Britain and the American Empire

ON 15 DECEMBER 1950 South Korean police carried out a public mass execution of Communist suspects, men, women, and children, in the area of Seoul under British occupation. The massacre, one of many, outraged the British troops who witnessed it. One journalist quoted a soldier to the effect that “it was just mass murder”. Another soldier wrote to the Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin personally, “wondering which side was right in Korea”. So strong was the troops’ response to the killings that the British commander banned any further public executions and authorised the use of force to prevent them.1 The episode caused serious concern in London where it was seen as contributing to the Korean War’s growing unpopularity. The government, however, as one historian has pointed out, “was less concerned with the killings than with the publicity that surrounded them”. The mass executions could continue, but only “behind prison walls”. The government “was satisfied with a cosmetic measure” which hopefully would “contain public disillusion” with both the war and “the Atlantic alliance”.2 This was not the only bad news from Korea. A story by the journalist James Cameron, detailing the murderous brutality of the South Korean police, was suppressed by Edward Hulton, the proprietor of the Picture Post. The magazine’s editor, Tom Hopkinson, was sacked for objecting. Cameron’s story was subsequently carried by the Daily Worker. The government responded by publicly toying “with the idea of prosecuting the Daily Worker and introducing a draconian press law prohibiting journalism which brought ‘aid and comfort to the enemy’.” Intimidation was the real objective, however. Another story by the journalist René Cutforth, this time for the BBC, described the American use of napalm in Korea. It too was suppressed.3 Nothing could be allowed to interfere with the American alliance.

There are obvious parallels between the despatch of British troops to Korea in 1950 and the despatch of British troops to Iraq in 2003. While Tony Blair’s New Labour government might well have abandoned any vestiges of social democracy and embraced neo-liberalism domestically, in foreign and defence policy there is a remarkable degree of continuity with Attlee’s government of 1945-51. Attlee was every bit as determined as Blair to prioritise the American alliance, even to the extent of participation in a brutal war, a war far more murderous than that waged against Iraq. The only British “national interest” at stake in Korea in 1950 was the need to safeguard the American alliance. The lives of over a thousand British soldiers were sacrificed to this end. What this chapter will explore is this element of continuity in British foreign policy since the end of the Second World War, the pressures it has come under, and the very different contexts in which it has been sustained. Whereas in 1950 Attlee and Bevin saw the alliance as one between two imperial powers, by 2003 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown saw Britain as a junior partner in what was very much an American Empire.

Labour and the American alliance

The Labour government elected into office in July 1945 was determined that Britain should maintain its position as a great imperialist power, one of the three superpowers, along with the United States and the Soviet Union, that had emerged from the wreckage of the Second World War. That conflict had left Britain exhausted, virtually bankrupt, militarily overextended (there were British troops in over 40 countries in 1945), and dependent on the United States. In these circumstances, sustaining the British Empire required a revolution in strategy and a historic reshaping of the British warfare state.4

Let us consider the Labour government’s revolution in strategy first. In the post-war years the United States remained a rival of the British Empire, hoping to hasten its liquidation, so that the newly liberated colonies could be incorporated into America’s own informal global empire. This conflict was particularly evident, as we have already seen, in the Middle East. Despite this, the Labour government was absolutely committed to continuing Churchill’s wartime alliance with the United States into peacetime. As partners in Churchill’s coalition government during the war, Labour had, of course, been a party to that alliance. Now, they considered its continuation essential, both to meet the much more dangerous threat posed by the Soviet Union and to help withstand nationalist agitation and unrest in the colonies. It was hoped that once the Americans had recognised the scale of the Soviet menace, they would help sustain the British Empire. As far as the Attlee government was concerned, this post-war alliance was between two superpowers, albeit of unequal strength. Indeed, it was determined to make every effort to restore British power in the post-war period. As events were to show, however, the British need for the Americans was to prove far greater than the Americans’ need for them.

This unequal alliance was to involve the Labour government in historically unprecedented developments that were to decisively shape the post-war era. These developments have been successfully naturalised, so much so that they are completely taken for granted today. It is time to revisit them. Labour’s part in the creation of the modern welfare state, most notably the National Health Service, is well known. More important for the British ruling class, however, was the contemporaneous creation of what can be usefully described as Britain’s modern warfare state. It was Attlee’s government that took the decision in January 1947 to develop the British atomic bomb. This decision was taken in secret, without parliament, let alone the British people, being consulted. Interestingly, possession of the atomic bomb was not aimed at the Soviet Union, but was rather considered vital if Britain was to maintain some sort of equality with and independence from the United States. As Ernest Bevin put it:

I don’t want any other foreign secretary of this country to be talked at by a Secretary of State in the United States as I have just had in my discussions with Mr Byrnes. We have got to this thing over here whatever it costs…we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.

Attlee later made much the same point: “If we had decided not to have it, we would have put ourselves entirely in the hands of the Americans. That would have been a risk a British government should not take”.5 Later that same year the government took the unprecedented decision to continue conscription into peacetime. Initially, conscripts would only serve for one year, but in 1950 this was increased to two.6

Even more dramatic was the decision in July-August 1949 to allow the Americans to establish bases for B-29 bombers in Britain. This initiated the permanent establishment of foreign, that is American, military bases on British soil. As Bevin acknowledged, “Permanent peacetime bases involved quite new principles.” Indeed, it was without any historical precedent and yet it was accomplished without any serious public debate and is completely taken for granted today, supported unquestioningly by New Labour, the Conservative Party and the Liberals. Britain, as chancellor of the exchequer Stafford Cripps observed in October 1947, “must be regarded as the main base for the deployment of American power”.7 By 1950 the Americans were basing bombers carrying nuclear weapons in Britain. And in April 1949 Bevin was instrumental in establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This involved the permanent stationing of British forces on the Continent, another unprecedented development. NATO was to become one of the most important international organisations through which the United States controlled its allies and exercised its power.

