British subordination to the United States, the so-called special relationship as it is optimistically known in London, is so taken for granted that it is seldom subjected to critical scrutiny. Why is it that the British ruling class and its agents have since 1945 come to embrace a junior partnership in the U.S. empire so wholeheartedly? Most recently, the “special relationship” has seen the New Labor government actively support and take part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq in the face of a hostile public opinion. Indeed, the largest demonstration in British history, on February 15, 2003, was against British participation in this unprovoked war of imperialist aggression. The lying, dishonest pretext for the invasion together with enforced association with George W. Bush effectively destroyed Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation (at least in Britain) and was an important factor in his eventual fall from office. The Iraq war, together with its neoliberal domestic policies, has seen Labor Party membership fall from 400,000 in 1997 to 150,000 today. Despite this, under Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, British allegiance to the U.S. flag continues without interruption with British troops killing and being killed in Afghanistan in a war that has no popular support in Britain beyond a reflex support for the troops on the ground, for “our boys.” This article will explore the reasons for and the history of this willing subordination.
Labor in Power 1945–51
The Second World War had been fought, as far as the British ruling class was concerned, to protect the British Empire from the threat posed by Nazi Germany and its allies. Although the Nazi threat was successfully destroyed, the British Empire nonetheless fell victim to the strains of total war. The war left Britain exhausted both militarily and economically. When the Labor government came to power in 1945, it found itself confronted by widespread colonial unrest, and at the same time dependent on the United States, an imperial rival that was intent on replacing British influence throughout the world with its own. The British had neither the economic nor military strength to hold onto their empire and were forced into an unwilling retreat.
The weakness of the British position was not immediately apparent. Initially, the Labor government was able to restore French rule in Vietnam and Dutch rule in Indonesia by bloody military interventions, to consolidate Royalist rule in Greece, and to suppress the left in Malaya, precipitating a guerrilla insurgency in 1948.1 Decisive, however, were developments in India where power had to be reluctantly surrendered to a Congress government that was regarded as dangerously left-wing. What the Labor government had hoped to achieve was the hand-over of limited powers to pro-imperialist politicians in a balkanized India where British power would still be dominant (a policy remarkably similar to U.S. policy in Iraq today). India would remain a loyal supporter of the British Empire with Indian troops available to fight in its wars, and British military bases would remain on the subcontinent. Prime Minister Nehru and the Indian National Congress, pushed on by widespread popular unrest, effectively thwarted this plan. While the Labor government seriously considered police action to crush Congress, it was reluctantly recognized that Britain did not have the military strength and economic resources to defeat the resulting rebellion. Moreover, Washington would not finance such an imperial endeavor: they wanted to replace the British, not prop them up. As Prime Minister Attlee warned his Cabinet colleagues, there was no “practical alternative” to evacuating India.2
What is truly remarkable is the way that Labor politicians were subsequently able to transform this story into a heroic episode of anti-imperialist statesmanship whereby Britain “gave” independence to India. The loss of India was a massive blow that seriously damaged British imperial pretensions.
What the British hoped for at this time was a partnership with the United States on relatively equal terms. Attlee and his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, were confident that economic recovery would restore British power. Indeed, the Labor government’s decision to develop British nuclear weapons was intended to strengthen their hand in relation to the United States rather than a response to any Soviet threat. As Bevin insisted:
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 have this thing over here whatever it costs…we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.3
Hopes of an equal relationship were soon eclipsed, however.
Even in the Middle East, which was regarded as a vital British interest, the British found themselves dependent on the United States. When the Iranians nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in May 1951, the Labor government considered military intervention to overthrow the nationalist Mossedegh government. The British minister of defense, Emanuel Shinwell, warned that if tough action was not taken, “Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries would be encouraged to think they could try things on; the next thing might be an attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal.”4 Plans for military intervention were abandoned “in the light of the United States’ attitude…We could not afford to break with the United States on an issue of this kind.”5 Eventually, the Mossedegh government was to be overthrown in 1953 by a CIA-sponsored coup, supported by the British, which installed the Shah in power. The United States replaced Britain as the dominant power in Iran and British control over Iranian oil was ended.
