into the open")

The efforts to draw the US into the UN were ignored by Washington and led to attacks on the 'old Europe'. When the war started the criticism was maintained: "There are reports of Americans killing 'our boys' in 'friendly fire' incidents, the US killing more 'Brits' than Iraq was able to do. There are all the comparisons between the incompetent, trigger-happy, ignorant yanks with the professional, disciplined 'Brits'...It has also not gone unnoticed that US orders meant that British troops were tied down in Basra...and were allocated thankless tasks such as the supervision of prisoners of war" (WR 263 "British imperialism - caught between Germany and the US"). [...]

In April 2004 there was criticism from the military at the suggestion that more troops might be sent to compensate for the withdrawal of Spain after the Madrid bombings. This criticism has recently been renewed following the dispatch of troops to replace US forces required for the assault on Fallugah. Despite the protestations that the request was a purely 'military' one it is clear that it is another riposte by the US, determined to draw Britain into the worst of the fighting, principally in order to maintain the alliance but also to punish the pretence of the greater 'professionalism' of British forces, who, it is suggested never engage in the sort of atrocities exposed at the Abu Ghraib prison

The dispute within the bourgeoisie

This analysis makes it possible to understand the real nature of the divisions in the ruling class...the dispute is within the main faction of the ruling class. Neither the more overtly anti or pro-American factions, embodied in the likes of Cook and Short on the one hand and the dominant part of the Tories on the other, currently have any great weight. This is why the two inquiries after much posturing ended up firing blanks. Their purpose was never to directly oppose or humiliate Blair but to raise concerns about the tactics he was following and to nudge him back on course. One aspect we have not emphasised is the uniqueness of the situation the British bourgeoisie finds itself in. Certainly there is a continuity in its efforts to play Europe off against the US but it is also a requirement newly imposed by the situation that has developed over the last few years. The period of 'every man for himself' presents a situation to the bourgeoisie that it is still working to understand...

What this suggests is a future of even greater instability and even greater pressure on the bourgeoisie of middling powers like Britain. There is, at this point, no apparent release from this, only a more or less successful adaptation and, despite all of the pressure, the British bourgeoisie is showing an ability to do this.

WR, 8/11/04.