Divisions in the ruling class behind the Hutton inquiry

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During the summer, the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly meant there was no let-up in the allegations, evasions and accompanying documentation on dossiers, intelligence and weapons of mass destruction. Usually the ruling class is quite happy to let politics take a rest during the newspapers’ ‘silly season’: it’s clearly a serious dispute that shows no sign of disappearing. What we’re witnessing is partly propaganda, and partly a very real crisis within the ranks of the bourgeoisie on the right policy for British imperialism. Lies about capitalist peace

At the level of propaganda, the campaign over the possibility of a peaceful capitalism continues unabated. Before, during, and since the end of the offensive against Iraq, a whole array of liberal and left-wing figures have criticised the government’s militarism with claims that somehow the capitalist state could adopt a non-military policy. Despite all the evidence of imperialist conflicts since the end of the nineteenth century, ‘anti-war’ arguments say that capitalism can follow a peaceful road.

In the row over the Labour government’s dossiers, for example, Air Marshal Sir John Walker, Chief of Defence Intelligence from 1991 to 1994, suggested that claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were “not the reason to go to war, but the excuse to go to war”. From a military man this is probably fair comment � he knows that you don’t base an attack on another country on the basis of one dubious uncorroborated source. He therefore concluded that the decision to attack Iraq was already made last summer, and on the basis of other grounds than Iraq possessing or developing WMDs. The ‘anti-war’ argument also dismisses the stated reason for war, but also allows that there are circumstances in which there will be ‘reasons’ for war. Clare Short and Robin Cook criticised the war on Iraq, but were part of the government that bombed Belgrade and attacked Afghanistan. Others criticised war on Iraq and Afghanistan, because it meant going along with US imperialism, despite having previously advocated war in ex-Yugoslavia in defence of Bosnia or Kosovo. Wars ‘against fascism’, wars for ‘national liberation’, wars ‘against imperialism’ are all justifiable from the point of view of the bourgeoisie. And when Germany, France, Russia and China opposed the attack on Iraq it was for reasons as imperialist as those that motivated the US and Britain.

During the course of the Hutton enquiry it has been implied that while Blair, Campbell and associates were determined to manipulate everything to ensure that a solid case was made for war, there were others who were more cautious, whose influence might have convinced MPs that there was no need for an attack on Iraq. That is not the way that capitalism functions. It is not because of particular personalities or particular policies, but because of the very nature of a decadent system that war is the only means for survival of any national capital. Too close to the US?

Alongside the smokescreen of ‘anti-war’ illusions there is a very serious division within the ruling class that stems from the very limited room for manoeuvre available to British imperialism. In the period of the Cold War Britain remained loyal to the US bloc because of a discipline imposed by the potential threat of Russia and its satellites. Following the collapse of the USSR there were no longer any grounds for maintaining the ‘special relationship’ with the US and, first under Major’s Conservative government, and then under Blair, the British bourgeoisie has tried to pursue a policy independent of US imperialism. This has not always been easy, as Britain, despite boasting the world’s fourth largest economy, has many economic and military limitations, and has had to enter into temporary tactical alliances with the American superpower as much as with a European neighbour such as France. What concerns a significant section of the British ruling class is that the policy of Blair seems to involve a more than temporary alliance with the US, a loss of independence for no obvious gain. They worry that British interests are not being served in an entanglement with the US that alienates potential allies in Europe.

A typical expression of the anxiety that pervades the ruling class comes from Peter Kilfoyle, a former Labour defence minister. He appreciates that there are many who see the role of Britain, “as a ‘bridge’ between a European trading bloc and the US. Unfortunately for them, many in Europe see this as a one-way bridge for American influence and advantage, with the UK cast as a Trojan horse.” (Guardian, 18/8/03). He complains that Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has, “acknowledged that we are to be to the US armed forces what the sepoys were to the British Indian army”, that “the gains of many decades have been frittered away by our blind obedience to the American administration’s wars”, that Britain is now “a satrapy of the new American world order”, that “we are now viewed as a rather ignoble island, subservient to the world’s super-power.” In the words of novelist Doris Lessing “the basis of this admiration of America � appears to be a love of power and the big guy. Look at Blair running around like a little rabbit � we are a colony” (Guardian, 12/8/03).

