Britain’s poisonous hypocrisy

September 18, 2013

War and lies go hand in hand, in Britain as well as the U.S., writes Shaun Harkin.

BRITAIN'S CONSERVATIVE Party Prime Minister David Cameron suffered humiliation when even some members of his own party voted in Parliament against his resolution to support a U.S.-led military attack on Syria. Cameron's defeat undermined the White House's rush to military action, causing a political crisis that has revealed the fault lines of U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The British Labour Party, led by Ed Miliband, the main parliamentary opposition to Cameron's Conservatives, have been credited with the resolution's defeat. However, Labour Party leaders indicated they would back the attack on Syria if the U.S. effort was sanctioned by the United Nations, according to international law. The Labour Party has a long history of supporting U.S. imperialism--with Tony Blair's enthusiastic support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan only the most recent examples.

Support for U.S. imperialism and preservation of the so-called "special relationship" between Britain and America is hardwired into the entire British political establishment, no matter what the cost, no matter what the opposition of the British public, and no matter what the degree of hypocrisy required to sustain it.

David Cameron appeals to British Parliament to approve an attack on Syria
David Cameron appeals to British Parliament to approve an attack on Syria

IN MAKING the case for supporting the Obama administration's plans to attack Syria, Cameron argued: "Almost 100 years ago, the whole world came together and said that the use of chemical weapons was morally indefensible and completely wrong. What we have seen in Syria are appalling scenes of death and suffering because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime."

Foreign Secretary William Hague added: "This is the first use of chemical warfare in the 21st century. It has to be unacceptable--we have to confront something that is a war crime, something that is a crime against humanity. If we don't do so, then we will have to confront even bigger war crimes in the future."

It takes a lot of gall for two leaders of the British government to lecture the world about the use of chemical weapons and crimes against humanity.

The British government signed international agreements banning the use of poison gas shells in consecutive Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907. But these agreements meant nothing when it came to defense of empire. Britain used poison gas systematically during the First World War. In 1919, the British military used chemical weapons on Russian troops as part of an assault on the Russian Revolution.

During the First World War, the British ruling class sacrificed nearly 1 million troops in a war against its imperial rivals. Despite winning the war, the British faced a postwar backlash among the colonized. Continued colonial subjugation instead of the promised independence provoked a national rebellion in Iraq. In response, British soldiers burned downed villages, shelled and bombed rebel strongholds across the country--and used poison gas to terrorize and break the resistance.

British aristocrat and imperial warmonger Winston Churchill's instructions to use chemical weapons captures the racism and arrogance of empire:

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the peace conference of arguing in favor of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.

I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gases: gases can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror, and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.

In 1930, the British government reaffirmed its promise not to use chemical weapons by ratifying the Geneva Protocol banning them. But Britain went on to expose hundreds of Indian soldiers to mustard gas to determine its battlefield effectiveness.

War, occupation, mass murder, torture and the use of chemical weapons have been part and parcel of Britain's defense of empire and ruling class privilege. Thus, humanitarian concern about the use of chemical weapons has absolutely nothing to do with Cameron's support for U.S. war aims.

THE BRITISH empire survived after the First World War, but disintegrated in the years after the Second World War. Asia, the Middle East and Africa rose in rebellion against the colonial powers of Europe, including Britain. In addition, the Second World War II Britain exhausted and unable to defend its global interests in the same fashion. Its imperial power now became eclipsed by the U.S. and the USSR.

The British ruling class viewed partnership with the U.S. as the best way to protect its global interests. Acceptance of "junior" partner status with the U.S. was difficult for British rulers steeped in ideas of superiority and elitism. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy wrote, "The continued appearance of their nation and empire as one of the Great Powers of the world also disguised the new strategic balances--as well as making it psychologically difficult for decision-makers in London to readjust to the politics of decline."

In fact, Britain's elite hoped that, despite its military decline and economic dependence, their country could remain one of three imperialist superpowers, alongside the U.S. and USSR. After the Second World War, a newly elected Labour Party government scrambled to develop a British atomic bomb in the hopes this would create some degree of independence and equality with the U.S. and USSR.

In The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire, John Newsinger argues that a "blood price" had to be paid by Britain to secure its continued alliance with the U.S. The British government sent troops to Korea in 1950 to back U.S. slaughter and destruction.

The U.S., on the other hand--in the words of John Callaghan in Great Power Complex: British Imperialism, International Crises and National Decline--needed Britain to be:

strong enough to play a constructive role in financing and removing barriers to European trade, and this required confidence in trade and the restoration of the City's role as a financial center. The United States was thus engaged in a contradictory process of taking advantage of Britain's economic weaknesses white depending on Britain's ability to assist in the construction of a liberal economic order.

As British hegemony slid further in the Middle East and elsewhere during the post-war decades, its reliance on the U.S. increased. To maintain its alliance with American power, Britain worked to undermine attempts to strengthen European state power as a counterweight to U.S. dominance.

From Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, the British ruling class and its political representatives have demonstrated again and again that they will go along with any amount of blood at home and abroad in defense of their alliance with the U.S. empire. Thus, Newsinger is right to conclude: "British capitalism's allegiance to the American Empire is, for the time being, sacrosanct. Only mass protest and mass resistance in Britain, in the United States and throughout the American Empire can bring this to an end."

This is why we in the U.S. should celebrate Cameron's failure.

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