A “blood price” had to be paid for the American alliance. It came due when the simmering conflict in Korea finally flared up into a full-scale war when the Communist North invaded the South in June 1950. Initially, the British Chiefs of Staff were opposed to sending troops to Korea. It was a sideshow in the great confrontation with the Soviet Union as far as they were concerned and British forces were already overstretched. Moreover, there were serious fears that involvement in the war would damage relations with Communist China. The Labour government did not share the ferocity of American enmity towards China and, indeed, in the face of considerable US opposition, had recognised Mao Zedong’s regime in January 1950. Hong Kong was too important, and too vulnerable, to risk Chinese hostility. Nevertheless, once the United States, under the banner of the United Nations, had committed itself to rolling back the North Koreans, Attlee concluded that Britain had no alternative but to despatch troops and ships. The British ambassador in Washington, Oliver Franks, made it clear that “refusal to provide troops would harm Anglo-American relations”. The cabinet decided that “British land forces should be sent in order to consolidate Anglo-American friendship and to placate American public opinion”.8 British troops were to fight and die in an American war. First naval forces and then troops were dispatched. Eventually a Commonwealth Division was formed, made up of British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops.

The North Koreans were quickly routed, and the American forces under General Douglas MacArthur, crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the North, with the full support of the Labour government. They intended unifying the country under their client, Syngman Rhee. Once again the Chiefs of Staff initially opposed this, forcefully warning of the dangers of Chinese intervention. They subsequently dropped their opposition, one suspects, under pressure from Bevin. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, fell to the Americans on 20 October 1950. A week later the Chinese launched their first offensive. By the end of November the Americans and their allies were in headlong retreat.

The Chinese intervention and the likely American response caused panic in London where the government was terrified that the war was about to escalate out of control. These fears intensified when on 30 November, at a press conference, President Truman stated that the use of nuclear weapons in Korea was under “active consideration”.9 Certainly this was what General MacArthur and his supporters were advocating, together with the bombing of Manchuria and action against the Chinese mainland. Truman’s remarks provoked what one journalist described at the time as “a rebellion of free Europe against the kind of leadership America was giving the West on the Korean issue”.10 On 4 December, Attlee flew to Washington to put the concerns of America”s European allies to the president. They feared that any nuclear escalation would precipitate a third world war with the Soviet Union. Now that the Russians had their own nuclear weapons, Europe and especially Britain (where US air bases were an obvious target), faced certain devastation.11 The Korean conflict had to be contained. In the event, it is unlikely that Attlee’s representations had any decisive effect. American preponderance in Korea was so overwhelming that they would take the decision whether or not to escalate. The British were certainly not conceded any veto over the use of nuclear weapons, only the right to be kept in the loop by the Americans. If the decision were taken, they would be the first to know. The stabilisation of the battlefront in 1951 eventually removed the danger.

Attlee confronted yet another crisis in January 1951 when the United States tabled a motion at the UN, condemning Chinese intervention in Korea. This provoked a cabinet rebellion on the 25th when the remarkable decision was taken to vote against. The revolt was short-lived. The decision was reversed the next day after the chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, a fervent pro-American, threatened to resign. The reversal was the work of what one junior minister, Kenneth Younger, described sarcastically as the “don’t be rude to the Americans school”. He complained that “‘America right or wrong’ is a very powerful sentiment in the cabinet”. The left proved to be so many paper tigers with even Aneurin Bevan conceding that “if the clash came, we could do nothing but support the Americans”.12 Britain voted for the resolution even though there was general agreement in the government that it was counter-productive, if not dangerous.

British participation in the Korean War made the Labour government and its Conservative successor party to a terrible conflict that left Korea effectively laid waste. While often described as a “limited war”, it was in fact waged with little restraint as far as the Korean people were concerned. Even General MacArthur, certainly no sentimentalist, confessed, “I have never seen such devastation.” According to one of his air force commanders, US bombing left “nothing standing worthy of the name”.13 Whole cities and small hamlets were bombed out of existence in one of the worst crimes of the post-1945 era. According to one military historian, the war cost the lives of between 500,000 and 1 million South Korean civilians and of 1.5 million North Korean soldiers and civilians.14 British governments stood shoulder to shoulder with their American ally throughout the slaughter, desperately trying to cover up what was going on.15

The Labour government’s overriding determination to maintain the American alliance, no matter what the cost, was to eventually bring it down. Under American pressure, in 1950, the government introduced a massive rearmament programme. Labour committed itself to doubling defence expenditure to £3,400 million spread over the next three years. This was despite the fact that Britain was already spending a higher proportion of GDP on defence than the United States. The following year, in January 1951, this commitment was increased to £4,700 million (the Americans wanted £6,000 million). What this involved was the government throwing away the fruits of economic recovery achieved by the sacrifices of ordinary people in order to appease the Americans. Attlee, as one historian has observed, put Labour’s electoral fortunes at serious risk for the sake of the American alliance. The massive increase in military spending was motivated less by fear of the Russians than by the need to keep in with the United States: “Britain spent what she had to do to make the alliance secure”.16 The economic consequences were disastrous. Whereas in 1950 there was a £244 million balance of trade surplus, by 1951 this had been converted into a £521 million deficit. The chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell, proposed cuts in welfare to help pay for rearmament (the introduction of charges in the NHS) and increased taxes.17 The introduction of NHS charges split the government, with Bevan, Harold Wilson and others resigning in protest. In the general election of October 1951 the Conservatives under Winston Churchill were elected into power. They quickly scaled down the rearmament programme.18

