Contradictions pile up for British imperialism

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At the end of April Tony Blair was looking very haggard. It had been a difficult political month with the generalisation of armed conflict in Iraq, his pained support for Bush's backing of Sharon's plans in Palestine, the letter by 52 former diplomats criticising his support for Bush's policy towards Sharon and his lessening influence on the US; and all of this topped off with his U-turn on the referendum over the European Constitution. No matter where he turns Blair appears to be confronted with serious political problems. But while it may be Blair who is most publicly suffering under the weight of the problems, his political torment is that of the whole British ruling class, faced as it is with an increasingly contradictory world situation that is making it more and more difficult to defend the imperialist interests of British capital.

At the ICC's 15th Congress, which took place soon after the start of the war last year, we made an overall analysis of the predicament of British imperialism. Central to this analysis is the notion of the crisis of US leadership. Faced with increasingly open opposition from its main imperialist rivals over its military, economic, environmental and cultural policies, the US has had to make a massive display of its overwhelming military power. At the time we showed that this could only lead to chaos and that this would deepen the tensions within the British ruling class over how to best defend its interests.

"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. Although presented as the poodle of the US, the Blair government has itself played a significant role in bringing about the current crisis, by insisting that America could not go it alone over Iraq, but needed to take the UN route. Britain too has been the scene of some of the biggest 'peace' marches, with large fractions of the ruling class -not only its leftist appendage -organising the demonstrations. The strong 'anti-war' sentiments of parts of the British bourgeoisie express a real dilemma for the British ruling class, as the growing schism between America and the other great powers is making its 'centrist' role increasingly uncomfortable. In particular, Britain's arguments that the UN should play a central role in the post Saddam settlement, and this must be accompanied by significant concessions to the Palestinians, are being politely ignored by the US. Although as yet there is no clear alternative, within the British bourgeoisie, to the Blair line in international relations, there is a growing unease with being too closely associated with US adventurism. The quagmire now developing in Iraq can only strengthen this unease" (Resolution on the International Situation, point 10, International Review 113).

This unease has gathered pace over the last year as Blair's ability to maintain this 'centrist' policy has further weakened under the increasingly blatant disregard for Blair's efforts to influence US policy. The US may now be talking about the UN having more of a role in Iraq, but this is more to do with the worsening situation in Iraq than British influence. The idea that Britain has a restraining hand in Iraq was completely rubbished in April with the US's brutal assault on Falluja and threats against Najaf. 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 for Britain's involvement in the war. To add to his humiliation Blair had to stand next to Bush during his last visit to Washington and openly support the policy.

This was too much for 52 former diplomats who issued a public letter to Blair stating the unease of a majority of the British ruling class "We share your view that the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the US on both these related issues (Iraq and Palestine), and exerting real influence as a loyal ally. We believe that 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" (The Guardian, 27.4.04). This letter received widespread support from those members of the bourgeoisie who think that Blair has gone too far in his support for the US. The Blair team tried to counter the letter by calling the diplomats 'Arabists', but this was a very weak response.

U-turn on European referendum

There has also been increasingly open criticism from British military commanders about the idea of sending more troops to replace the Spanish forces withdrawn by the new Zapatero government, and of the "heavy-handed" tactics used by the US military in Falluja and elsewhere.

It is this growing difficulty of the British bourgeoisie on the international arena that is probably behind Blair's sudden U-turn about holding a referendum on the European constitution. In the period leading up to the war and in the months after, British imperialism was able to form a temporary alliance of countries such as Spain, Italy, and many of the Eastern European countries who were integrated into the EU on May 1, particularly Poland. This alliance was based on a common desire to stop Britain's main European imperialist rivals, Germany and France, from using the constitution to dominate the EU. This alliance used every opportunity to block or undermine French and German efforts to manipulate discussions about the constitution to their own ends. They also opposed themselves to 'old' Europe by their support for the US in Iraq. But now the alliance has effectively been destroyed by the bombs in Madrid and the deepening quagmire in Iraq. The majority of the Spanish bourgeoisie chose very publicly to pull the rug out from the USA's and Britain's feet over Iraq by announcing the withdrawal of its troops; at the same time it delivered a powerful blow against British ambitions in Europe, publicly stating that from now on it would work side by side with Germany and France in the EU. Spain's actions have also had an impact on the other members of the alliance. Poland has wavered over its involvement in Iraq and has been less hostile towards Germany. Thus, by April, the British bourgeoisie were faced with their main imperialist rivals in Europe strengthening their hand and leaving the British bourgeoisie looking isolated, at the same time as getting sucked further and further into the political and military black hole that is Iraq.

The final straw that broke the camel's back was that British diplomats discovered in April that the Irish bourgeoisie, which has Presidency of the EU until the end of June, "intended to have a draft constitution drawn up before the end of June" (The Independent on Sunday 25.4.04). This could only mean its European rivals taking full advantage of its weakened position to formalise their domination of an expanded EU. The calling of the referendum would thus appear to be a desperate bid to try and throw a spanner in the works and open up a whole new period of discussions between the EU's member states.

Britain is not the only country to hold a referendum. The Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Luxemburg, Netherlands, and Portugal are also to hold one. However, these are 3rd or 4th rate imperialist powers desperate not to be totally dominated by Germany and France. Hence the once 'mighty' British imperialism has been reduced to the blunt tactics of some of the weakest powers in Europe.

It is also a great gamble by Blair and his supporters. It has an electoral function inside Britain, in that it immediately deprives the Tories of a major campaign issue for the next election. But if the referendum is lost the clamour for Blair to go will be louder than ever. Nevertheless, the faction around Blair also knows that there is no real alternative to its policies being put forward, so it is possibly laying down a challenge to those elements of the bourgeoisie who are more critical of Blair's current stance: back us over the referendum or see the even more pro-US Tories back in power. This point was certainly made by three top Blair advisors (Alun Milburn, Stephen Byers and Peter Mandelson) in a recent article. The "neocon Tories believe that politics is powerless in face of anonymous forces of globalisation, and that it is largely up to individuals to fend for themselves. They see Europe as a waste of time and are quite happy with a vision of British foreign policy whose only leg is the US alliance"(The Guardian 27.4.04).

It has also been reported that this change of policy was spearheaded by heavyweight members of the government such as the Chancellor Gordon Brown and the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, both of whom have been more circumspect about being too openly pro-US. They are said to see it as a means of removing a weapon from the Tories and placing a difficult question further into the future, i.e., after the next election.

No matter what political calculations lay behind the sudden calling of the referendum, it still expresses the chronic weakness of British imperialism. The UK's European rivals have wasted no time in denouncing London for throwing a spanner in the works at the very moment the EU is 'celebrating' its eastward and southern expansion. But British capitalism is caught between the rock of total submission to the US, and the hard place of falling in behind its traditional German adversary. This isn't a problem that can be conjured away by clever electioneering or a change of personnel at the top.

Phil, 01/05/04.


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