The Twilight of Empire State Britain
Sunday National, 22 August 2021
The UK’s reputation took another hit last week, as after the Brexit debacle and 150,000 dead from COVID-19 came the Afghanistan humiliation.
The calamity and chaos in Kabul has united people in shock and fury at the incompetence and hubris of the present UK Government in a way those other disasters have not. It has provided defining accounts of a rotten, venal Tory class of entitlement timeservers such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab – and a government that only cares about its own self-preservation.
It is much more than this. First, this is a geo-political humiliation of the UK on the scale of Suez and the Falklands invasion by Argentina. Second, it has illustrated the irrelevance of the UK as even a middle ranking world power and the paucity of the notion of “Global Britain” – for all the heavily spun right-wing rhetoric of Brexiteers.
At the heart of the Afghan tragedy and Britain’s role in a series of “forever wars” is the vice-like grip of Empire State Britain and its disastrous consequences – not just internationally but here at home. The immediate aftermath of the Afghan catastrophe saw in the Commons echoes of Munich and 1938, the Norway debate of May 1940, Suez and the Falklands. However with honourable exceptions a shrunken, enfeebled political class across all persuasions trotted out the same worn out clichés and homilies.
Before people wax too lyrically about the good old days when parliamentarians cited Shakespeare and classical history, a reality check is needed. The high Tory political class have always had a significant disdain for real work and hard graft, instead often celebrating the “gifted amateur” and the life of the “gentleman”. Dominic Raab and his cavalier attitude is the latest in a long line of disreputable Tories demeaning one of the great offices of state. For example, at a critical point in the early stages of the Second World War. Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary until December 1940, retired to his Yorkshire country home for a long weekend, and could not be contacted.
This week the Commons debate contained expressions of loss, bewilderment, anger and elegies for a diminished Britain. But there was also a continued clinging to the delusions of a past Britain. BBC Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall caught this saying “the Commons was engaging with a strategic position they’d like Britain to have rather than the one we inhabit.”
More powerful than the waffle from Tory, Labour and Lib Dem imperialists, hanging on to their illusions that Britain is still a world power that matters, is the reality that the UK at its core is an Empire State with consequences not just internationally, but domestically.
Britain’s Empire State is an entity which built statecraft, government and administration for military conquest, intervention, policing the world, protecting the UK’s commercial interests, holding onto Empire and overseas territories, and deterring and taking on aggressors and rivals.
The Empire State has been at the centre of what the UK is and its projection of power overseas, its inability to come to terms with its relative decline, and how it has tried to maintain global pretensions through its Atlanticist tendencies and by clinging to the fantasy of the supposedly independent nuclear deterrent.
The Empire State strikes back at home
What is seldom examined is the impact of the Empire State at home. Throughout history most imperial projects have not only had outcomes in the territories they conquered but also domestically. This is true from Rome and the Byzantine Empire to America at the height of its imperial power, over-reach and decline.
The US anti-war movement knew that as the country got embroiled in the quagmire of Vietnam, that US administrations (under LBJ, then Nixon) became increasingly authoritarian, intolerant and militarist at home whilst engaging in surveillance and illegal activities against anti-war protestors. The day Kabul fell – 15 August – marked the 50th anniversary of Nixon announcing the US was leaving the Bretton Woods international agreement taking the dollar out of the managed currency system and floating it – caused by US financial over-reach in Vietnam: a move which marked the beginning of the neo-liberal era.
The British Empire is alive and kicking in present debates about the UK, Black Lives Matter, slavery, statues, immigration and the Windrush legacy, racism, decolonising curriculums, the National Trust for England and much more. This debate is informed by the historic reality that the British public at home were shielded from the worst excesses of Empire by a right-wing imperialist press in the 19th century; a press which mostly to this day presents a rose-tinted view of Empire.
Britain’s Empire State reach can be underlined by a couple of key dates. First, since 1945 British armed forces have been on active duty every year, apart from one – 1968. That year represented a gap year between winding down operations in Aden and the start of the Northern Ireland deployment.
Second, the date that the British Empire as a formal entity ended is vague in official histories and politics; astonishingly it is within living memory. The Nationality Act 1981 removed the term “colony” from British law, and places like Bermuda became “British Dependent Territories” (now “British Overseas Territories”) rather than colonies. This change only came into effect on 1 January 1983 – the day the British Empire was legally abolished by the Thatcher Government which is rich in irony. Only of course the Empire lived on in other ways.
Britain’s “warfare state”
Historian David Edgerton has argued that the UK for much of its history has been a “warfare state” – meaning that not only was the UK primed to act in military conflicts and interventions, but the priority of making war and instruments of war.
This again has a domestic impact. For the country’s leading innovators, engineers, designers, crafts people, and builders, along with investors and R&D specialists and more were geared towards creating cutting-edge weapons of war.
