In their election manifestos all the political parties made grand statements about Britain’s role in the world. Labour set out its “ten-year vision for British foreign policy”; the Tories talked of Britain being “one of the world’s most respected democracies, one of its most influential leaders” while the Liberal Democrats called for an “internationalist approach”. As ever, the reality behind such words is a brutal defence of national interests.
Ambitions for British imperialism
In the period since 1989, when the old bloc system fell apart, imperialist policy has become immensely complex, even apparently contradictory at times. Every imperialist power had to decide on the best way to advance its interests. For second rate powers like Britain and France the weight of the US and Germany affects all that they do, the US being militarily dominant around the globe, while Germany is economically dominant in Europe. The major part of the British ruling class sought to steer a policy between the two, tacking now one way, now another to advance their own interests. For example, in the first stages of the war in ex-Yugoslavia the Conservative government supported Serbia against Croatia and Slovenia, which were backed by Germany, whilst also co-operating with France to block attempts by the US to intervene.
The election of Labour in 1997 strengthened this policy since the party was united, unlike the Tories who had a significant faction that advocated closer links with the US at the expense of Europe. Throughout the last four years the British ruling class has been able to pursue its policy in a more consistently and determined way which, while it has not always been completely successful, has allowed British imperialism to largely maintain its place in the world.
In Yugoslavia, after the setback of the Dayton Accords in 1996, when the US stamped its authority on the region, British imperialism adopted a more cautious policy, generally seeming to go along with the US whilst still pursuing its own line. This was most evident during the conflict over Kosovo in the spring of 1999. Britain’s participation in the US-led bombing of Serbia, its traditional ally in the region, was a blow to its credibility but, through the very vigour of its participation, it retained an important position within the overall imperialist struggle.
In Africa, Britain has suffered setbacks, notably by being replaced by the US as the main backer of Uganda, one of the strategically most important countries in the area. In Sierra Leone, in contrast, it asserted its military capability by mounting a spectacular ‘hostage’ rescue, through which it reinforced its influence in the region.
In the Middle East it has pursued a generally discreet strategy, continuing to back the US against Iraq, whilst opposing the US in its central stronghold of Israel through expressions of ‘concern’ about the Palestinian uprising.
The US has put pressure on Britain in its own backyard through the ‘peace’ process in Ireland. Even if this pressure has been reduced recently, the potential remains for the US to cause further difficulty when it feels like it.
Common sense militarism
All of the parties are united in their defence of militarism. According to the Tories, the British army is “respected around the world”; while for Labour “Our armed forces are the best in the world at fighting if they have to, and keeping the peace where they can”. All promised to keep nuclear weapons while Labour boasted of its commitment to “investing more in real terms in our armed forces over the next three years” and the Tories of “making it a priority to achieve the armed forces full manning levels”.
In fact, one of the features of the last few years has been the increasing use of military force by British imperialism around the world, notably in the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, where the skill and strength of Britain’s military counteracts some of its other weaknesses. Its forces have been reorganised to meet the new period, with the emphasis on flexibility, rapidity of response, and “the ability to project force at distance and speed” (Labour). This goes alongside a continued effort to sell arms around the world, where Britain has a 20% share of the market.
Differences over strategy
All parts of the British ruling class want to advance its imperialist interests. Its main faction has a policy of maintaining a position of independence from the US. There is also a minority, generally described as ‘Euro-sceptics’, which continues to believe that Britain should have a closer relationship with the US in order to oppose Germany.
This difference can currently be seen over attitudes to the European Union Rapid Reaction Force and the US National Missile Defence System, ‘Son of Star Wars’. The Labour manifesto set out the position of the main faction. While declaring support for NATO, it backed the intervention of European forces “where NATO as a whole chooses not to engage,” and that, “The European defence initiative is an important part of our defence policy. Europe spends two-thirds as much as the US on defence, but gets only a fraction of its effectiveness”. The position was developed in a speech during the election campaign: “The choice between the US and Europe is a fundamentally false one. We are stronger in Washington if we are seen to be leading in Europe. And we have more influence in Europe if we are seen to be listened to in Washington”. On the Son of Star Wars project, the Liberal Democrats were blunt, stating that they “Oppose the national missile defence system”, which they describe as “a threat to international stability and arms control agreements”. Labour didn’t openly oppose the project, but hinted at it through talk of the need to control the spread of nuclear weapons. “We will encourage the US to consult closely with NATO allies on its ideas for missile defence”.
The Conservative Manifesto opposed to these positions a pro-US stance. It argued that “our primary alliance, NATO, is being weakened by a concerted drive to create an independent military structure in the EU” while declaring, in language that could have been dictated from the White House, “We believe our close ally deserves our support in countering new threats from rogue states and terrorists equipped with weapons of mass destruction”.
There is a clear difference of emphasis in the strategy required for British imperialism. A Labour government will ensure that the strategy of the main faction of the British bourgeoisie will continue to operate. North, 28/5/01.