Britishness and a Bliar’s Farewell
by Gwydion M. Williams
“I have been very lucky and very blessed. This country is a blessed nation.
“The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.” [A]
Thus spoke Tony Blair, when he finally agreed to quit British politics. A lot of what he said was bland and acceptable. You can even sympathise with his mentioning of his father’s life cut short at the age of 40 by a stroke. Until you remember all of the other lives cut short at 40 or less, thanks to damn-fool policies that Blair still seems proud of:
“Removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taliban, was over with relative ease.
“But the blowback since, from global terrorism and those elements that support it, has been fierce and unrelenting and costly. For many, it simply isn’t and can’t be worth it.
“For me, I think we must see it through. They, the terrorists, who threaten us here and round the world, will never give up if we give up.
“It is a test of will and of belief. And we can’t fail it.” (Ibid)
Saddam was not supporting global terrorism, and Blair has no excuse for not knowing this. After being broken in the First Gulf War, Saddam was no threat to anyone. As a secular ruler, he was inherently the foe of al-Qaeda.
Anyone who wanted a westernised and secular Iraq but was against Saddam was a fool. Bush and Blair accumulated a nice collection of such fools, and thought they had suitable collaborators to make a more pro-Western Iraq after an invasion. But the British public objected, so Blair helped create panic over Saddam’s supposed ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The infamous 45 minutes claim related to poison gas that Saddam might have been able to use on a battlefield, not anything long-range.
On the big demo against the war, Blair’s picture appeared beside the slogan ‘BLIAR’. It would be a fitting tribute if ‘bliar’ became part of the language, a neat term for statements that are not technically untrue but which deliberately imply something that is known to be false.
The whole “anti-terrorism” game has become ridiculous, undermining the other strand of Anglo politics, the attack on effective and insubordinate governments for being violators of human rights. If Anglos throw away the rulebook under just a little pressure, what credibility do they have when lecturing regimes that are having to build up a system from weak beginnings? Only a complete fool would argue that holding someone’s head under water is anything other than torture, as the USA has done and as Blair has gone along with. It’s convenient for torturers because it doesn’t leave marks, and I’d suppose it’s also useful that the victim always knows that they are close to death. People who deny the truth about ‘waterboarding’ have totally lost touch with truth.
With Saddam’s repressive regime gone, all of the stuff he had been repressing has emerged in strength. There is no more secular Iraq: if it has a future as a coherent political entity, then it will be as a religious authoritarian state. Christians and a number of ancient small unique religions had been safe under previous governments and now looked doomed.
As for the Taliban, they had given refuge to al-Qaeda but were willing to listen to evidence after 9/11. It’s quite possible they would have expelled them in return for being left alone to pursue their own version of Islam. And that was just the problem – both Taliban and Saddam were trying to live their own way without being ordered around by the West, in the way that Africa is now mostly ordered about. The long-term target was probably China, to be threatened with the confiscation of Tibet in the same way that Kosovo was ripped from Serbia. But this needed success in Afghanistan and Iraq, to be maybe followed by Iran and North Korea. It hasn’t worked.
The New World Order was a piece of dirty politics from the very start. The NATO countries and especially the USA and Britain have viewed themselves as World Bosses since the Soviet collapse. Rather than reform the United Nations, they have left it as a shell that can endorse whatever they do after they do it, or else be ignored.
I’ve explained elsewhere that ‘globalisation’ is really SubAmericanisation, a vision of the world in which the USA decides how other countries should live and subverts or attacks them if they don’t obey. This was pretty much how the British Empire operated in its last phase, with the USA as a partner. Britain attacked China in the Opium Wars because China did not need British trade and because the Chinese government was trying to stamp out the opium trade, vital to the prosperity of Britain’s East India Company. The USA sent Commodore Perry to intimidate Japan when Japan just wanted to be left alone. No one was supposed to be different from the Anglo way of life.
Anglo rather than ‘Brit’, which is a local concept unfit for global treatment. The core of Britishness in Englishness. The presence of a single gigantic nation on a medium-sized island made it pretty much certain that a single political unit would emerge dominated by that nation. There are currently 57 million people in Britain and 45 million of them are English. More than 7 in 10, so obviously English views dominate. As does the English dialect of the East Midlands, which was the speech of Oxford, Cambridge and the richer elements in London.
Britishness let Scotland work with England without being overwhelmed by the larger richer nation. Later on, Britishness served as a convenient label to allow a number of smaller communities to merge their interests with the English. Non-whites who have assimilated tend to identify themselves as British, not English.
But it could have been a local Britishness, with no great interest in the wider world. Sweden chose that option, after trying for a few generations to build a European empire in competition with its neighbours. Britain chose a different option, not seeking territories on Continental Europe but concentrating on the weaker peoples beyond, cultures that had not properly assimilated the ‘mindware’ of Europe’s scientific revolution.
Britain built a very unusual world-empire: all of the big empires conquered their neighbours and assimilated their own cultural area before trying to conquer more distant peoples. Spain and France both sought to dominate Europe as well as to extend their power in the wider non-European world. England, later expanded to be Britain, worked with a series of European powers while accumulating power outside of Europe.
Britain after the ‘Wonderful Year’ of 1759 was dominant in both North America and the Indian subcontinent, well-placed to also seize the mysterious land called Australia. Britain was in a position to define the future course of the world. And defined it badly, a system that forced the world to change, but pushed it in directions that the rulers of Britain had never intended.
At home, Britain’s rulers relied on power-sharing between the Monarch, the House of Lords and a House of Commons under the effective control of a few hundred rich families. Overseas, the military victory in the Seven Years War was a triumph for both Britain and Prussia, Prussia being favoured by Britain as a power without colonial ambitions and a useful foe of the rival global empires of France and Russia. But both France and Russia were willing to include outsiders in their political elite: Britain repeatedly failed to do this. When Wilkes campaigned for ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, he also freely used English prejudice against the Scots, still viewed as foreign and unwelcome in England. He drew back and his movement was ruined when this same bigotry was re-channelled against Catholics and against Irish by Scotsman George Gordon in the Gordon Riots.
The little-mentioned context of the Gordon Riots was an attempt to recruit more Catholic Irish for the war against the American colonies. Many of Gordon’s followers saw the American War of Independence as a renewal of the British Civil Wars that had ended in an uneasy compromise in 1688. They were probably wrong to do so: if New England was a refuge for Puritans, Virginia had been a refuge for Cavaliers during the Commonwealth and the new Republic was not intended to be a democracy by most of its founders. But in Britain, the war in North America was a proxy struggle that settled whether George 3rd would succeed in restoring monarchical power and curbing the irregular liberty of the House of Commons. Elsewhere, similar movements did succeed – in Sweden, for instance, where Gustav III imposed a new constitution in 1772 and was functionally an absolutist monarch. Had the American colonies lost their war for independence, there might have been no later development of democracy.
The North American colonies had been provoked by the narrow-mindedness of the London government. They had actively campaigned to be fully incorporated into the system, to be allowed to send their own MPs to the Westminster parliament. This was logical, on the assumption that the House of Commons was to remain the centre of government power. Had it been granted, it is unlikely that a North America with the thirteen colonies separately represented in the Commons would ever have found the unity necessary to secede. New England would have gravitated naturally to the Whigs, while Virginia and the rest of the South would have gone to the Tories, with states like New York contested between the two trends.
That would have kept a unified British Empire, but also an Empire in which the rowdy and populist voice of North America would have had increasing weight. It would have speeded the democratisation of Britain, accelerated the changes that happened historically from the 1780s to 1950s, with considerable regression during the 1782-1802 war with Republican France and then the 1803-1815 wars with Napoleon
My belief is that the British ruling class make no mistake in their handling of British North America, except that they over-estimated their own ability to crush a rebellious people by military means. They were not democrats and did not want a democratic future. The best chance for their sort of future was to take on and smash rebellious North America. Had they managed to destroy Washington’s Continental Army then they would have succeeded. Backwoods guerrillas might have hung on for decades, but with no more significance than the irregular resistance of the Native Americans. The Backwoodsmen were in fact divided during the War of Independence, some of them preferring a distant British government to an American government better placed to control them.
If the British ruling class was foolish in its treatment of mostly-white colonies, it was considerably worse when the subject population was non-white. Initially this was probably a matter of expediency – British settlers brought with them the idea of some sort of representative government, though generally with votes for just the richest males and often with religious qualifications. But the British elite never liked democracy, not even limited democracy with rights mostly for the gentry. Where it could be avoided, it was avoided. In Hong Kong, autocracy was retained right up until the 1980s, when someone had the bright idea of introducing Western-style democracy after it had been agreed that Hong Kong would be handed over to People’s China.
Britain could not be defined as a democracy before 1884, when the vote was extended to 60% of the adult males living in the British Isles. Nor had the secession of a chunk of English society in North America established democracy. US states varied a lot in the early days. But most had a limited franchise for the first generation or two of independence.
In the US South, there was an inherently subservient attitude towards their local plantation-owners. Poor people mostly had the vote, but kept voting for the rich.
Britain kept the slave trade till the start of the 19th century, kept slavery till the 1830s. The USA was actively expanding negro slavery into new lands up to the 1860s. That was the cause of their Civil War: the South resented the failure of the Federal government to extend slave-ownership into Kansas, which had been split from Nebraska just so that the slave-owners could have some fresh lands to spread their system into.
Britain entered the 20th century as the world’s biggest empire, but alarmed by the way in which both the USA and Germany were catching up. Britain’s 1905 Liberal government made secret preparations for joining in on the French side, should another French-German war occur. The rights and wrongs of the way war started in 1914 may never be settled—though Britons nowadays are embarrassed that the initial issue was German opposition to the Serbian claim to Bosnia. Still, you could fairly say that they way the Empires had built up their armies and navies was going to produce a war quite soon, regardless of the issue.
What’s much clearer is that Germany was ready to call the war a draw when their first fast offensive did not yield the sort of swift victory that they had won against Austria in 1866 and France in 1870. It was Britain that decided to carry on with the war, in the hope that Germany would collapse first. In the event Tsarist Russia was the first major casualty. Had the USA not decided then that it would get involved, Germany might have scored a definite victory. A victorious Germany would have been likely to have remained a Constitutional Monarchy, democratising at about the same pace as Britain was. The short-lived Western-style Republic in Russia would probably have lasted: it was failure in a renewed war with Germany that doomed it. Such a world would have been very different, and also it would not have been dominated by Anglo values as actual history has been.
Hitler rose to power with covert British approval. A boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympic would have sent a clear warning and might have made Hitler pause. He’d already begun rearmament, imposed a monstrous apartheid system on the Jews and established a personal dictatorship. But Hitler in 1936 was quite popular in both Britain and the USA, seen as a bulwark against Soviet Russia, with some hope that any war he waged would be to the East. Britain and the USA were also very happy to stand back and see the democratically-elected government of Spain overthrown by Fascists.
In the event, Fascism was a gigantic ‘blowback’ for Britain, with the tool turning on its creator. The British Empire was fatally damaged and was gradually and messily wound up. Meantime the USA took over as the Western champion in the Cold War, an experience that changed it utterly. The USA in World War Two was still committed to racism and racial segregation. If the Soviet Union had not been there as a counter-balance, would the USA have ever abolished the legal and open segregation that the South had been developing and extending for decades? (Unofficial segregation continues, of course.)
There was a time in the 1970s when it looked as if Britain, at least, was going to change its nature and settle down as part of Europe. Virtually the entire left in Britain was solidly against this, imagining that Britain was set fair for socialism and that the Common Market would get in the way. We in the Bevin Society were among a very small number who saw that this was not so, and that Continental European influence on Britain would be positive. Our position has stood the test of time. Labour Leftism failed in part because most of the left kept up a stupid anti-European attitude long after they should have adjusted to the new reality.
Britain has also justified de Gaulle’s fears that Britain would be an obstacle to Europe asserting itself independently of the USA. He vetoed Britain’s first application on just this basis, and the European Community would be much better off if this line had been stuck to.
Then there’s NATO. While the Soviet Union was still a threat, there was justification for NATO. But instead of dissolving NATO when the Russian Army pulled out of Eastern Europe, NATO has been kept in being and has marches eastward in a decidedly dangerous manner. Supposedly it stands for freedom, but ‘freedom’ has in practice meant a demand that the world conform to Anglo values.
Britain lost an empire and has found a Swiss role. Thatcher and Blair have helped make us a global repository for free-flowing money, much of it pretty dirty in its origin. Also a global supplier of skilled soldiers for other people’s wars, much as the Swiss used to provide mercenaries all over the place.
There were good reasons why the British Empire fell apart, and why our former non-white colonies have mixed feelings about that era. The British Empire had a muddled ideology. Enlightenment ideas had spread widely, and enlightenment culture in principle applied to all races. In practice not, and racism grew as an ideology in the late-18th and early 19th century.