From the Conservative party, ex-Defence and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind thinks that “Tony Blair would have us believe that the furore over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been manufactured by some improbable alliance of a machiavellian BBC, Labour malcontents and Tory opportunists” (Guardian, 19/7/03). Rifkind dismisses all the arguments about the horror of Saddam’s regime as “moral blackmail” and recalls that for 5 years Blair didn’t put any case for an invasion of Iraq. He suggested that the arrival of George W Bush in the White House was a key factor in Labour’s change of heart. “Blair recognised that in order to retain the confidence of the new president, and to ensure British influence in Washington, he would have to support regime change in Iraq and the new doctrine of pre-emptive wars.” Rifkind understands the reasons for Britain to have a close relationship with the US, but thinks it should not be unconditional. “Of course, it is sensible for Britain to continue as America’s closest ally, but this has not stopped previous prime ministers - Labour and Tory - from distancing themselves from Washington when circumstances so justified. Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher did not allow her warm relationship with Ronald Reagan to prevent her bitter criticism of the US, both over the invasion of Grenada and over the American attempt to impose sanctions on European countries trading with the Soviet Union over gas pipelines in the 1980s”.

Top Tory Michael Heseltine was “appalled” last year when he heard from an American politician close to Bush that the decision to invade Iraq was already taken long before the UN or the weapons inspectors came to any conclusions. He thinks that no one should be “fooled about the case for regime change”, and that the Hutton inquiry is a way of avoiding a proper judicial inquiry into the real reasons for participating in America’s war.

The diplomatic editor of the Guardian (23/8/03) summarised the view of those most wary of US influence. “For more than 10 years, British policy was to contain Saddam by keeping him weak through sanctions, imposition of no-fly zones and diplomatic isolation. He was regarded as a potential threat but not a pressing one� By the time the [September] dossier was published, Saddam had become someone who had to be dealt with as a matter of urgency”. The mobilisation for war was underway and the only role left for Blair was to prepare British and international public opinion for the inevitable. A real political crisis

While all bourgeois politicians and commentators frame everything they say in nationalist terms you can still distinguish the stances within the British capitalist class. In the face of criticism from left, right and his own party, Blair can still count on the support of pro-US papers like the Sun and Times. Blair is not an isolated individual but a key representative of an important faction of the British bourgeoisie. The Conservative party is dominated by a pro-US faction which is in no position to criticise Blair. But among those in all parties who defend the need for an independent position, there is a difference on the degree to which it is in British interests to sustain alliances with the US. Blair’s famous speech to the US Congress could be dismissed as just so many pleasantries for a charming host, or taken as confirmation that Blair is only a mouthpiece for Bush. He said that “there never has been a time when the power of America was so necessary or so misunderstood” and that “Europe must take on and defeat the anti-Americanism that sometimes passes for its political discourse”. He warned of the emergence of a European bloc as “there is no more dangerous theory in international politics today than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitor powers, different poles around which nations gather”.

The pressure put on Blair over Kelly and the dossiers is a way for important factions of the bourgeoisie to remind him that Britain has an established imperialist orientation based on its historical experience. Blair’s Congress speech insisted that “a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day”, where in fact the bourgeoisie is painfully aware of the loss of its dominant imperialist position to the US, of how it suffered at US hands in the Second World War, of how the US frustrated its attempts to become a nuclear power, at Suez etc., and how, throughout the period of the Cold War, the Foreign Office fought against becoming just a branch office of the State Department. The reason the pressure has been so insistent on the Blair faction is because the Tories are no alternative, and because in other respects the bourgeoisie is satisfied with the way that Labour has functioned for British capital over the last 6 years.

The seriousness of the arguments within the British bourgeoisie should not be underestimated. The most intelligent bourgeoisie in the world is showing in this unfolding political crisis a tendency to lose control of the situation. That it should be openly carrying on its internal conflicts in the glare of publicity, including all the revelations that would normally be kept secret for at least 30 years, shows the depth of the problems it faces. In the Hutton inquiry opponents have taken the opportunity to criticise government policy, while Blair and his supporters have counter attacked with diversions, indignation and attempts to muddy the water. There is a danger that these battles will undermine the bourgeoisie’s ability to function coherently as a class on the imperialist level. The bourgeoisie can’t act effectively if it is seriously divided on how it should operate.

A comparison with the crisis before the Second World War shows a further decline in Britain’s position. In the 1930s the policy of ‘appeasement’ was generally accepted by the ruling class, not least because it allowed for a longer period of re-armament. Against this Churchill argued for a ‘grand alliance’ that would include the US and Russia. This was not feasible for years as the US would hold off for as long as possible, and Russia was initially to be in alliance with Germany. The 1930s crisis was ultimately based on the reality that Britain could no longer function as a dominant global power, and had to work out what that meant for imperialist policy. In the early 21st century the British bourgeoisie is arguing about what it means to be a second-rate power with a diminishing room for manoeuvre, losing control in the face of a global offensive by US imperialism. For significant sections of the bourgeoisie, the likes of Blair and Hoon seem to be sacrificing British independence in their enthusiasm for participation in the American project. This argument is not going to go away as the quandary that British imperialism finds itself in can only intensify.

Barrow, 4/9/03.