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Britain: A new kind of imperialism



IN 1997, when the Tony Blair's Labour government first came to office, there was the expectation in some quarters that New Labour, as the party re-styled itself, would offer a radical alternative and a much needed change of direction after 18 years of Thatcherism and Conservative governments. Blair's governments since 1997 have claimed that there could be a so-called "third way" in foreign, as well as domestic, policy, but the reality has been not a radical break with past but an adoption of all that is most backward at home and abroad. A foreign policy that had an "ethical" dimension was at first promoted, but this was soon found to be no longer credible. It was then hastily followed by a foreign policy in which "humanitarian concern" and "enlightened self-interest" were alleged to be the main preoccupations. Whether acting alone, or in alliance with the US, in Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan or Iraq, Britain's governments have always sought to establish a moral or ideological justification for their actions.

Now, in the summer of 2005, a series of events have led to a situation in which Britain's foreign policy is coming under more scrutiny than ever before. It is a policy that, particularly in regard to Iraq, had already produced unprecedented opposition from millions of people in Britain. Now we have witnessed the G8 summit and most recently the bombing and attempted bombing of London's transport system that led to nearly 60 deaths. At the present time, it is the bombings, attempted bombings and their consequences that are making the headlines and filling the televisions screens every day. Rumours and speculation about the nature of the bombings and the motivation of the perpetrators are rife and in many quarters there is also speculation about the actions and motives of the government, police and security services. In particular there is great concern about the consequences of the bombings, the "shoot to kill" policy, racial profiling, Islamophobia, and the plans for even more draconian legislation that may even breach the European Convention on Human Rights; deportations, the banning of organisations, the closing of bookshops, websites and even mosques, which is being likened by some to the introduction of fascism in Britain.

A few weeks before 7/7, Britain had been presented with saturation coverage of the G8 summit, Live8 and African issues in general. An unprecedented publicity campaign had been unleashed focusing on Africa. Newspapers and television screens were full of African news, events, documentaries, films, and music. The main daily news programmes were broadcast from Africa, as were several popular TV shows. All this was accompanied by Africa 05, "the biggest celebration of African culture ever organised in Britain", partly financed by the British government. In case anyone was unaware of the fact, Tony Blair had made Africa, that "scar on the conscience of humanity", as he referred to it, the focus of Britain's presidency of the G8 and the European Union. Bob Geldof and Live8, and even the Make Poverty History campaign, were all co-opted as part of the British government's alleged attempts to persuade the leaders of the big powers that Africa's poverty and indebtedness must be brought to an end and the recommendations of Blair's Commission for Africa implemented.

But despite all these efforts, propaganda and disinformation, it is difficult to completely mask reality. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Scotland, not just to lobby the G8, as the British government had encouraged and instructed, but because they were thoroughly opposed to the neo-liberal agenda of all the G8 countries, Britain included. The deliberations of the G8 summit announced in the 32-page Gleneagles Communiqué [/i]were criticised from nearly all sides and were brought into stark relief by the crisis in Niger only a few weeks later. Once again however, the G8 summit, Blair's Commission for Africa and the British government's alleged humanitarian concern with Africa, had all thrown the spotlight on Britain's foreign policy and relationship with the African continent. The question was constantly being asked, just what is the British government up to in Africa?

But concern over Britain's involvement in Africa has now been superseded by other events, the bombings and attempted bombings in London. Two major questions remain unanswered: why did these terrible events take place in London and who organised them? For Tony Blair and the British government the answers are simple - these were terrorist atrocities inspired by an "evil ideology" and carried out by "Islamic extremists". But on the streets, and indeed throughout the length and breadth of the country, another answer to this question is being discussed. Britain is under attack, it is said, because of its invasion of Iraq, and other countries; because of its slavish alliance with Bush and the United States; as a result of its foreign policy of intervention and interference throughout the world. This is the answer that was presented in Security, Terrorism and the UK,[/i] a briefing paper based on a five-year government-funded academic research programme, and published by the eminently respectable Chatham House. It suggested that Britain was at particular risk from such attacks because, amongst other things, "it is the closest ally of the United States, (and) has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq".

The Chatham House report was followed by an ICM opinion poll published in the Guardian[/i], one of the country's main broadsheets, which showed that: "Two-thirds of Britons believe there is a link between Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq and the London bombings despite government claims to the contrary." Then the often outspoken Labour Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who was interviewed on BBC Radio, argued that several factors had created the conditions for such attacks to take place including: "80 years of western intervention into predominantly Arab lands because of the western need for oil." He went onto say that Britain and the US had "propped up unsavoury governments", and "overthrown ones we didn't consider sympathetic". He also added, "a lot of young people see the double standards, they see what happens in Guantanamo Bay, and they just think that there isn't a just foreign policy," and he denounced "those governments which use indiscriminate slaughter to advance their foreign policy". Similar links between Britain's foreign policy and the London bombings were even made by the British security service MI5 and by one of those arrested in connection with the failed bombing of July 21.

But the fact is that as yet there is no clear answer to the question of who was responsible for the bombings of 7/7. Indeed, at the present time almost nothing is being said officially about the investigation of this atrocity. Instead all the attention is being focused on those allegedly involved in the events of July 21. Even in this case it is a murky business and people are loathe to give any credibility to the explanations offered by the police and politicians. Nevertheless, the terrible events of July 2005 have, despite all the efforts of the British government, once again placed the spotlight on Britain's foreign policy, on the policy of intervention that has been the hallmark not only of the present government but also of its predecessors.

The Blair government's foreign policy has been based on the need to establish a "new kind of imperialism", as Robert Cooper, the government's former foreign policy advisor, called it, in the context of the conditions that exist in the world at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. According to Cooper, this new kind of imperialism would be "one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values". In Cooper's view, "post-modern imperialism" takes two main forms: the "voluntary imperialism of the global economy", necessary and benign and operated under the auspices of the IMF and World Bank; and "the imperialism of neighbours", equally necessary when "instability in your neighbourhood poses threats which no state can ignore". Cooper adds one additional point; he argues that Osama Bin Laden has demonstrated that the whole world can now be considered "our neighbour", and that therefore intervention can be justified almost anywhere. It has been the aim of the British Labour government, both before and since 9/11 to develop this "new kind of imperialism", which in many respects borrows not only the methods but also some of the justifications of the old imperialism of the 19th century.

Britain, and the other big powers, developed their "post-modern" imperialism in the conditions brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ending of the bi-polar division of the world and the striving of the US for a unipolar world. They codified their values, what were then called "fundamental human values", and are now referred to by Blair and others as "universal values", in the Paris Charter, signed in 1990 at a meeting of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, by all the countries of Europe, as well as Canada and the US. This document was a declaration that the big powers would strive to impose on the entire world their Eurocentric values: the free market economy, political pluralism and representative democracy, the rule of law and human rights based on the sanctity of private property. These were to become "universal values", to be adopted and upheld by all. It is during the last 15 years, and in the face of the growing global opposition, that the big powers have sought to impose these values, as a means of re-ordering the world as best suits the interests of the big monopolies and financial institutions. The so-called war against terrorism is but the latest and most dangerous phase of this offensive for neo-liberal globalisation.

The Labour governments of Tony Blair have gone out of their way to try to develop this "new kind of imperialism" as part of the stated aim of making Britain "great" again, in other words in an attempt to turn the clock back to the times of the British empire, which Blair himself has referred to as " a most extraordinary achievement", and striving to make Britain a key player, not only in Europe, but also in the global market. Following the tried and tested approach of previous post-war governments, Blair has recognised that the best way of achieving this aim is to tie Britain as closely as possible to the coat-tails of the United States, and therefore British governments pride themselves on being the most loyal ally of America, although in recent years even this subservient position has been justified as being one that enables Britain to exercise a moderating influence on the American government. Blair's governments have thus often appeared as the ideologists or apologists for the Anglo-American alliance, attempting to provide a moral veneer of respectability, a human face for all aspects of neo-liberal globalisation, including the well-know breaches of international law, disregarding of the UN and its Charter and armed intervention throughout the world.

One of the main ways in which Blair's government's have acted has been to present military intervention as justified on the grounds of "humanitarian concern", a 21st century version of the notions of "white man's burden" and "civilising mission" that were favoured by the 19th century imperialists. British governments have utilised this approach particularly in their dealings with African countries, many of them former colonies such as Sierra Leone. In fact Britain's intervention in Sierra Leone, its first colony in Africa, has been almost continuous for the last two centuries. Britain's role in the colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of that country, now one of the poorest in the world but at the same time one of the world's leading producers of diamonds, is conveniently forgotten. It is also conveniently forgotten that Blair's government was involved in attempts to break the UN military sanctions imposed on Sierra Leone in 1997 and restore to power the president, Ahmed Kabbah, who had been ousted by a coup. Rather the British government has widely promoted its alleged humanitarian role in Sierra Leone and other African countries and has attempted to create the impression that it is Africa's greatest friend. These efforts culminated earlier in 2005 with Blair's Commission for Africa and the events surrounding the G8 Summit at Gleneagles. But the notion of "humanitarian concern" has been used much more widely, as the basis for military and other forms of intervention, and was of some significance in terms of justifying intervention in both Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

In regard to Africa it is significant that British governments make no mention of the colonial legacy, nor the crimes carried out by Britain in Africa during, before and after the colonial era. Indeed, last year there were those infamous remarks of Gordon Brown, Britain's Chancellor and the man widely seen as Blair's successor, to the effect that Britain should stop apologising for colonial rule in Africa. But there has never been any official apology, let alone reparations for these crimes. This is most glaringly obvious in regard to Zimbabwe but also in Kenya, Sudan and elsewhere. The professed humanitarian concerns masks the reality of continued interference by Britain, in one form or another, by the demand that African countries continue to accept Eurocentric political institutions, the privatisation and dependency of their economies, and the exploitation of their human and other resources.

The notion of failed and failing states is another part of the arsenal of justification for global intervention in which British governments have played a significant role. We could say that they have functioned as both propagandists and practitioners of the ideas of Cooper and others. According to these ideas, there are states that are "pre-modern", those countries that are poor and often former colonies, where the state, as recognised by the big powers, has ceased to exist or for a variety of reasons is weak. In such states it is necessary, so it is claimed, for the big powers to intervene under the guise of good neighbourliness, in order to prevent countries descending into anarchy, or falling prey to criminals, or what are usually referred to as terrorists. Of course, so the argument goes, it is no use waiting until states have totally failed, what is important is to recognise the signs of failure so that their can be pre-emptive intervention in states that show signs of "failing". It is particularly significant that it is the Eurocentric criteria of the big powers that will determine whether a state has failed or is failing, but at the same time it is asserted that that such failure is only likely to occur in those states where it is advantageous, for geo-political or economic reasons for the big powers to intervene. The theory of failed and failing states is particularly concerned with those states that were either former colonies or that might be considered ripe for colonisation or re-colonisation in the future. It is also significant that the theory asserts that in dealing with these states entirely different laws should be applied. "When we are operating in the jungle," Cooper states, "we must also use the laws of the jungle."

In Britain, Labour governments have historically been linked with the workers and trade union movement, although in the past this has not in any way prevented them administering an empire, nor developing foreign policy which it is difficult to distinguish from those of their political rivals. In 1997 New Labour came to office not promising to be the party of labour but rather the party of business. It jettisoned any vestiges of social democracy from its programme but sought to make use of those sentiments and traditions that still bound many people to it. No doubt it was the perfect vehicle to attempt to develop a new acceptable kind of imperialism.

However, it cannot be said that in this aim Britain's Labour governments have been entirely successful. Even before 9/11 there was growing and widespread opposition to a world based on the medieval principle that "might is right", a world where the big powers ride roughshod over the UN and international law and just do as they please. There was also mass opposition to neo-liberal globalisation and its consequences throughout the world, in rich and poor countries alike. Despite all the attempts to persuade people that globalisation is a positive phenomenon with a human face that can bring prosperity to all, facts remain stubborn things. Even the British government's alleged humanitarian concern with Africa, so-called debt relief, poverty reduction, aid and fair trade, is increasingly seen as being more concerned with "conditionality", privatisation, dependency and intervention. Indeed after 9/11, people in Britain, and many other countries too, were even less inclined to support military intervention, the view that "might is right" and the policy of resolving the world's problems by threats and violent means. Opposition to all forms of terrorism, necessarily including state terrorism, remains widespread, while the demand for another world is becoming louder and more insistent.

The notion of a new kind of imperialism remains firmly wedded to the racism and Eurocentrism of the past. Its "civilising mission" is the export of "good governance" and "stability and liberty" from the strong to the week, the establishment of proxy states that can do the dirty work of the big powers, and protectorates and mandates that are open for investment and exploitation. As in the past the aim is to create the fiction that, as far as possible, all this is based on the voluntary principle, that all have adopted the "universal values". The attempts to create a new kind of imperialism are also based on the notion that this is necessary because of an alleged lack of imperialism, because of the "death of imperialism". But the death of imperialism seems to be very much exaggerated. Monopoly capitalism remains alive even if it is moribund. The classic features of imperialism identified at the beginning of the last century also seem to be much in evidence and continuing to create enormous problems even for those who deny their existence. The mega-mergers and monopolisation of all aspects of economic life, the quest for new markets and sources of raw materials such as oil, the contention between the big powers and their blocs for a re-division of the world are features that are difficult to deny and have led to the current increasingly dangerous and unstable world.

The British government has recently announced a whole raft of new measures that it claims are necessary to protect "our way of life". It will, for example, attempt to make it an offence to promote the use of violence for political ends. But such laws will not be used against those who invade or declare war on other countries, nor those who justify the use of violence in international affairs, or against states such as Iran, Cuba and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It now seems to many of us in Britain that what is new about this new kind of imperialism is that its consequences are evident not just abroad, in far away places, but at home too, in a way that increasingly is affecting everyone's lives. The significance of Britain's recent foreign policy is not just that it arrogantly claims to be exporting freedom abroad but rather that it is also leading to the increasing curtailment of freedom at home.

Source: Radical History Review, Spring 2006, Issue 95: "New Imperialisms"



* Hakim Adi is reader in the history of Africa and the African Diaspora at Middlesex University in London.

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