From Suez to Vietnam

As we have already seen in Chapter 9, little more than a decade after the Second World War the British position in the Middle East had been reduced from one of hegemony to dependence on the United States. The Eden government’s futile attempt at reasserting British power in 1956, invading Egypt in alliance with France and Israel, was brutally cut short by American economic and political pressure. It is worth emphasising that Britain’s greatest post-war humiliation was inflicted not by the Soviet Union or by France or by Germany, but by the United States. And yet the British ruling class remained wholeheartedly committed to restoring and maintaining its alliance with the Americans, no matter what. Whereas the French response to the Suez humiliation was to look to Europe as a counter-balance to American power, the British embraced dependency. In 1966 President de Gaulle was actually to close down US bases in France and order the removal of all US forces from French soil. At the same time, the British were seeking a junior partnership in America’s global empire. Even when Britain finally joined the European Economic Community (forerunner to the EU) in January 1973, it soon became clear, once the Heath government had fallen, that the American alliance still came first. In fact, Britain was a deliberate obstacle to Europe becoming a counter-balance to the United States. That remains the situation today.

The different trajectories of the French and British states reflected the different interests of French and British capitalism. British interests were and are global. Whereas the British state had once been powerful enough to protect those interests, now only the United States had the necessary military might. From this point of view, the American alliance can be seen as a fundamental ruling class interest. This is not to say that there were not sections of the capitalist class who looked primarily to Europe. Indeed, the conflict between the protagonists of America and Europe was one of the factors that tore the Thatcher and Major governments apart in the 1990s. At the moment, however, this conflict seems to have been decisively resolved in favour of the American alliance, a resolution symbolised both by the failure to join the euro and British participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq under Blair.

The government that determined Britain’s particular trajectory was the Macmillan government. In the aftermath of Suez, Macmillan set about restoring relations with the United States. This determination had an important military dimension. As far as the Chiefs of Staff were concerned, Suez had shown that the Americans could not be relied on to defend British interests. The answer was to abandon any interests that conflicted with those of the United States. As G Wyn Rees has pointed out:

The chiefs emerged from the Suez debacle with a determination not to seek greater independence, as might have been expected, but rather to seek closer cooperation with their Atlantic partner in order to avoid such a split ever recurring. They realised how dependent future overseas operations would be upon American support and resolved to tie Britain more closely to the United States… As Sir William Dickson, chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, declared: “We and the Americans are the only two powers with global interests…”19

There was no alternative. Indeed, an alliance with France had already proven incapable of defending British interests in Egypt. A partnership with the Americans on whatever terms was the only option.

Dependence was even more marked as far as nuclear strategy was concerned. “While the quest for a British deterrent had all along been driven by the wish to avoid dependence upon the United States”, as Ian Clark points out, under Macmillan, “the final creation of a special nuclear axis with America” became the objective.20 As we have already seen, Attlee’s government had initiated development of a British atom bomb in 1947. By the time this was delivered in 1952 it was already obsolete. Both the United States and the Soviet Union developed the hydrogen bomb. Not until the summer of 1957 did Britain explode its own hydrogen bomb, a consolation for the Suez debacle as far as British Conservatives were concerned. As Randolph Churchill MP boasted:

Britain can knock down 12 cities in the region of Stalingrad and Moscow from bases in Britain and another dozen in the Crimea from bases in Cyprus. We did not have that power at the time of Suez. We are a major power again.21

Such optimism was misplaced. By now the problem was that Britain’s delivery system, the V-bomber force, was obsolescent, as was its proposed replacement, the Blue Streak missile, still only in development at the time.

As far as the British government was concerned, it was absolutely essential that Britain should be armed with nuclear weapons. It was a guarantee of great power status. In 1960 Blue Streak was cancelled and Macmillan negotiated the purchase of a missile the Americans had in development, the Skybolt, which could be delivered by the V-bomber force. In return, the Americans were given the Holy Loch submarine base for their Polaris submarines. When Skybolt was cancelled late in 1962, Macmillan was forced to go cap in hand to beg President Kennedy for Polaris. He emphasised British support during the Cuban crisis (Macmillan had described Castro to Kennedy as “your Nasser”)22 and warned that refusal to give him Polaris might well lead to the fall of his government and its replacement by Labour. In April 1963 the Americans agreed. Interestingly enough, even at this point there were ministers who disagreed with becoming dependent on the United States. Julian Amery and Peter Thorneycroft both argued that Britain should develop nuclear weapons with the French. Instead the Polaris deal was concluded with “far-reaching consequences”. As David Reynolds has argued, “It locked Britain into a transatlantic nuclear dependence that has endured to the present day”.23 Britain’s celebrated independent nuclear “deterrent” was, in fact, very much a dependent nuclear capacity, an emblem of British subordination to the United States.

