British imperialism faces deep contradictions

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The turmoil around the fall of Johnson is in stark contrast to the unity of the British ruling class in its policy towards the war in Ukraine. The main political parties are united behind the government’s belligerent support for US imperialism’s proxy war. You cannot get a cigarette paper between them when it comes to sending arms, acting as the US’s most loyal ally, and making German and French imperialism look weak in their support for the Ukrainian war effort. Johnson’s fronting of the state’s efforts to strengthen ties with the US, to increase British influence in Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries, is the one thing he has not been criticised for. The new Tory leader will continue with the same policy. They all understand that British imperialism must use the war to try to overcome the loss of international standing it has suffered due to Brexit and the fiascos around its role in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Johnson and his Foreign Secretary Liz Truss believed they were the inheritors of Thatcher’s role as the USA’s loyal lieutenant. Johnson boasted that Brexit allowed Britain to take up its ‘natural and historical’ role as a leader of free trade and democracy. Britain’s partnership with the US in preparing and perpetuating the war have appeared to confirm this.

The idea of British imperialism as the second-in-command of a new Western Bloc is an underlying theme in the media. But today’s historic conditions are very different from those of the Cold War. The collapse of the bloc system in 1989 marked the exhaustion of the conditions that sustained the two blocs. The USSR’s fall led to the disintegration of the Western bloc. The absence of the Russian bear opened up an imperialist free-for-all. This is something the more intelligent mouthpieces of British imperialism understood very well. In early 1990 Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s Private Secretary, wrote to her: “We shall have won the Cold War. But instead of being the dawn of a new, peaceful era, we shall find the next decade altogether more complex, with a multiplicity of dangers and threats” (Margaret Thatcher: the Authorized Biography. vol 3, Charles Moore. page 508). Thatcher firmly agreed with this assessment.

The re-unification of German imperialism was a great concern for the UK given the historical rivalry between Britain and Germany. Thatcher’s public airing of these concerns was openly rebuked by President Bush, who insisted that the UK supported German unification (‘keep your friends close but your enemies closer’ as the Mafia say). The British ruling class learnt a bitter lesson: the US no longer viewed it as all that ‘special.’ From now on the UK had to defend its own interests by using its position in the EU to act as a bridge for the US, but also by playing off the EU against the US, which meant much more subtle manoeuvring against Germany. Thatcher could not do this, so she was cast aside.

The pros and cons of being close to US imperialism

Implementing the necessary strategy suffered many set-backs. The Blair government’s backing for America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was disastrous for its reputation. A standing further undermined by the close relations between the May and Johnson governments with President Trump. The UK’s rapid flight from Afghanistan showed that standing too close to the US weakened the position of the UK. At the same time its ability to confront its rivals from within the EU has disappeared. The political turmoil around Brexit and its consequences has seriously damaged British imperialism’s reputation.

On the other hand, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a potential opportunity for the British ruling class. The US and Britain’s carefully choreographed build-up of pressure on Russia, deliberately exposing its plans to invade Ukraine, showed a partial renewal of the old alliance and the strength of their intelligence services. Britain’s prominent role in sending arms, in intelligence sharing, and its general hard line towards Russia has been contrasted to the hesitations in the EU, especially France and Germany.

The British bourgeoisie has signed up to the USA’s containment of China. On a global level China is the US’s main rival and an important competitor to the UK. The war in Ukraine has severed the close links between German imperialism and Moscow, as well as blocking the expansion of China’s Silk Road into Europe, which would have increased the EU’s access to the Chinese market. British imperialism can only benefit if Germany’s important links with China have been weakened. The EU, particularly France and Germany, is its main rival, so USA’s weakening of them through the war is to Britain’s benefit.

