The shrunken ambitions of British imperialism

Printer-friendly version

British imperialism is at an impasse. Humiliated and all but thrown out of Iraq, failing in Afghanistan and ignored when it tries to take the lead internationally, as at the recent Copenhagen climate change summit, it turns up the volume of propaganda to hide the reality. The deaths of the young men and women slaughtered in Helmand Province are spun into a cynical spectacle about the sacrifice and heroism of ‘our boys'. The reality of the century-long decline of British capitalism since it ceased to be the dominant economic and military power in the world once again confronts the British ruling class and forces it to reassess its imperialist strategy.

Imperialist and economic decline

There are two main causes of the current impasse. The first is the failure of the strategy pursued by British imperialism since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. The loosening of the order imposed by the Cold War meant that all powers saw the opportunity to assert their own interests. For the majority of the British ruling class this meant trying to pursue an independent line between the US and Europe, which was perceived to be dominated by Germany. This saw some initial success during the 1990s where Britain joined the US in the first Iraq war and worked alongside France during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia to oppose both Germany and the US. However, the ultimate result was that Britain found itself increasingly distrusted and squeezed between the two.

The offensive launched by the US after the destruction of 9/11 led Britain to position itself closer to the US. This change in tactics had two results. On the one hand, it resulted in Britain being caught in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan and being increasingly sidelined by its erstwhile friends and allies. It also resulted in Britain becoming a target of terrorist attacks at home. On the other hand, it reopened the divide in the British ruling class that came to the surface during the last years of John Major's government and which was one of the reasons New Labour came to power in 1997.

Blair's attempt to gain advantage from following in the wake of US imperialism was a failure. When Brown took over his attempts to return to the independent policy of the 1990s through the appointment of advisors who had opposed or been critical of the Iraq war merely annoyed the Americans.

The second cause of the impasse has been Britain's declining economic strength, which has forced it to scale back its ambitions. For example, in recent years the planned defence budget has included an increase of 1.5 per cent per year in real terms, to £34 billion for 2008/9, £35.3 billion for 2009/10 and £36.9 billion for 2010/2011. However, defence inflation runs considerably ahead of the overall inflation rate and in 2008/9 there was already a deficit of £2bn that led to a series of delays in planned expenditure. This has not stopped the ruling class from trying to assert itself, from ‘punching above its weight' as it's often put. One result of this strategy has been that the young people recruited into the British army are sent out without protective equipment, in vehicles that cannot withstand roadside bombs and lacking helicopter support. But, of course, for the armed forces, human beings are always expendable..

Looking for a way out

The current impasse is the reason why, other than in patriotic propaganda, there is largely silence over foreign policy. This cannot last. The British ruling class, like every ruling class, is compelled to defend its interests against every other power. They are all rivals. Alliances, even when as seemingly stable as during the cold war, are only ever transitory.

During the election the parties had little to say except platitudes. But beyond the electoral circus a real discussion has begun. Chatham House, the think tank that allows academic, military and political figures to discuss foreign policy confidentially, has begun a review while the new government will begin a Strategic Defence Review this year. Within parts of the bourgeoisie there is recognition that Britain's position has declined. An article in the Financial Times (28/4/10) reports one participant at a recent Chatham House discussion saying that "the curtain is falling...on a 400-year old global adventure" and that the forthcoming defence cuts will mark the end of Britain's pretensions.

The same article also quotes the Director of Chatham House on the pressures facing Britain: "the accelerating shift from west to east in the global balance of economic power, the inevitable deep cuts that will need to be made in Britain's military and diplomatic capabilities, a more ambivalent relationship with the US and uncertainty about the European Union's future international influence and capacities." What this underlines is that future British imperialist policy will have to be based on responding to events beyond its control. This is the situation of every minor power.

The pretensions of Blair that Britain can in any way shape the international situation have been utterly refuted. The ‘special relationship' with the US meant American predominance in the period of the Cold War, but hardly anything ever since. It was interesting to see the rapidity of Obama's congratulations to Cameron, as well as Hague's rush to meet with Secretary of State Clinton, but not clear what significance to put on this burst of diplomacy. There has always been a Conservative tendency to be pro-US and Eurosceptic, but this has to be weighed against the LIbDem enthusiasm for all things European. In this the coalition is no different from individual parties that have factions which look either across the Atlantic or the Channel for alliances or inspiration.

Britain stands to one side of Europe; its physical presence around the world largely symbolic. For all its pragmatism and experience the British bourgeoisie may still find that splits will develop as it weighs its options. The British bourgeoisie cannot afford the military, diplomatic or financial tools to allow it to intervene around the world, yet can't escape the framework of modern capitalism that forces all states into imperialist rivalry and ultimately conflict, whatever their resources.   North 10/05/10


General and theoretical questions: