Since achieving power in 1997, New Labour government ministers have ceaselessly made extraordinary claims about the morality of their foreign policies and wanting to be a ‘force for good in the world’. Never in British history has there been such a gap between government claims and the reality of policy.
The reality is that Britain under New Labour is a systematic violator of international law and ethical standards in its foreign policy – in effect, an outlaw state. It is a key ally of some of the world’s most repressive regimes that is consistently condoning, and sometimes actively aiding, human rights abuses. During a so-called ‘war against terrorism’, Britain is in fact one of the world’s leading apologists for, and supporters of, state terrorism by allies responsible for far more serious crimes than Al Qaida or other official threats. And, in the era of globalisa-tion, Britain under Labour is championing a fundamentalist economic ideology that is promoting the increasing takeover of the global economy by big business.
In the post-September 11th world, the threat of terrorism by organisations like Bin Laden’s Al Qaida is certainly real, but it is the policies of our own government, and our principal ally, the US, that are in reality the greatest threat to the public.
A web of deceit is obscuring this picture. People in Britain are largely unaware of what has been done in their name, even as government policies undermine our own interests. The public’s understanding of Britain’s real role in the world is being obscured by an ideological system – principally, the mainstream media – that is largely accepting at face value New Labour’s rhetoric on its moral purpose.
Current British foreign policies are generally not only immoral, but also dangerous, for the British public as well as others. These policies are helping to make the world more insecure, unequal and abusive of human rights. In the post-September 11th world, the threat of terrorism by organisations like Bin Laden’s Al Qaida is certainly real, but it is the policies of our own government, and our principal ally, the US, that are in reality the greatest threat to the public. It is in our self-interest, therefore, to press for fundamental changes to Britain’s role in the world.
Blair government claims are often extraordinary. Labour’s first Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, spoke of ‘putting human rights at the centre of foreign policy’ and outlined an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy one month after taking office. Tony Blair promises to help heal the ‘scar on the conscience of the world’, referring to poverty and conflict in Africa, and to ‘fight for justice’ globally. He ceaselessly stresses the concept of global interdependence and has outlined ‘a new doctrine of international community’, saying that national interest is ‘to a significant extent governed by international collaboration’. ‘We are all internationalists now’, he declared in a speech in Chicago in April 1999.1
The reality of Britain’s current and past role in the world can be shown by taking an independent look at current policy using a variety of sources beyond the mainstream and by revealing the formerly secret, now declassified government planning files.
Former Foreign Office minister Peter Hain has written of ‘our mission to conquer world poverty and build international peace and a world based upon justice, equality and human rights’. The International Development Secretary, Clare Short, says that British aims are to ‘systematically reduce poverty and promote sustainable development in the poorest countries’. Even the Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, says at every available opportunity that Britain is promoting ‘fair trade’ globally and is on the side of developing countries in the international trade negotiations that are reshaping the global economy. Officially, Britain is on the side of the angels.2
Never before has the public of a democratic country been subject to such an extraordinary ongoing tirade of propaganda. For the government is, quite generally, promoting actual policies that are directly opposite to this rhetoric.
The reality of Britain’s current and past role in the world can be shown by taking an independent look at current policy using a variety of sources beyond the mainstream and by revealing the formerly secret, now declassified government planning files. This book argues that we need to extricate ourselves from the web of reporting and analysis that obscures this reality and from the deceit promoted by the elite – and that behind the diplomatic language and presentation of policy-makers lies a peculiar British viciousness, evident all around the world, past and present. It is not that British elites are evil or that everything they do is immoral and dangerous. There are some exceptions to promoting generally unethical foreign policies – but they are few and pale in comparison with the broader picture.
Britain’s real role in the world is a great betrayal of people in this country. I believe they expect the government to uphold the moral values abroad that most people uphold in their daily lives. This is partly why, as I argue in this book, the public is in reality seen by elites as the great threat to pursuing their priorities.
In the chapters that follow, I look at some of the major foreign policies of the Blair government: its illegal wars; its support for a ‘war against terrorism’ that is acting as a pretext for a new phase of global intervention and US imperial power; its support for repressive elites and state terrorism; its arms exports that help sustain repressive governments; its aim to reshape the global economy; and its extraordinary new role as recognised international expert on state propaganda (mis-labelled ‘spin’).
I also tell the story of several long-forgotten past British interventions revealed in now declassified documents – in Iran, Malaya, British Guiana and Kenya. These interventions were much more brutal than usually believed and make exceedingly worrying reading – in Kenya alone, 150,000 Africans died as a result of British policy in the 1950s. These interventions reveal a contempt for grand ethical principles that has passed easily from Conservative to Labour and from the colonial era to the present.
To read many mainstream commentators’ writings on Britain’s role in the world is to enter a surreal, Kafkaesque world where the reality is often the direct opposite of what is contended and where the starting assumptions are frighteningly supportive of state power.
I also sketch an outline of the ideological system that prevents the public from seeing the reality of Britain’s role in the world. This system makes it easier for elites to pursue policies in their interests and against the public interest. It is not a conspiracy; rather, the system works by journalists and academics internalising sets of values, generally accepted wisdom and styles of reporting.
It means that even big stories can rarely if ever see the light of day. One example is how the British government was complicit in the genocide of Rwanda in 1994 that killed a million people. Another is Britain’s role in the slaughter of a million people in Indonesia in 1965 – a story as much buried as British complicity in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. Meanwhile, the people of Diego Garcia, thrown off their islands and the subject of a decades-long Whitehall conspiracy to banish them from history, continue to seek justice in a brave struggle but remain largely unknown to the British public.
The liberal intelligentsia in Britain is in my view guilty of helping to weave a collective web of deceit. Under New Labour, many commentators have openly taken part in Labour’s onslaught on the world, often showering praise on Tony Blair and his ministers for speaking the language of rights, development and global security as they proceed to demolish such noble virtues in their actual policy. To read many mainstream commentators’ writings on Britain’s role in the world is to enter a surreal, Kafkaesque world where the reality is often the direct opposite of what is contended and where the starting assumptions are frighteningly supportive of state power. My view is that the intelligentsia suffers from the same malady of ‘elitism’ as policy-makers, generally choosing to side with them, often being willingly taken in. The British liberal intelligentsia generally displays its servitude to the powers that be rather than to ordinary people, whether here or abroad.
The view has long been held that Britain ‘has lost an empire and not yet found a role’, in the famous words of US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, several decades ago. Yet Britain’s real role is easily discovered if we are concerned enough to look; the problem is that the results of such a search are quite unpleasant. Britain’s role remains an essentially imperial one: to act as junior partner to US global power; to help organise the global economy to benefit Western corporations; and to maximise Britain’s (that is, British elites’) independent political standing in the world and thus remain a ‘great power’.
In the final chapter, I end with some thoughts on the major challenges ahead if we are serious about changing for good Britain’s role in the world – a truly necessary task, in the light of its past and present record.