For most commentators, British imperialism is a matter for the history books. It is neither polite, nor, it would seem, in the least accurate, to label Britain today as an imperialist power. Yes, there were the days of empire and colonies, they will argue. But apart from a few hangovers from the imperial past like Northern Ireland, and a string of tax havens around the world whose anthem is ‘God save the Queen’, like Gibraltar, Bermuda and the Bahamas (and many others), surely the ‘imperialist’ label is just a term of abuse with no real content in present day reality? After all, Britain now presides over a voluntary Commonwealth of 54 countries, not an empire.
However, this is to look at the form, not the content, of imperialism. Even in the colonial era, it was not always necessary to exercise domination through direct political control. The economic content of imperialism, a focus of this blog, is how the major powers derive economic privileges from their position in the global economy. This may be through violence and intimidation: do what we tell you, or else. But it can also be through other forms of exercising power to ensure the economic privileges are realised. As explained in the first article on this blog, The Economics of British Imperialism, 22 May 2011, the economic lifeblood of British imperialism today comes from earnings on direct capital investments overseas and from the UK-based global banking system, in its role as the broker for global capitalism. It is this that makes the UK more than usually prone to go to war, or at least to interfere in other countries’ business.
In this context, it was interesting to read a comment last month from a frank Labour imperialist, Lord West, the former First Sea Lord (2002-2006) under the previous Labour Government and later Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Security Advisor. In words that rang with pride in Britain’s imperial status, and annoyance at anyone who considered Britain to be second rate, he said:
“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, 22 September 2011
This is basically true, and the insults for ‘bloody Denmark or Belgium’ come naturally from one who thinks British imperialism is not always given its deserved status. Lord West fought for Britain against Argentina in the 1982 war over the Malvinas, and is less inclined to adopt the euphemisms of politicians.
Tony Norfield, 24 October 2011