The Labor government had reluctantly come to recognize that while Britain still had global interests, the British state no longer had the power to protect them. Only the United States had the necessary economic and military resources. Consequently the keystone of British foreign policy became its alliance with the United States. In order to protect its global interests, Britain became a subordinate partner in the American empire. When British and U.S. interests conflicted, the British would, if necessary, sacrifice those interests in order to ensure that the United States remained the guarantor of Britain’s global interests. This relationship was often to prove difficult, sometimes humiliating, but the interests of British capital came first.
The Cold War
The Cold War played an important role in legitimizing the U.S. empire. While there certainly was a very real confrontation between great powers, it also provided a useful and convincing pretext for the exercise of U.S. power throughout the world. The overthrow of Mossedegh, for example, was justified as preventing a fictional Communist takeover, whereas its real motive was to secure control of Iranian oil. The British were wholeheartedly associated with this development. The Attlee government not only played an important role in the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, but later that same year allowed the United States to establish permanent military bases on British soil. Although taken for granted today, this was something absolutely without precedent and signaled a revolution in British foreign policy.
The price of the U.S. alliance inevitably had to be paid in blood. The outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 was initially not regarded as affecting any British interests and, moreover, British military forces were already seriously overstretched. What quickly became clear was that the dispatch of British forces to Korea was absolutely necessary if the “special relationship” was to be sustained. Eventually, a Commonwealth Division was to be sent to Korea, fighting in a war that for the British had no rationale other than that Washington required this sacrifice of their allies. To preserve the “special relationship” the Labor government committed Britain to one of the most brutal post-1945 wars—a war in which U.S. bombing laid waste to Korea and perhaps as many as three million people were killed.
What had been a dramatic demonstration of British subordination, however, was successfully turned into a story of the British exercising influence over the United States and restraining the U.S. military from even greater horrors. At the end of November 1950, President Truman indicated that the United States was seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons in Korea. This seriously alarmed Washington’s European allies who were vulnerable to any Soviet retaliation and on December 4 Attlee flew to Washington and supposedly succeeded in restraining Truman. This is a fiction, another invented tradition.
The Marxist, Ralph Miliband, dismissed it as “a legend.”6 The British did not prevent the United States from using nuclear weapons and received no veto over their use. The most they secured was the promise that they would be the first to know if and when the decision was made. What we can be absolutely certain of is that if the United States had used nuclear weapons, the Labor government would have supported them. After all, Attlee was already prime minister when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atom bombed and had given his full support to those crimes. It is also worth noticing that the Labor government had allowed the United States to equip its B-29 bombers stationed in Britain with nuclear weapons and had not even established a veto over their use! Nevertheless, this pretense at influence was to become one of the ways that successive British governments justified their subordination to the United States. Tony Blair, people in Britain were assured, was continually restraining George W. Bush. This was, of course, pure fiction.
While the Labor government had reluctantly come to terms with a junior partnership in the U.S. empire, its Conservative replacement still had illusions that Britain was a great power. In particular, the Conservatives were concerned to maintain Britain’s position in the Middle East. While both Iraq and Jordan remained British satellites, Egypt, with U.S. support, was trying to free itself from British control. In 1952 Colonel Nasser had come to power in Egypt and had sponsored a low-level guerrilla insurgency to encourage the British to leave. Once again the British recognized that they did not have the strength for a full-scale occupation and in July 1954 they finally agreed to evacuate.
This retreat was seen as a serious blow to the British position throughout the Middle East, one that was compounded when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. The British had been publicly humiliated. Moreover, Nasser was encouraging nationalist opposition to British influence throughout the Arab world. Prime Minister Eden concluded that either Nasser had to be destroyed or the British position was doomed. While Britain could not act alone, and any military intervention would certainly be opposed by the United States, Eden was persuaded that Nasser could be overthrown by a joint British-French-Israeli invasion.
Eden believed that a decisive military stroke would not only remove Nasser, but would also strengthen the British position vis-à-vis the United States. As early as 1954 he had complained that the Americans “want to replace us in Egypt,” indeed, “they want to run the world.”7 While the Labor Party had already come to terms with this, the British Conservatives had not. They were to have the realities of the “special relationship” forcefully brought home to them.
