Why is Britain always at war? - speech by Trevor Rayne

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Speech given by Trevor Rayne to an RCG meeting entitled 'Why is Britain always at War' in London on 19 January 2016

In February 2014 The Guardian newspaper published an article that said that since the start of the First World War in 1914, British armed forces have been at war somewhere in the world in every year since. In four centuries England and then Britain have unleashed over 230 wars to seize other lands and enslave and exploit other peoples.

When the Royal Air Force began bombing Syria on 3 December 2015 it was the 139th separate British military intervention abroad since the end of the Second World War. Since the beginning of the year 2000 British armed forces have operated in East Timor, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cote D’Ivoir, Libya, Nigeria, Jordan, Somalia, Mali and now Syria. There has only been one year since the end of the Second World War when a British soldier was not killed on active service; that year was 1968.

This constant belligerence and warfare does not stem from some flaw in the British character, some martial trait that compels us to fight. It is the direct consequence of the British economy which we describe as a parasitic and decaying imperialism. Lenin identified the principle characteristics of imperialism one hundred years ago and he said: monopoly capitalism ‘which finally matured in the twentieth century, is by virtue of its fundamental economic traits, distinguished by a minimum fondness for peace and freedom, and by a maximum and universal development of militarism’.

Capital concentrates and centralises into monopolies that increase the scale of production. Increasingly, profitability depended upon the export of capital overseas and securing raw materials, markets and labour abroad. The very tendency of capitalism towards crises of profitability and accumulation drives it towards monopolies, a fusion of banking and industrial capital, and the partition of the world between competing capitals. The world is divided between spheres of rival imperialist powers’ interests and into oppressor and oppressed nations. This is the fundamental economic trait of imperialism that drives it towards wars: the First World War, the Second World War and the constant battles from Korea to Vietnam, to Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria since.

Capitalism in crisis

As my comrade, David Yaffe, writes in the latest issue of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI 248 December 2015/January 2016) British capitalism and imperialism have a very specific character which he has described for over 30 years and more. David writes that repeated economic crises have been accompanied by wars and occupations. He lists those crises and associated wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Afghanistan 2001 onwards and still continuing, Iraq 2003 onwards, Libya 2011 and Yemen 2015 and Syria – producing millions of refugees. David writes that Britain’s ‘critical dependence on the earnings from its vast overseas assets and particularly those of its parasitic banking and financial services sector – makes it extremely vulnerable to any external economic or political shocks’. ‘Britain’s relative industrial decline has been accompanied by a dynamic, aggressive expansion of British banking and commercial capital to every corner of the globe.’

Currently, UK gross external assets and liabilities amount to about six-times Britain’s Gross Domestic Product. The City of London has borrowed from abroad and lent out abroad at higher rates of return; making an overall profit. But, as David Yaffe points out, in 2013 and 2014 the net earnings on the UK’s investment account have become negative. Earnings on investments abroad are inadequate to cover payments out on investments made in Britain. This is due to the imperialist crisis throughout the world, with, in particular, inadequate rates of return, profits, on foreign direct investments. This signals increased bellicosity and an increased likelihood of wars.

The Royal Bank of Scotland (owner of Natwest) started the year advising clients that 2016 could be a ‘cataclysmic year’, urging them to sell everything but high quality bonds. In the first few weeks of 2016 $4trillion has been wiped off the value of shares on stock markets. Capitalism needs to increase the rate of exploitation at home and abroad. Any resistance to this drive to exploit and oppress is intolerable to the British ruling class. Hence, the unrelenting venom spewed out by the media an ruling class politicians on Jeremy Corbyn – they want him tamed and neutered – and the wars on Libya and Syria; no independence or resistance is tolerable. That is what the crisis of capitalism means. 

Military force, and the threat of its use are essential to maintain the flow of profits from abroad into British companies and to increase those profits. It was revealing when the former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo said that Prime Minister David Cameron had not made the case for Britain going to war on Syria. Portillo said the arguments were flimsy and that there seemed to be no strategic plan. Nevertheless, he said he was in favour of war otherwise ‘the US will begin to regard Britain as an unreliable ally’. Never-mind the tosh and nonsense about solidarity with France in the face of the 13 November 2015 attacks on Paris, what guided 397 MPs, including 66 Labour MPs, to vote for bombing Syria was the alliance with the US military machine, the biggest military machine in the world by far, and its role in protecting British investments abroad and the continuing global role of British imperialism. That is why they voted to bomb Syria.

Portillo is a revealing figure: now known as a media personality – chat shows, exotic railway journeys and political punditry alongside Diane Abbott, among others. He went from being defence minister to become a director of Britain’s biggest manufacturing and arms company BAE Systems. Politicians become directors of arms companies, senior soldiers become academics at British universities. Careers are rotated through boardrooms, to government posts, to academic posts; soldiers, civil servants, corporate directors and government ministers mingle to determine government policy or positions on key issues of the day, in secret and out of sight. This is our democracy, where wealth is increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands and as it concentrates so the radius of their power expands…

The Middle East   

The RAF’s bombing of Syria was Britain’s 50th separate military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa since the end of the Second World War. As well as bombing Syria, the RAF is also currently bombing Iraq. The RAF was founded in 1918, it is now in the tenth decade of its existence and it has bombed Iraq in seven of those ten decades. Five current heads of state in the Middle East trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst; they are those of Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Why? We know the reason why: oil and gas. Who controls oil controls much of the world – that is how it has been for many years. The Middle East and North Africa were thought to contain two-thirds, 66%, of the world’s known oil reserves. However, recent discoveries have brought that down to about 60%, but it is control rather than just ownership of the resource and its distribution that gives global power.

As China and India develop so control over Middle East oil can serve as a means of restraining the emergence of any new power. Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Yemen are or were seen by imperialists as insufficiently subordinate to imperialism – to independent and have to be destroyed or tamed. No resistance is tolerable in this period of internationalist capitalist crisis.

Cameron apparently said that Corbyn and his supporters were ‘terrorist sympathisers’. