When Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv on 9 April it was clear that British imperialism was determined to increase its contribution to imperialist conflict in Ukraine. Alongside the declaration that "We are stepping up our own military and economic support and convening a global alliance" the UK is going to send 120 armoured vehicles and new anti-ship missile systems. This was on top of an additional £100 million worth of military equipment, including more Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles, 800 anti-tank missiles, helmets, night-vision devices and body armour announced a day before. The further economic support took UK loan guarantees to £770m. None of this is on the scale of US or German assistance, but it prompted the Ukrainian president's office to say "The UK is the leader in defence support for Ukraine. The leader in the anti-war coalition. The leader in sanctions against the Russian aggressor."
This ties in with the number of times that Ukraine President Zelensky has acknowledged support from British imperialism. At the moment, in line with NATO policy, Britain draws the line at providing planes, tanks or ground troops, and they have not backed the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone. However, in the words of Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, Britain will be providing weapons to Ukraine so they can "fight every street with every piece of equipment we can get to them". Although this is all supposedly intended for "defensive purposes", and full details of military supplies have not always been provided (for "security reasons"), Britain is keen to provide much of the "lethal" weaponry that Ukraine has demanded.
Britain’s contribution to the encirclement of Russia
In the build-up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, British imperialism, in its own right, and as part of NATO, played a full part in the moves against Russian imperialism. Since the break-up of the USSR Russia has been further threatened by the US and its European allies as they confront Russian influence by gradually integrating countries of eastern Europe into NATO and the EU. The North Atlantic Cooperation Council, for example, was established in 1991 to forge links between eastern European countries and members of NATO. The possibility of Ukraine becoming part of NATO would bring the US-dominated alliance right up to the Russian border. Defence and security links between Ukraine and members of NATO started soon after Ukrainian independence. Links with the West became closer after Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014
British imperialism has been assisting the Ukrainian military in one way or another since 1991. This is not on the same scale as the US, but still in the same spirit of NATO backing for Ukrainian capitalism against their neighbour to the East. Whatever tendencies there have been for Britain to assert its independence from multinational alliances, Britain has remained a faithful member of NATO right from its foundation. However, while the British government wants to present itself as the loyal deputy of the US, this has not always been ratified by Washington. When President Biden came to Europe this spring, he refused to have a one-to-one meeting with Johnson, who was also excluded from other meetings. This diplomatic humiliation followed Germany’s dramatic announcement that it would be doubling its military budget. British imperialism wants to use the war to compensate for the damage done by Brexit, but its incompetence in managing the political game has left it relatively isolated, despite all the talk of “convening alliances”.
Labour is also a war party
While focussing on the Tory government, it would be wrong to give the impression that the British bourgeoise is divided over support for Ukraine. Of course, there are the criticisms over leading Tories' behaviour during the pandemic, but not only does the Labour Party back the Tory government to the hilt on the war in Ukraine, they boast of the role of Ernest Bevin and the Labour government in the foundation of NATO in 1949. The British bourgeoisie, across all the main political parties, has been united over the war in Ukraine. Whatever differences the left of the Labour party might harbour, these have been shelved for the duration under pressure from the Labour leadership. The only difference of any significance has been the criticism of the Tory government's treatment of Ukrainian refugees and the difficulties they have in getting past British bureaucracy, especially in comparison to the process in much of the rest of Europe where visa requirements have been widely waived.
If anything, the Labour Party has tried to prove itself more bellicose than the Tories, for example in wanting an increase in defence expenditure to be an item in Sunak's spring budget statement. The Chancellor declined the opportunity to raise military spending, but Labour said that they would support any future increases regardless. Shadow defence secretary John Healey gave an example of Labour's previous keenness to fuel British imperialism's war machine when he said “Ministers must respond to new threats to UK and European security, just as Labour in government did after the 9/11 terror attacks with the largest sustained increase in defence spending for two decades.”