Together with the French and the Israelis, Eden agreed to a stratagem that makes the Bush-Blair duplicity regarding weapons of mass destruction look pretty tame. The Israelis would launch an unprovoked attack on Egypt and then Britain and France would invade under the pretext of “peacekeeping.” Even today the level of duplicity takes the breath away. The trouble was that it did not deceive anyone. It was absolutely clear that the Israelis were acting in collusion with Britain and France. Moreover, while the initial invasion was a success, a full-scale occupation would have been a very different proposition. It never came to that though. The Eisenhower administration was not prepared to tolerate independent action by the British and had no wish to see the British position in the Middle East strengthened. American political and economic pressure forced Britain and France into a humiliating withdrawal. One interesting point is that the United States also forced the Israelis to withdraw from Sinai (the pro-Israeli lobby had not yet achieved the level of influence it exercises today).
What is of particular interest is the different ways in which the British and the French responded to their humiliation at the hands of the United States. The French responded by looking to Europe as a counterbalance to U.S. power and adopted a resolutely independent stance. In 1966 De Gaulle closed down U.S. bases in France and the French spared no expense to maintain an independent nuclear weapons capability. The British Conservatives, who were extremely bitter about what they regarded as America’s betrayal, considered a similar response, but in the end decided that they needed the United States to protect their global interests. Under Prime Minister Macmillan the decision was made to never again defy the United States, but to embrace subordination. The Conservatives had learned their lesson. This approach was symbolized by the abandonment (for reasons of cost) of British nuclear weapons and the purchase of Polaris submarines from the United States in 1962.
In 1958, the British position in the Middle East was finally terminated by the overthrow of the puppet regime in Iraq. Macmillan recognized that Britain could not invade the country unilaterally, those days were over, but urged the United States to share in a joint occupation. The British even proposed that the United States should occupy Baghdad while they occupied Basra. Eisenhower refused.8
Harold Wilson’s Labor government that came to power in 1964 was wholeheartedly committed to the “special relationship,” but nevertheless constantly resisted U.S. pressure to send British troops to Vietnam. Why was this? First of all, the British were involved in fighting a guerrilla insurgency in their South Arabian colony and in an armed confrontation with Indonesia. At the height of the conflict with Indonesia, Britain had 59,000 military personnel in Malaysia. Even so, Wilson refused to send even a token force to show the flag in Vietnam. This was despite the diplomatic support that the Labor government gave to the United States. Indeed, Labor gave the U.S. war in Vietnam its full support, short of sending troops.
The reasons for this derive from the domestic political situation in Britain. If the Conservatives had won the 1964 general election, they would certainly have sent troops. Similarly, Wilson’s predecessor as Labor leader, Hugh Gaitskell, the candidate of the Labor Party rightwing, would have sent troops regardless of any opposition. Wilson, however, was elected Labor leader as the candidate of the left of the party and was dependent for his survival on their continued support. Sending troops to Vietnam would have been too much for the Labor left to swallow. Without any doubt, one reason for the obduracy of the Labor left, in contrast with their failure effectively to oppose the Korean War, was that the Cold War pretext had lost much of its potency by the late 1960s. The Vietnam War could not be successfully justified as a war against Soviet expansionism. Nevertheless, despite his refusal to send troops to Vietnam, Wilson’s continued support for the war led to a hemorrhaging of party membership and the emergence of an extra-parliamentary left organized around the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign.
The U.S. defeat in Vietnam led to a reassessment of the “special relationship” inside both the Labor and Conservative parties. Europe seemed to offer an alternative power bloc to the beaten United States. The Conservative government under Edward Heath that came to power in 1970 actually followed a Gaullist policy of deliberately distancing itself from the United States. This policy was decisively repudiated by Margaret Thatcher when she became prime minister in 1979. The “special relationship” was once again the keystone of British foreign policy.
To Baghdad and Beyond
The Labor Party that won the general election in 1997 was very different from the Labor Party that had held power in the late 1960s and late 1970s. The defeats Margaret Thatcher had inflicted on the trade unions in the 1980s had seriously weakened the labor movement. The balance of class forces in British society had been forcibly readjusted in favor of big business and the rich. These developments were reflected in the Labor Party. Rebranding itself New Labor, the party abandoned its historic reformism and instead embraced neoliberalism. The architects of the transformation were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both men fervently pro-American and, incidentally, both staunch Zionists.
