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The War Economy

A short extract from StWC Vice Chair, Chris Nineham's new book How The Establishment Lost Control


'Shocking in itself, the Iraq War revealed just how low the political elite was prepared to go in support of corporate interests'

The British establishment’s return to fighting full blooded foreign wars is closely tied up with its front edge role in the neoliberal experiment. The choice to participate in a series of wars has come fairly naturally to the leaders of the world’s first and biggest modern colonial power. Partly as a function of its post-colonial position, Britain has unusually large investments and strong connections around the world. As a series of Ministry of Defence security reports insist, Britain’s interests abroad need defending in a more and more contested world. Britain’s chosen role as a bridgehead between Europe and the USA means support for the adventures of the world’s greatest superpower are pretty much non-negotiable. But the wars are not simply an expression of subordination to the USA. The Chilcot Report noted that Tony Blair and his coterie ignored a series of expert warnings of the consequences of the Iraq War. But it is notable that, despite the briefings, despite massive opposition and political turmoil in the country at large as well as unease in Whitehall, there was no internal rebellion against Blair’s plans. As one senior diplomat has put it, ‘I am not aware of any direct or organised challenge to the basis of policy’.

The core elements of the British ruling class see foreign wars as chancy but, given Britain’s widely dispersed economic interests and vulnerable position in the world, on balance worth the risks. For one thing, they provide further opportunities for accumulation by dispossession at an international level. In his examination of the economic imperatives of the Iraq War, Greg Muttit has shown, for example, the extent to which British oil companies benefited. British banks also benefit directly from military interventions. As if to illustrate the tie up between the British government, the military and the banking sector, Lady Symons, the minister who negotiated many of the postoccupation deals between the Iraqi government and UK oil companies, went on to take an advisory post with a UK merchant bank that cashed in on the deals. More generally, military power projection has an important persuasive function over foreign governments, encouraging them not to pursue policies that might restrict access for British investors or to make deals with competitors. Military strength also helps to secure Britain’s position at the top table at the United Nations, NATO and other international institutions, helping to ensure that the policies adopted by these bodies coincide as much as possible with its interests.

If the Iraq War and the interventions that followed were broadly approved by the British elites, they have probably done more than anything to generate popular distrust. Shocking in itself, the Iraq War revealed just how low the political elite was prepared to go in support of corporate interests, including participating in systematic destruction and lying to parliament and the people. Polls show that the majority opposed the invasion of Iraq not just because they sensed it would have a disastrous impact but also because they saw it as a war for oil. The establishment is now deeply concerned by widespread anti-war sentiment, and has had to amend some of its policies accordingly. But as ever it has learnt little from popular critiques. In foreign policy circles there is a denial of even the modestly stated case against the Iraq War outlined in the Chilcot Report.

The international crisis over Syria, drawing in a series of regional and international powers into a catastrophic war, illustrates in tragically graphic terms how the economic crisis is sharpening international tensions. Faced with economic decline, the Western powers, led by the USA, are more rather than less likely to use military means to confront emerging challengers. Ignoring the way in which recent wars have destabilised the world, the British foreign policy establishment remains keen on intervention and supportive of a series of murderous proxy wars. The Labour right has been doing its best to present itself as a reliable war party. As a result, largely unnoticed by the media, British forces are currently fighting in at least seven foreign theatres.

Chris Nineham's new book How The Establishment Lost Control is available now from Zero Books.

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