German imperialism’s rapid rearmament in the short-term puts pressure on Russia, but in the long-term a rearmed Germany is a challenge to British imperialism. The UK’s signing of defence agreements with Sweden and Finland, along with its increased military presence in Eastern European states, is aimed at Russia, but also has the longer term aim of containing Germany on its Northern and Eastern flanks. Britain also hopes that its support for the Eastern European states will weaken their willingness to back the EU in its opposition to Britain’s efforts to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The cynicism of the bourgeoisie’s ideological use of the barbarity unfolding in Ukraine to further its own sordid imperialist ambitions is matched by its efforts to bury its own recent bloody past. The reduction of Iraq and Afghanistan to ‘failed’ states, the death of tens of thousands in both wars, the destruction of Mosul, Falluja, Raqqa, the use of torture (Abu Ghraib, etc), renditions, assassinations, Guantanamo Bay – none of this is being mentioned today. Nor is the fact that the UK has passed a law limiting the ability of the International Criminal Court to prosecute British troops for war crimes.

Britain as the oligarchs’ financial haven

With the same cynicism over the past 30 years, the British state has done all it can to encourage those who it now hypocritically condemns to pour money into the British economy. British imperialism’s main think tank (Chatham House) has warned about the reputational danger of this: “it should not be forgotten that the contradictions of the past decade are glaring, and that the role of London as the centre of global money - and reputation-laundering – particularly helping Russians who are close to Vladimir Putin – should be a source of shame.

Chatham House’s recent kleptocracy report highlights the extent to which UK politicians – especially the ruling Conservatives – have benefited from Russian money, and how strenuous efforts were made to delay then play down two critical parliamentary reports on ‘Londongrad’. And despite several high-profile poisonings on British soil and repeated cyberattacks, not a single figure close to Putin was sanctioned by the UK until after the Ukraine invasion.” (“UK’s Strong Ukraine Support Hides a Less Glorious Past”.

The Northern Ireland conundrum

British imperialism, for all its posturing, is confronted with a profound problem: Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Protocol, the product of the Brexit negotiations, not only established a border between the mainland and the North running down the Irish Sea, but above all showed Britain’s historic weakness. The only way it could get a deal was via the humiliation of leaving itself exposed to the influence of the EU and the US. Break the protocol and the EU could walk away from any form of deal. Jettisoning the Protocol will also undermine the Good Friday Agreement, and thus the US-brokered peace. The war makes the situation even more difficult because the last thing the US wants is its most loyal ally breaking international law when the US claims to be defending it; and a political crisis between the UK and EU would shatter the illusion of anti-Russian unity. If the US cannot stop its main ally provoking others in the “alliance for democracy”, why would those states submit to the US?

The UK hopes that its support for America’s policy on the Ukraine war will soften US ire if it rips up the Protocol. The fact that the government has placed the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill before parliament in the middle of the war shows the fundamental contradiction of its position: it cannot break free from the hold its EU rivals have over it through the Protocol without breaking international law and thus endangering its influence with the US:

“…the frictions associated with exiting the European Single Market and Customs Union will only come fully into play in 2022, and these could reawaken political tensions between the UK and the EU at a time when the Russia-Ukraine crisis demands close collaboration amongst European allies.

A first priority, therefore, should be to leverage the shared determination to confront Russian aggression in order to rebuild UK-EU relations…The UK could link its thinking on plans to upgrade NATO Strategic Concept with the EU’s new commitments to strengthen Europe’s defence capabilities. This would lessen the risks of the UK being sidelined by closer US-EU cooperation across a range of transatlantic priorities, including digital trade and technology governance” (“Global Britain in a Divided World.”

Britain does have better military collaboration with European powers through NATO, but these are not sufficient to counter the tensions generated by Brexit, which are having an impact on its ability to be a regional power.

The fact that the US’s main ally is a source of instability highlights the fragility of the US’s control of the situation. Its means of imposing itself on its ‘allies’ is to create a vortex of chaos on their borders. At the same time, its ‘right hand man’ is threatening to deliberately generate even more chaos in the ‘alliance’, provoking greater political tensions by picking a fight with precisely those countries the US wants to bring into line! This could have the result of not only destabilising part of its own territory (Northern Ireland) but also spreading this instability into Eire, an important US ally in the EU. This is a situation the US has said it will not allow.

Johnson epitomised the profound instability of the situation of British imperialism. He may be on the way out, but the insoluble historical contradictions behind this instability remain and will worsen.

Phil 18/7/22


Ukraine war