Domestically, New Labor has carried Thatcherism even further than she had believed possible. A good case can be made that in policy terms New Labor is the most right-wing government in Britain since the Second World War and in some respects since before the First World War.9 New Labor embraced privatization with an enthusiasm that puts the Conservatives to shame (the National Health Service and state education are, for example, being privatized by installments), has presided over increasing levels of inequality, and has even abandoned any serious commitment to something as elementary as “progressive taxation.” New Labor ministers were completely unmoved when a private equity boss of all people expressed disquiet at the fact that his cleaner paid a higher rate of tax than he and other top executives did.10 Indeed, New Labor celebrates itself as the party of big business.
While New Labor has broken with everything that the Labor Party used to stand for as far as domestic policy is concerned, it has continued the British commitment to the “special relationship.” When Tony Blair took over as prime minister in 1997, his chief of staff told Christopher Meyer, the new ambassador to Washington, that his job was “to get up the ass of the White House and stay there.”11 Although somewhat crudely put, this is New Labor’s foreign policy in a nutshell. Given this, British support for and involvement in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq was inevitable. When in July 2002, Blair’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw, expressed some reservations regarding the invasion of Iraq, Blair responded quite correctly that not to support the United States “would be the biggest shift in foreign policy for 50 years.”12 New Labor was actively involved in the deception and barefaced lies that preceded the invasion. It hoped to profit from military victory, and instead found its support eroded by the horrific consequences of the war. For millions of British people, overwhelmingly people who would once have supported the Labor Party, Blair became forever “Bliar.”
Even with Blair gone, New Labor’s commitment to the “special relationship” remains unshaken, and, moreover, it is a commitment shared by the Conservative opposition. Britain is committed to support Washington’s wars. Indeed the British armed forces have been reconfigured under New Labor to play this role. The commitment in Afghanistan is open ended, but New Labor is also involved in U.S. proxy wars. Britain is helping prop up the puppet regime in Somalia and has been involved in helping train the Georgian army. The Ministry of Defense Web site immediately after the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia carried an announcement that joint training exercises with the Georgian army had been postponed. It was quickly taken down. And, the British have joined with the United States in pressuring Pakistan to allow NATO forces to treat Pakistan’s tribal territories as part of the Afghan theatre of war. Indeed, wherever Uncle Sam needs a helping hand, the British, if possible, will rush to offer support and assistance, as junior partners in the U.S. empire.
- The fighting in Indonesia was particularly fierce, with the British rearming surrendered Japanese troops to fight the nationalists. The city of Surabaya was bombed and shelled from the sea in one of the largest battles. British forces killed some twenty thousand Indonesians before handing their country over to the Dutch. This “dirty little war” has virtually disappeared from the record with histories of the 1945–51 Labor government almost without exception not even mentioning it, let alone considering what it tells us about the government’s colonial policies.
- Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary (London: William Heinemann, 1983), 360–61.
- Peter John, America and British Labor (London: I. B. Tauris, 1997), 57.
- Wm. Roger Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 673.
- Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East, 688.
- Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London: Merlin Press, 1979), 312. Miliband’s son, David, is, of course, the New Labor foreign secretary at the time of writing. While the father confessed that the Labor government’s support for the Vietnam War “made you vomit,” his son is made of sterner stuff. See Michael Newman, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left (London: Merlin, 2002), 111
- Evelyn Shuckburgh, Descent to Suez: Diaries 1951–1956 (London: Weidefeld and Nicolson, 1986), 167.
- Wm. Roger Lewis, “Harold Macmillan and the Middle East Crisis of 1958,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 1996, 94.
- See George Monbiot, “The government has been the most rightwing since the second world war,” The Guardian, May 20, 2008.
- See Sam Fleming, “City fat cats paying less tax than cleaners,” Daily Mail, June 5, 2007.
- Christopher Meyer, DC Confidential (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005).
- Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years (London: Hutchinson, 2007), 630.