This brings us to the question of Vietnam. The Americans had first proposed military intervention in 1954, when the French were facing defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese. They had backed away from the idea when the Churchill government refused to support them. Churchill had made the point to the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff that it was hardly likely that British troops who had not fought to keep India in the British Empire would be prepared to fight to keep Indochina in the French Empire.24 Later, when the United States was supporting the Diem regime in South Vietnam, the Macmillan government was positively enthusiastic about assisting in counter-insurgency operations against the Vietcong. As we saw in the last chapter, in 1961 the government had sent an advisory mission to Saigon to advise the South Vietnamese (in the face of US opposition).25Given this initiative, there seems little doubt that if the Conservatives had been returned to office in 1964 at least a token British force would have been sent to Vietnam to fight alongside the Americans as the war intensified.

In October 1964 Harold Wilson became Labour prime minister. He was confronted with the escalation of the Vietnam conflict in 1965 and its transformation into a full-scale war. Throughout the fighting the Labour government made clear that it fully supported the United States in its bloody colonial war, but when the Americans pressed for British troops to be despatched to Vietnam, Wilson refused. One justification for this refusal was that Britain was already heavily involved in the confrontation with Indonesia. Indeed, it was hinted that if British forces were sent to Vietnam then some American commitment to Malaysia would be expected. The most important factor in Wilson’s calculations, however, was the danger of splitting the Labour Party in parliament together with the strength of anti-war feeling in the country at large. Labour was confronted by a mass anti-war movement, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), that opposed Wilson’s support for the Americans in the most militant terms. In October 1968 the VSC was able to stage a march of 100,000 people in London in support of the Vietcong and in opposition to the Labour government.26 Michael Foot, one of the leaders of the Labour left, warned Wilson that, if British troops set foot in Vietnam, “they would tear to pieces even the secure majority which they now have in the House”.27 If Hugh Gaitskell had still been Labour leader (he had died in 1963) there is little doubt that he would have sent troops regardless of the any damage it did to the Labour Party. One can feel absolutely confident that Tony Blair too would have had no hesitation in this regard either.

But while Wilson was concerned to keep the Labour Party together, he still gave full support to America’s war. The Labour government defended the war as a war against communist aggression and only faltered in this respect on one occasion. In June 1966 the Americans stepped up their bombing of North Vietnam and Wilson publicly disassociated himself from the decision. This display of independence was not all it seemed: the terms of the disassociation had actually been cleared with the Americans beforehand!28 What is absolutely clear, however, is that in a brutal imperialist war in which the United States once again laid waste much of another Asian country, the British government remained steadfast in their support. According to Jonathan Neale, in their bombing of Vietnam (North and South), Laos and Cambodia, the Americans:

dropped over 8 million tons of explosives. This was roughly three times the weight of bombs dropped by all sides in World War Two, and the explosive force was equal to 640 of the atom bombs used on Hiroshima… There are no precise counts of the number of dead Vietcong and civilians. The best estimate is between 1.5 and 2 million, though the Vietnamese estimates are higher. Hundreds of thousands more people died in both Laos and Cambodia. That puts the total dead at roughly 3 million, most of them from the air war.29

There was hardly a war crime that the United States did not commit in Vietnam (the torture and killing of prisoners, the massacre of civilians, indiscriminate shelling and bombing, chemical warfare, even medical experiments on prisoners), but the Labour government continued to champion America’s cause. Inevitably, however, there was some US resentment at the refusal to send troops. Dean Rusk, the American secretary of state, complained to a journalist in 1968 that “all we needed was one regiment. The Black Watch would have done. Just one regiment…”30 Such a commitment would, of course, have made no difference to the final outcome: American defeat.

Before moving on, let us consider one other revealing episode in the Wilson government’s relations with the United States: the question of British Guiana.31 The Kennedy administration had earlier made it clear to Harold Macmillan that they regarded Britain’s South American colony as being within their sphere of influence and that the democratically elected left wing government of Cheddi Jagan and his People’s Progressive Party was unacceptable. The Americans wanted Jagan removed before British Guiana became independent. Dean Rusk, the US Secretary of State told the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, that the United States “would not put up with an independent British Guiana under Jagan” and warned of “strains on Anglo-American relations”. The British did not regard Jagan as any sort of threat, and, moreover, considered him infinitely preferable to his main opponent, Forbes Burnham. Nevertheless, they were bullied into giving the CIA a free hand to destabilise an elected government in a British colony. Macmillan actually met CIA director John McCone to discuss the situation.

Once given the go-ahead, the CIA poured money and agents into the colony, financing Jagan’s opponents, deliberately fostering racial conflict and communal violence that cost hundreds of lives, and corrupting much of the trade union movement. The Americans hoped that the disorder and violence they had orchestrated would provide the British with a pretext to remove Jagan, but the British were extremely reluctant to take such a step. The CIA bombarded the British with false intelligence of Russian and Cuban interference in the colony. In February 1962 the British were informed that a Cuban freighter was smuggling 50 tons of weapons into the country. A search of the ship revealed printing presses. In 1963 the CIA organised a general strike, accompanied by considerable violence, including bombings and shootings, against the Jagan government. Corrupt company unions were financed to the tune of a $1 million to bring him down. Under intense pressure, the British finally gave way and agreed to a constitutional coup to remove the PPP from power. They decided to impose a system of proportional representation on the colony, so that Jagan’s opponents, under American auspices, could unite to keep him from power. The Labour opposition in London was extremely critical of these proceedings, with Harold Wilson dismissing the new electoral arrangements as a “fiddled constitution”.