This can be seen from the invention of the Dreadnought battleship pre-1914 to the Spitfire fighter plane which proved so crucial in the Battle of Britain. This sense of long-term prioritisation “crowded out” other peacetime activities – investment, R&D, resources and even ideas. And meant that post-1945 that the UK was at a disadvantage compared to many of its competitors.
Related to this was the role of the City of London which emerged as a citadel of finance, deals and legal contract as the scale of Empire became evident in the 18th and 19th century. Hence, the City was always linked into an earlier version of “global Britain” – a UK beyond the shores of these islands, based on offshoring, less concerned about manufacturing and making real things, and more about invisibles. Thus, the City of London has always been disconnected from the real economy being profoundly anti-industrialist and about a short-termist, speculator capitalism – all of which has harmed real businesses, and shaped how the Tory Party thinks of industry and commerce.
The British Empire State can be seen in the partial democracy which passes for politics and governance. A half-elected Palace of Westminster; Crown powers and prerogatives that are used to shield the executive from accountability; the Queen’s Consent and Prince of Wales Consent involving the industrial scale of use which has been revealed this year to protect the monarchy and heir to the throne’s commercial and private interests – assisted by the Scottish Parliament.
Post-EU membership UK citizens are not citizens in any substantive sense. We have no fundamental right which cannot be taken away by the UK legislature and executive. The right to vote (being undermined by the present UK Government), the right to protest (ditto in England and Wales), the right to a free press challenging those in power (Leveson), and the right to independent policing (the serial scandals of the Met Police). All of these could be removed, but are already being steadily eroded by the march of authoritarian government under Tories, Tories and Lib Dems and Labour.
The limited march of British democracy
Once upon a time the British labour movement was meant to provide the battering ram which democratised these rotten institutions of the establishment and built socialism at home. That story did not turn out as Labour pioneers and idealists such as Keir Hardie and James Maxton had envisaged. But it is historically more a story of inherent conservatism and kowtowing to the establishment than the betrayal thesis laid at the door of Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.
Take the case of when the UK established one person, one vote on an equal franchise. This was not as is commonly stated 1928: when the franchise between men and women was made equal. The date in Great Britain is the 1949 Representation of the People Act which abolished plural voting such as university constituencies (for graduates) and business voting. Thus the 1950 UK election was the first fought on one person one vote in Great Britain.
The story across the UK is even more stark. Northern Ireland did not abolish plural voting for Stormont and local elections – with its university representation and business voting – until 1969. Both of these acts – 1949 and 1969 – were passed by Labour Governments with the noble aim of dismantling the old feudal practices and rotten boroughs which represented Britain’s partial democracy.
But has Labour ever told itself and the rest of us this story? And why stop at elections for half a UK Parliament? Where is the democratic upper house after 33 years of Labour single party government? Where is the culture of citizenship and decision-making on economic and social matters as well as political democracy – the first two of which are hallmarks of any ambitious centre-left politics?
The Revenge of the Empire State of the Mind
Brexit is the Empire State of the mind. It is an English exceptionalism and dogmatism; the idea of “England as Britain” as a country which has renounced being a progressive and forward-looking modern country, and instead lives in a fabricated, selective version of the past – what Patrick Wright described as “on living in an old country.”
Returning to this week’s Commons debate – numerous speakers, mostly but not exclusively Tory, talked with anger and resentment of the Afghan withdrawal by US and UK forces, and pondered why the UK did not have the ambition or confidence to go it alone, or lead a coalition of the other states who are already there; 36 countries being involved in the NATO mission in 2020. They were in this sentiment still living in the Britain which has not yet come to terms with the formal end of Empire and still living in the mindset of Empire State Britain.
Armchair warriors in the UK and US lamented the end of the Afghan “forever war” which had lasted 20 years and seriously asked why we could not commit to another 20-25 years. This is the Permanent War Machine of the West: almost Orwellian in its imperial mindset and commitment.
Meanwhile for all their protestations the UK post-Brexit continues to shrink and sink into one of marginal influence. US President Joe Biden has spoken on the phone to Boris Johnson in the first seven months of his Presidency on only two occasions; over the same period in the Trump Presidency the US President and Theresa May had seven calls. There is no Biden-Johnson summit pencilled in. So much for the much vaunted (on the UK side) “special relationship”.
We have to call time on Britain’s Empire State. It is an entity from another age – that of pre-democracy – and is out of time and out of place. It has ceased to serve any constructive role on the international stage instead hankering after the world of military expeditions and conquest. But as critically, the Empire State’s continued existence hurts and harms the people of the UK.
The imperial folly, and with it the advocates and apologists for imperialism, have to be defeated, and a set of arrangements created for the peoples of the nations of the UK that are post-imperial, post-colonial, understanding that we can no longer let the ghosts and shadows of the past continue to define and govern us. The Afghan war, costly in lives and monies, and dishonestly sold and presented by our political elites, should mark the twilight of Empire State Britain.