The British in India were the first outsiders to avoid being captured by the culture. This would have been fine, if the attitude had been non-racist and willing to accept educated Hindus and Muslims who could acquire the right cultural values. If the 18th century elite had stayed in power, this might have happened. But the limited democratisation that happened in 1832 gave power to narrow-minded bigots who liked their own privileged status as white men and Britons. As in the USA, they were intent on keeping down those below them and failed to see that such a system was unstable.
Winston Churchill in the 1930s moaned about Ghandi being “a seditious Middle-Temple lawyer”. He failed to note that Ghandi had not been given the social standing that British society normally gave to Middle-Temple lawyers. He wasn’t white, so any white person could push him around with general social approval:
“He was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg, after refusing to move from the first class to a third class coach while holding a valid first class ticket. Travelling further on by stagecoach, he was beaten by a driver for refusing to travel on the foot board to make room for a European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the journey as well, including being barred from many hotels.” [B]
That’s your ‘blessed nation’, Mr Blair. A bunch of bigoted fools who didn’t see the inconsistency between allowing non-whites to obtain the highest qualifications in the British educational system and then denying them the normal status that should have come with those qualifications. It was not just wrong, it was stupid, since such a situation was obviously unjust. Those racists who made sure the ‘lesser peoples’ stayed uneducated were being self-consistent. Doing a bit of each was bound to fail.
Among the extended British elite of the Empire, the fight was always to stop people ‘going native’. But though they pompously compared themselves to the Roman Empire, they failed to learn the most useful lesson that Empire had to teach them, the assimilation of anyone who could acquire the culture. In all of the non-white colonies, the local elites were not properly assimilated and remained subordinate to second-rate Britons who were pig-ignorant of wider culture.[C]
The British Empire from the 1830s became a wastrel state. The British norm is to hail the Victorian era as our high point: in fact it was then that Britain threw away its advantage and almost guaranteed a 20th century decline. They lost the Empire by keeping up a racial barriers until it was much too late – and not even dropping them then, really. They wasted British’s industrial lead by neglecting science and being reluctant to educated the workforce.
The High Liberalism of the mid-19th century broke down, and has never recovered. It broke down when British politics started getting democratic. The General Election of 1885 was the first in which a majority of adult males had the vote, and a lot of them chose not to give it to the Liberal Party. In the longer run, Liberalism withered and was replaced by Labourism.
Labourism guided Britain away from its decaying Empire and into a better new life. It should have advanced further in the 1970s, with workers control and further social regulation of the economy. This was messed up by the Left’s errors, including the fantasy-Leninism of the various Trotskyist groups. The current bust-up in Respect has produced the complaint that the leadership of the ‘Socialist Workers party’ “arrogantly refuses to countenance any situation in which they are not dominant and do not exercise control.” That’s exactly what they were like in the 1970s, hostile to any socialist advance not under their leadership.
There has never yet been an effective Trotskyist movement, never an effective Leninism that did not recognise that Leninism and Stalinism were in fact the same thing. The Trotskyist role has been to block moderate socialism because it isn’t Leninist, and then balk at the logic of further action because it seems rather like Stalinism. Politics stalled at an ineffective version of Leninism, when what was needed was to accept Leninism / Stalinism as a part of history, something necessary to get rid of Imperialism and Fascism but something we could now move on from.
Things haven’t yet moved on. Britain remains deadlocked while the world moves on.
Thatcherism was a mass outbreak of traditional British stupidity and saw an actual decline of Britain’s relative strength, thought they believed things were wonderful again. Britain’s world role is to be Deputy Dog to whatever idiot the US elects. Blair, regrettably, chose to stick to this when he had many other options. Chose to cosy up to Bush when he had the option of keeping his distance until the US chose someone more sensible. Former Tory leader Harold Macmillan had sense enough to keep Britain out of Vietnam. Blair plunged head-first into the Afghan and Iraq adventures, certain that this was needed for the New World Order.
And now it’s all breaking down.
[A] [http://keeptonyblairforpm.wordpress.com/transcript-tony-blair-retirement-speech-10th-may-2007/] Tony Blair’s Retirement Announcement To His Sedgefield Constituency, 10th May, 2007
[B] Wikipedia, article on Mahatma Gandhi, as of 5th November 2007. The 1982 film of his life shows the train incident but not the rest.
[C] You find a good description of this in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. But Orwell’s own attitudes are odd: every single Burmese you see in any detail is a nasty character.
First published in Labour & Trade Union Review in 2007.