Jagan hoped somewhat naively that when Labour came to power in October 1964 Wilson would reverse Conservative policy. This would have meant defying the United States and so Wilson went ahead and put the Conservative plan into effect. In the December 1964 general election in British Guiana the PPP increased its share of the vote. But a combination of proportional representation, massive American financial subsidies and electoral fraud brought the US client, Forbes Burnham, to power. The Labour government gave independence to British Guiana, or Guyana as it became, in May 1966. Forbes Burnham subsequently maintained himself in power by corruption, electoral fraud on a massive scale, gangster violence and the encouragement of race hatred. Among his victims was the Marxist historian and activist Walter Rodney, murdered by Burnham’s thugs in June 1980.32

A British Gaullism

The Wilson government lost the 1970 general election and was replaced by the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Heath’s government was the closest Britain has ever come to a “Gaullist” turn, taking Britain into the European Economic Community and very deliberately distancing himself from the United States. According to Heath’s biographer, John Campbell:

The most radical aspect of Heath’s foreign policy—differentiating his government sharply from every previous post-war administration, Conservative and Labour, and from all of his successors…as well—was his determination not to have a special relationship with the United States. On the contrary, he was determined to assert Britain’s European identity…he was specifically determined to show Pompidou (the French president) that Britain was not an American Trojan Horse.

Instead of Heath hurrying across the Atlantic to offer fealty to President Nixon, “Nixon had to come and see him”. As Campbell observes, the Americans were used to “Wilson fawning on Johnson” and “Macmillan’s avuncular relationship with Kennedy”, and consequently “could not understand a British prime minister deliberately wanting to keep relations cool”.

Even while he looked to Europe, Heath remained a strong Cold Warrior and anti-Communist. He continued British support for the American war in Vietnam, publicly supporting President Nixon’s murderous bombing offensive against the North in December 1972. Where the government did take an independent stand, however, was over the “Yom Kippur” war between Israel, and Syria and Egypt in 1973. Britain, together with France and West Germany, refused to allow the United States to use their facilities or air space to fly arms and munitions to Israel. This was an unprecedented step for any British government to take. Moreover, Heath made it clear that he blamed the conflict on American support for Israeli intransigence. Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, was a staunch Zionist and would have inevitably supported the United States, had he still been in power. Heath, on the other hand, as Campbell points out, believed that “membership of a united Europe offered to Britain a means of recovering in partnership the leadership role in the world which she could no longer hope to play alone”. In Heath’s own words, “There are some people who always want to nestle on the shoulder of an American president. That’s no future for Britain”.33

The Heath government was eventually brought down by the scale and intensity of the class struggle in Britain in the early 1970s. The miners’ strike of 1974 proved the final blow that returned Harold Wilson to power. Once Heath was gone, replaced as Conservative leader by Margaret Thatcher, both Labour and the Conservatives once again embraced the American alliance as the cornerstone of British foreign policy. What this reversion demonstrates is that Heath’s “Gaullism” had too narrow a social base to ever succeed in reshaping British policy. While it had some support among the ruling class, the American alliance still seemed the best guarantee of British capitalism’s global interests. Under Margaret Thatcher, who became prime minister in 1979, the American alliance was to be prosecuted with renewed fervour. What is interesting is that while the “Gaullist” elements within the Conservative Party were eventually able to bring Thatcher down, they were not strong enough to actually change the party’s direction. Indeed, under the Blair government, both New Labour and the Conservative opposition seem to have decisively rejected the European option in favour of the American alliance. It is important to remember that what Heath and those of like mind in both the Conservative and Labour parties were looking for in Europe was an imperial counter-balance to American power. Their belief was that British capitalism’s global interests would be best served by an equal partnership with France and Germany rather than by an unequal and subordinate one with the United States. As far as the British ruling class as a whole is concerned, however, American military power is so overwhelming that only the United States can effectively protect and advance British capitalism’s global interests.

New Labour

When he was appointed ambassador to Washington in 1997, Christopher Meyer had British policy explained to him by Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathon Powell: “We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there”.34 This was, of course, much more accurate anatomically than Blair’s claim that Britain stood shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, but for obvious reasons the latter description was preferable for public consumption. There was nothing new in this policy. Indeed, while New Labour can quite correctly be seen as making a decisive break with the Labour Party’s social democratic politics domestically, there is remarkable continuity in foreign and defence policy. Just as Attlee sent troops to Korea to appease the Americans, so Blair sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Harold Wilson’s government stands out as an aberration in this respect, but only because of the strength of the left at the time. Under Wilson, anti-war sentiment outside the Labour Party could still find expression within it, something that Blair and his supporters have made effectively impossible today. Where Blair has been unfortunate is that he has had to subordinate himself to one of the most right wing, reactionary and openly imperialist administrations in US history, led moreover by a president of the sorry calibre of George W Bush. A man of profound ignorance, lacking in both character and application, although certainly possessed of some cunning, which the Blairites desperately try to pass off as intelligence, Bush is certainly the worst post-war president, and arguably one of the worst ever.35 And yet this is the man Blair has to defer to, accept praise from and attempt to influence. The effort has cost him both his credibility and his reputation. It has cost many, many other people their lives.

