Suggestions that Britain has limited influence in the modern world seriously underestimate the role Britain plays in the imperialist system argues Chris Bambery

Britain remains a key power in the 21st century, the sixth biggest economy and the fifth biggest military power. Reacting to the suggestion that the UK is a second rate power, Lord West, the former First Sea Lord and security adviser to premier Gordon Brown, responded thus:

‘This business of a second-tier power – we are probably, depending on what figures you use, the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation in the world.

‘We have the largest percentage of our GDP on exports, apart from the tiny countries around the world, we run world shipping from the UK, we are the largest European investor in south Asia, south east Asia (and) the Pacific Rim, so our money and our wealth depends on this global scene.

‘We are a permanent member of the (United Nations) Security Council and I think that gives us certain clout and certain ability.

‘These mean we are not a second-tier power. We are not bloody Denmark or Belgium, and if we try to become that, I think we would be worse-off as a result’ (Daily Telegraph on 22 September 2011).

Having attended Clydebank High School for part of his education Lord West knows a bit about Scotland and must be all too aware that Scottish independence could well leave the rump UK state looking like the two countries he rubbishes.

Lord West’s imperialist views are those of his class. The British ruling class still see themselves as an imperialist power and still regard themselves as having a god given right to be at the top table whenever, wherever. Yet this is not simply self-delusion. We can laugh at the British elites pretensions but the fact is that Britain remains an imperialist power. This is not just a legacy of its previous global dominance it also flows in part from the whole Thatcherite ‘project’ of the last three decades.

The Thatcherite ‘Recovery’

In the mid-1970s Britain looked like a basket case in terms of global capitalism. Working class insurgency saw workers strike and win over and over again, every attempt to boost productivity and profitability had failed, much of British industry was not at the races and the UK trade deficit hit an all time high. All this as the global economy was hit by the first post-war recession.

The ‘recovery’ under Thatcher aimed to take on and defeat the trade unions, restore Britain’s international prestige and offset its relative industrial decline by promoting finance. Britain already had in place the City of London, a key global financial player, and a portfolio of global investments, not least in the USA. The liberalisation of the City and financial transactions aimed at attracting investment from mainly North American and European finance with the City acting as a broker re-investing the capital and making money from such transactions.

By the midst of the last decade the City was the world’s biggest banking centre. It had the largest share of the global foreign exchange market and was in a leading position in all areas of finance with only the US ahead in some sectors.

Imperialism is not just about exploiting colonies or the Global South – it has always been about trade and investment between the imperialist states as each competes for position. In 2008, when financial service revenues hit a record high as the speculative bubble was about to burst, the City’s total net revenues for ‘financial services’ reached nearly £40bn: £15bn came from EU countries, £8bn from the US and Canada, and around £4bn came from Japan, Switzerland and Australia.

Imperialism is about a hierarchy of military, political and economic power. In 2008, of the world’s top 100 non-financial corporations – ranked by the value of the foreign assets they owned – 18 were American, 15 British and French, 13 German and nine Japanese.

The UK based corporations who make the top 100 were Royal Dutch/Shell (2nd place), Vodafone (3rd), BP (4th), Xstrata (37th), Rio Tinto (45th), Anglo American (46th), AstraZeneca (58th), National Grid Transco (62nd), BAE (63rd), WPP Group (67th), Unilever (71st), BG Group (73rd), GlaxoSmithKline (86th), SAB Miller (94th) and Diageo (99th). These are of course ‘British’ because they are formally based here not because the bulk of their activities are here.

If you look at the history of many of these corporations it is not pleasant reading and they are integrally tied into British imperialism’s bloody record.

When it came to financial institutions ranked by their foreign assets Britain tied with the US in top place, each having seven banks or financial institutions in the top 50. The British entries were Barclays, HSBC, RBS, Standard Chartered banks; Aviva, Old Mutual and Prudential asset managers.

The ‘Special Relationship’

The ties between the USA and the UK are not centred on affection of the heart but on hard economic facts. Figures from the Foreign Office for 2010/2011 show the US as being the biggest foreign investor in Britain. However, according to James JK Jackson:

‘With over $454 billion invested in the United States, the United Kingdom is the largest foreign direct investor […] Japan is the second-largest foreign direct investor in the U.S. economy with about $259.6 billion in investments. Following the Japanese are the Dutch ($259.4 billion), the Canadians ($222 billion), the Germans ($211 billion), and the French ($163 billion).’

Stories of Britain’s industrial demise are greatly exaggerated: Britain remains a global car producer thanks to Japanese and German investment and it is a world leader in chemicals, medicine and arms. Tesco is the third biggest global retailer. Yet the importance of the City of London is reflected in Gordon Brown’s bank bail outs and the policies of successive governments up to and including the current coalition.

Britain’s position in the world also rests on its military capabilities. This is linked to its global economic role because it has assets and interests to protect and maintain – not least in the oil industry – and is deeply concerned with the global well being of capitalism plc.

Britain is not simply a Sepoy of the United States, but the supposed ‘special relationship’ with the USA matters greatly to London, if not Washington:

‘Defence ties with America bring big benefits: intelligence is shared and Britain has preferential access to some American technology, not least the Trident missiles that help make Britain’s nuclear deterrent cheaper than France’s. But close ties bring dependence and obligation. In 2002 Mr Blair accepted that Britain had to pay a “blood price” for this special relationship. At moments of crisis, he said, America had to know that Britain was prepared to be there when the shooting starts’ (The Economist, 29 January 2009).

In retrospect the re-forging of the relationship with the USA was not a result of the shared regards between premier Margaret Thatcher and president Ronald Reagan but flowed from her decision to wage war in the South Atlantic 30 years ago.

‘The British decision to go to war’, Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, wrote in his memoirs, ‘was the first marker laid down by a democratic power in the post-Vietnam era to state unambiguously that a free world nation was willing to fight for a principle. The world paid attention to this […] [I]t was noted by the Soviets, too.’

Back in 1982 planning the USA was already planning to globalize NATO as means to vanquish the Soviet Union and to rebuild its capacity to intervene in the world militarily post-Vietnam. The Falklands War demonstrated that Britain could be a useful player and underlay Reagan’s decision to support Britain in that war, overcoming opposition within his own administration.

Looking back on the 30th anniversary of the war, Newsweek pointed out:

‘The Falklands War was a precedent-setting local war that became the first of a series of military interventions directed at non-Communist country in which the UK would be involved – Gulf War, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. In retrospect, the Falkland War makes perfect sense, given that the US supporting the UK would be in the forefront of such operations with its EU junior partners falling in line. In short, the Falkland War was a new type of operation on the part of an old imperialist country to pursue intervention without using the justification of ‘Communist threat’, but of fighting for freedom and democracy against a Third World dictatorship’ (Newsweek 6 April 2012).

Britain’s ability to wage war with Argentina was only made possible by Reagan’s decision to break a promise going back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 when a US president promised the newly independent states of Latin America that the old colonial powers would not be allowed to interfere or intervene in the Western hemisphere. As the USA outstripped the UK in the course of that century Whitehall had to accept that.

While the two countries were allies in two world wars that alliance hid the fact that Washington was determined to strip away British imperial power. In 1945 Britain was dependent on the USA in virtually every way and had to accept US economic dominance. In 1956 it had to swallow the fact that independent gunboat diplomacy was over when the Americans pulled the plug on the Suez invasion.

Its ally in that adventure, France, reacted by consolidating its emerging alliance with Germany, forging the heart of what would become the European Union. Britain decided to swallow its humiliation and tail the US, resisting attempts by Washington to shake it off on occasion.

That means Britain has been at war almost permanently since 1989 when the First Gulf War began. Of course there are costs in all of this for London, but costs which are still met, even in these times of austerity.

The UK is set to fork out £15 billion for the American JSF stealth fighter jets, also known as F-35, being built by Lockheed Martin in the US. Britain chipped in £2 billion for the JSF programme in 2001 making it the most generous of the eight ‘partner nations’ aiding the US project.

For the two huge British aircraft carriers being built, whose cost has soared from £3.5 billion to £6.2 billion, the original order was for US made short take-off and landing (STOL) fighter planes. The Cameron government canceled this planning a cheaper version where the planes were launched by catapult. During Cameron’s recent Washington visit he was told he should revert to the original order to demonstrate Britain’s commitment to global military ‘defence.’ The Ministry of Defence is currently ‘considering this’.

The replacement of Trident is crucial for Britain: it is the ticket to the top table. This is exactly how premier Harold Macmillan saw it when he begged president Kennedy to sell him Polaris back in 1962.

Britain must Break

Britain’s global position rests on its past role as a world hegemon. That was forged and maintained by a British ruling class with Scots well to the fore. The rise of Scottish nationalism and for independence reflects the decline of Britain.

Scottish independence would not summon the death knell for the City of London, BP et al or indeed Whitehall’s attempts to maintain its alliance with Washington. Nor would it guarantee Scotland was out of NATO, let alone the EU and IMF . We need to fight for that and mobilize Scottish workers behind an anti-austerity, anti-war campaign for independence.

But a Yes vote would be a big hit for the UK’s status as an imperialist power. As Thatcher understood regarding the Falklands, prestige is important and for the UK to lose Scotland – even if it is no knock out blow economically or militarily – would be seen as a diminution of its political power, throwing doubt on its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

That’s why David Cameron, Lord West and Ed Miliband hurt over the idea Scots might go their own way. That hurt is reason enough to support independence!

From International Socialist Group site.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.