In all the war propaganda we are thrown back to the lies of previous imperialist conflicts. In the First World War British imperialism, including the Labour Party, justified the slaughter of millions because of the aggressive attacks on 'plucky little Belgium'. Today support for the war in Ukraine is justified by the invasion of the Russian war machine. Britain wants to be a global player, but cannot fulfil this role. It can, however, contribute to the carnage in Ukraine. British imperialism's contribution to the massacres in Iraq, to the war in Afghanistan, to the current bombing of Yemen with British weapons sold to Saudi Arabia all show that British capitalism enthusiastically embraces the barbarity of imperialist war. Specifically, on the war in Yemen, it seems possible that the UK government could go ahead with a plan to designate the Houthi rebels as a terrorist group which could worsen the already catastrophic humanitarian situation, since importing food, medicines or fuel into Yemen would then be condemned as aiding terrorism. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been urging Britain to follow this policy. A deal with Saudi Arabia is certainly on the cards since the UK government has been trying to persuade them to increase oil supplies to compensate for a blockade on Russian oil.
The disruptive role of populism
One element that does distinguish the British bourgeoisie is the continuing influence of populism within the political apparatus. At a time when there is broadly a united bourgeoisie, populism inevitably tends to be divisive. For example, when Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was asked in February whether she would back anyone who wanted to volunteer to fight in Ukraine, she said "Absolutely, if people want to support that struggle, I would support them in doing that." This was in contrast to the advice on the Foreign Office website which said that those who travel to eastern Ukraine to “fight, or assist others engaged in the conflict” could be prosecuted on their return to the UK. Subsequently, Boris Johnson, other minsters, and the head of the defence staff confirmed that joining Zelensky's international legion against Russia is illegal.
Another intrusion of populism that had the potential to derail the unity of the bourgeoise was the speech of Boris Johnson where he characterised the war as being "between freedom and oppression", going on to say that “And I know that it’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time. I can give you a couple of famous recent examples. When the British people voted for Brexit … It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.” The row continued along predictable lines, (Labour saying it was "insulting to the Ukrainian people, … insulting to the British people" etc) but, even if it now seems to have blown over it is a reminder that populism remains a disruptive factor in British politics. You only have to look at the plan to deport illegal refugees 4000 miles away to Rwanda to see the degree to which irrationality and inhumanity are an integral part of the decision-making process of the British bourgeoisie's political apparatus. The inhuman nature of deportation is not new, what is new is the deportation by a Western European country to a distant African country with a repressive regime and poor infrastructure to receive them in already crowded camps.
Sanctions are a weapon of war and their main victim is the working class
The British bourgeoisie is also proud to participate in the sanctions imposed on Russia. Because of the role of finance in the British economy, it has the potential to make a serious contribution to this aspect of the conflict with Russia. In evidence given to the House of Commons Treasury Committee, there was discussion on what the impact would be on the Russian economy, looking at areas such as energy, banking, other financial services, and the so-called 'oligarchs'. There was agreement that it was wrong to focus on which member of the ultra-rich in Russia were sanctioned, as the purpose of sanctions was to affect the economy as a whole. In other words, they were well aware that the way that the Russian economy was being hit, with inflation, shortages, the devaluation of the rouble etc, would cause most economic pain to the poor, those on fixed incomes or low wages. As for the impact of sanctions closer to home, in Britain, the Committee concluded "It is not possible yet to quantify that cost. But we believe that, on the information currently available, it is most definitely a cost worth bearing in order to aid Ukraine in opposing Russian aggression. However, that cost, combined with the already present pressures in the UK on the cost of living, will impact the whole country, and will be felt particularly by low-income households."
The situation is therefore the same in Britain as in Russia: sanctions will have most effect on those on lower incomes. The Labour Party is all in favour of this. On the day of the Russian invasion, Keir Starmer said "the British public have always been willing to make sacrifices to defend democracy on our continent, and we will again." Labour has been an integral part of British imperialism since the outbreak of the First World War, so it is entirely appropriate to hear them, more than a century later, giving reasons for the working class to make sacrifices to pay for the waging of imperialist conflict.
In response to growing reports of atrocities in Ukraine committed by the Russian army, Britain says they should be investigated as war crimes. But as we saw earlier, the past military exploits of British imperialism show that it is no stranger to the butchery of warfare. This is the class that talks of the 'fight for freedom' as it contemplates the use of various weapons of mass destruction. The militarism and hypocrisy of the British bourgeoisie is only one expression of capitalism as a global system that threatens the future of humanity. The coronavirus pandemic showed the acceleration of the decomposition of capitalism. The war in Ukraine confirms it.