More important than personalities, however, is the fact that Britain’s determination to ally itself with the United States involves an alliance with a superpower whose world economic domination is a thing of the past. The United States is increasingly reliant on military might to substitute for economic muscle, something that is not sustainable in the long term. And, moreover, even in terms of military power, the American Empire’s reach is not equalled by its hold. This has, of course, been amply demonstrated by the ease with which the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003 and by their subsequent failure to effectively occupy and pacify Iraq. Britain will increasingly come to share in America’s difficulties.

First, though, let us examine the New Labour phenomenon. The enormity of New Labour’s break with its reformist and social democratic past is perhaps best demonstrated by its open embrace of the interests of big business and the rich. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, New Labour proclaimed itself unequivocally the party of business. To this end, it kept in place Thatcher’s anti trade union legislation, consistently opposed any extension of workers’ rights proposed by the European Union, curbed civil liberties at every opportunity, carried out further privatisations and introduced public-private partnerships as a covert way of transferring state assets to business. New Labour has actually begun the privatisation of both the NHS and the state education system. Whereas once even the right wing of the Labour Party was committed to increasing social equality, the New Labour government has quite happily presided over increased social inequality. Moreover, under Blair there has been a revival of the sale of honours, knighthoods and peerages, on a scale not seen since the days of Lloyd George. The only electoral promise that New Labour has regarded as absolutely sacrosanct is the promise not to increase taxes on the rich. So we have the remarkable situation under the New Labour government where the very poorest pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than the wealthy. New Labour’s embrace of big business and the rich is perhaps best symbolised by its relationship with the News International boss, Rupert Murdoch. This reactionary union buster was assiduously courted by Blair in opposition and continues to be one of the most powerful influences on the government. In many ways Murdoch can be seen as the patron saint of New Labour. Whereas the Labour Party was originally founded to challenge this state of affairs, under Blair, New Labour has enthusiastically embraced it.

How has this come about? It is not the result of a Blairite coup at the top of the Labour Party or of the lack of backbone of a particularly contemptible generation of Labour MPs. These are symptoms, not the cause. Rather the transformation is a response to and consequence of the decisive shift in the balance of class forces accomplished under Thatcher. Put crudely, but nevertheless accurately, big business and the rich are more powerful in Britain today than at any time since the end of the 19th century.36 One consequence of this has been a breakdown of the border between the public and the private. The state, its assets and revenues have become a source of pillage for private business on an unprecedented scale. This has fundamentally corrupted the British political system. We live in the age of what can be meaningfully described as “the New Corruption”, just as “the Old Corruption” defined politics at the end of the 18th century. Doing favours for the rich and for big business is what politics is all about today.37

The ideology informing New Labour can best be described as “globalisation”. This involved a belief that developments in the world economy had made the policies traditionally associated with the Labour Party irrelevant. Market forces were now too powerful for any nation-state to be able to stand against them. Indeed, they had actually become benevolent, so that the only way forward was to embrace them. The heroes of New Labour were not trade union militants or socialist activists but international bankers and multinational businessmen. These were the people who could make a difference.38 This ideology pervaded the whole government and the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Even one of Blair’s critics, Clare Short, when in charge of the Department for International Development, awarded contracts to the free market fundamentalist Adam Smith Institute to advise aid recipients on privatisation.39 New Labour’s domestic policies obviously derived from this ideology of globalisation, but it also informed its commitment to the American alliance. Blair, an admirer of the British Empire (like every previous Labour prime minister, it has to be said), was convinced that the world had entered into a new period of benevolent informal empire or “postmodern imperialism”, as one of his advisers called it. Instead of the British Empire acting as a force for good in the world that burden had now fallen to the United States. The American state would police the world market for everyone’s benefit. Blair seriously bought into the Bush administration’s fantasies of world domination. He was a convert to the “Project for the New American Century”. The American state, with its historically unprecedented military superiority, was to be the world’s policeman and Britain would be its faithful police dog. He literally could not understand why France and Germany refused to subordinate themselves to the United States. This was the future. Once again there was no alternative.40

One last point worth considering here concerns New Labour’s reputation for dishonesty. While all governments lie, this has been identified by critics, both on the left and the right, as having been carried to new heights by the Blair government.41 At least in part, the responsibility for this lies with Alistair Campbell, Blair’s press spokesman and right hand man, arguably the de facto deputy prime minister for most of Blair’s period in office. Nevertheless, the phenomenon can best be seen as deriving from the fact that New Labour is itself a lie. A party whose electoral support still rests on the working class but that has in practice transformed itself into the party of big business is living a lie. It cannot ever afford to tell the truth. This had infected every aspect of New Labour’s conduct of affairs and created just the sort of environment where someone like Campbell could thrive.42

Invading Iraq

Once in power Blair prosecuted the American alliance with considerable energy and enthusiasm, identifying himself as closely as possible with President Clinton. The Blairites saw themselves as the British version of Clinton’s New Democrats, both pulling their respective parties sharply to the right. In November 1997 Blair told the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London that when Britain and the United States “work together on the international scene there is little we cannot achieve. Our aim should be to deepen our relationship with the USA at all levels.” What he really meant, of course, was that there was little the United States could not achieve and that Britain would be part of it no matter what. An opportunity soon presented itself in August 1998. In retaliation for Al Qaida attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton ordered attacks on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. In Khartoum cruise missiles destroyed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, a target with no terrorist or military connections, but that produced most of the country’s antibiotics. As John Kampfner, the chronicler of Blair’s wars, observes, “Blair was virtually alone in defending the action.” He quotes an anonymous member of Blair’s inner circle: “Everyone knew that what Clinton was doing was wrong—bombing that plant—but we also knew that supporting him was right”.43 America right or wrong was to be the watchword. Indeed, far from Blair being reluctant to support the United States, he actually thought Clinton was too reluctant to use military force, that the Americans were not aggressive enough internationally.

So from day one New Labour was committed to supporting American policy, any American policy, with regard to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, regardless of the consequences. In December 1998, when Clinton launched punitive air raids, Operation Desert Fox, against Iraq, British aircraft took part in the attacks that hit 250 targets. The government supported UN sanctions, sanctions that by 1996 were estimated to have killed some half a million Iraqi children. On one occasion a shipment of vaccines to protect children against diphtheria and yellow fever was blocked. Kim Howells, a New Labour minister, told parliament that the vaccines were blocked “because they are capable of being used in weapons of mass destruction”.44 One would have to be a satirist of the calibre of Jonathan Swift to plumb the depths of this moral universe.

Blair’s government was also an enthusiastic participant in the war the United States and Britain fought under the banner of NATO in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, in March 1999, when air attacks were launched that lasted for 11 weeks. The justification for this was that the Milosevic regime in Yugoslavia was committed to a massive programme of ethnic cleansing and the bombing was to prevent this crime being perpetrated. Blair was central to providing the ideological ammunition for this claim. In a speech in Chicago he invoked “humanitarian intervention” as a new “doctrine of the international community”. The argument that this was a war being fought for no economic or strategic gain, but for human rights alone, was almost universally accepted in the media.

Yet it was based on lies. The scale of atrocities in Kosovo prior to NATO’s intervention was dramatically exaggerated. Geoff Hoon, a minister in the Foreign Office, claimed that 10,000 ethnic Albanians had been killed. There was even talk from some in US administration of 100,000 being “missing”. But when a British government memo after the NATO bombing gave a figure for 10,000 people killed in Kosovo during 1999, Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, admitted that only 2,000 occurred before the bombing started. This referred to casualties on both sides of the brutal war between Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army. As Mark Curtis has said, “The mass deaths alleged to be taking place before the bombing seem to have been a NATO fabrication.” Worse still, the bombing itself precipitated mass ethnic cleansing, the very action it was supposedly preventing, with 850,000 now pushed out of Kosovo, dwarfing the pre-war numbers.

There were two main reasons for the bombing of Kosovo. First was the desire by the US administration under Clinton to deepen the process of reasserting US military power, this time in the European Union’s own backyard. Secondly, it was part of the process of expanding NATO eastwards into the vacuum left by the retreating Russian state following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the decade. Blair’s apparent rhetorical successes over Kosovo would soon be utilised by another US president in the run-up to a much more serious assertion of US military might. This time he would meet with rather less success.45

With the election of George W Bush to the presidency, Iraq moved dramatically up the agenda. The new administration took office committed to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by whatever means necessary and whenever the opportunity presented itself. This was intended to re-establish the American hegemony over the Middle East that had been profoundly challenged by the Iranian Revolution of 1989. Initially, though, the Bush administration was too weak to even consider launching foreign adventures. Bush was deeply unpopular and on the defensive domestically, having stolen the presidency by means of a coup carried out by the Supreme Court. The Al Qaida attacks on 11 September 2001 were to change all that.

The 11 September attacks were a terrible outrage that cost thousands of innocent people their lives. This is indisputable. The way that the outrage was seized on by both Bush and Blair in order to justify their later aggressions has no justification, however. The 11 September attacks were not the worst atrocity since the Second World War. American bombing in Korea and Vietnam killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, outrages that completely dwarf 11 September. Moreover by any objective criteria the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the post-war world has not been Al Qaida, but the American CIA. The CIA has assassinated and tortured people across the world, sponsored covert wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and overthrown democratically elected governments. Indeed, a CIA-sponsored coup actually took place on an earlier 11 September in 1973 in Chile, overthrowing the elected president, Salvadore Allende, and installing the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. And, of course, many of the perpetrators of the Twin Towers attack had actually been America’s allies when they had been fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.46The CIA, needless to say, is welcome in Britain, where it maintains a substantial secret establishment completely outside any parliamentary scrutiny. One of its representatives routinely attends meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee.47 Moreover, today the New Labour government effectively condones the CIA use of torture, including, incredibly enough, the torture of British prisoners (Moazzam Begg, Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul and others)48 held at the Guantanamo concentration camp. What was distinctive about 11 September 2001, one has to conclude, was not the enormity of the outrage, but rather who it was done to.

The importance of the 11 September attacks was not that they revealed a massive terrorist threat to the very existence of the West, but that they provided an opportunity for Bush to go on the offensive, both domestically and internationally. There certainly was a terrorist threat to American imperialism, but it was not as dangerous as was claimed and, according to security specialists, what it required was an intelligence-led response. Instead Bush proclaimed a “War on Terror” that was to serve as a convenient vehicle for American imperial ambitions. American aggression anywhere in the world could now be dressed up as part of the War on Terror and presented to the American people as self-defence. This was done with quite breathtaking cynicism. The Blair government wholeheartedly bought into this fiction.49 For the Bush administration, however, the opportunity to attack Iraq had finally presented itself. Iraq, which had had no involvement with the 11 September attacks whatsoever, was to be invaded and occupied as part of the War on Terror. Ironically, not only did this mean neglecting the hunt for the actual perpetrators of the 11 September attacks, but it also gave their cause a tremendous boost. Iraq, since the invasion, has become a cockpit for terrorist activity and a potent symbol, rallying support and sympathy for Al Qaida. The suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005, for example, were a response to the invasion of Iraq and would never have taken place but for Blair’s participation in America’s war.50

This is not the place to go into detail with regard to the road to war.51 Instead a number of salient points will be made. First, as should have become clear in the course of this book, all colonial wars are based on lies. The strong can only ever justify their wars of aggression against the weak by lying about the threat they pose or the offence they have offered, whether it was attacking China in 1842 and 1857, Burma in 1852 or Egypt in 1882. The Suez invasion of 1956 provides a particularly dramatic example of official mendacity. What would have been surprising, indeed astonishing, is if the Bush and Blair governments had not lied! The Bush administration took the decision to invade Iraq early in 2002 and Blair committed himself to support the attack in April of that year. Once he had committed himself, all of Blair’s subsequent actions were intended to convince public opinion that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat, that he was the aggressor, and that this would be a war for democracy. Blair’s urging that Bush should seek UN sanction for the war was primarily for domestic purposes, to shore up support, because, as he well knew, the Americans would invade regardless, and British troops would be fighting alongside them. The now notorious dossiers of September 2002, Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, and February 2003, Iraq: Its Infrastructure for Concealment, Deception and Intimidation, were cynical attempts to manipulate public opinion and intimidate Labour MPs. The fact was that, if Iraq had actually possessed the weapons of mass destruction they were accused of having, there would have been no invasion. The invasion was actually premised on the assumption that Iraq was virtually defenceless, that the country had never recovered from its defeat in the 1991 Gulf War and had been crippled by sanctions thereafter. This was, as we have already said, a war to re-establish American hegemony over the Middle East. Blair was determined that Britain should share in the spoils. He was not trying to restrain the Bush administration, as some Labour MPs deluded themselves, but was actually urging them to use their military might to re-establish a domination over the Middle East from which he believed British capitalism would benefit. To this end the British people were told a pack of lies.

One unforeseen problem that confronted the New Labour government was the rise of a mass anti-war movement, the Stop the War Coalition. This was the most powerful anti-war movement in British history. It was able to stage massive demonstrations, including the great 15 February 2003 demonstration, involving some 2 million people. This was the largest demonstration in British history, a demonstration against a Labour government, about to launch an illegal war of aggression.52 New Labour’s ability to go to war regardless of this mobilisation is a good indication of how successfully the Blairites have severed the party’s popular roots. Despite this, when the House of Commons voted on whether to go to war, 139 Labour MPs voted against and 20 abstained. Robin Cook,53 the former foreign secretary, two junior ministers and six parliamentary aides resigned from the government. Only one Labour MP, however, George Galloway, was to be expelled from the party for the ferocity of his opposition to this illegal war.54 Given the scale of the government’s deception and the consequences that have followed, this is quite astonishing. A majority of Labour MPs, together with an overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs, voted for war. What Blair assumed was that a successful war would be popular after the event, but instead he has found himself presiding over an unfolding disaster that has exposed him as a liar and a hypocrite of historic proportions with the blood of thousands of people on his hands.

It is worth noting one other indication of the atrophy of parliamentary democracy under Blair. On 29 May 2003, after Iraq had been occupied, the BBC Today programme broadcast a report by journalist Andrew Gilligan, revealing that Alistair Campbell had “sexed up” the September 2002 dossier. This was the story of the decade. In the event, it was to cost Gilligan his job, led to the resignations of both Greg Dyke, the director-general of the BBC and Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors, and drove the government scientist David Kelly to suicide. It is as if the exposure of the Watergate scandal had led not to the impeachment of President Nixon and the jailing of his henchmen, but instead to the sacking of the journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the story, the resignation of the editor and senior executives at the Washington Post, and the suicide of “Deep Throat”. The main difference between the two episodes is that Watergate concerned a burglary, whereas Gilligan’s was a rather more important story about an illegal invasion that has cost the lives of over 100,000 people. The architect of the BBC’s downfall was Alistair Campbell. While Woodward and Bernstein represented the best of journalism, telling truth to power, Campbell very definitely represented the worst. Interestingly, Greg Dyke himself noticed similarities with Watergate. In his memoirs he wrote of how Campbell had:

turned Downing street into a place similar to Nixon’s White House. You were either for them or against them. And if you opposed them on anything you became the enemy… I was quite shocked when writing this book by these similarities between the Nixon White House and Blair’s Downing Street.55

The American political system, however reluctantly and belatedly, called Nixon to account; the British political system has signally failed with regard to Blair.

The invasion of Iraq began on 19 March 2003. Its catastrophic consequences for the Middle East have been well documented.56 Far from learning from this disaster, however, the New Labour government, with the support of the Conservative opposition, remains absolutely committed to supporting the United States in future adventures. At the time of writing, a US military attack on Iran seems only a matter of time, inevitably with the support of the British government. Only the lies to be told and the pretexts to be invented remain to be decided. New Labour has actually reconfigured the British armed forces, so that their main role, for the foreseeable future, is to participate in America’s overseas interventions. British capitalism’s allegiance to the American Empire is for the time being sacrosanct. Only mass protest and mass resistance in Britain, in the United States and throughout the American Empire can bring this to an end.

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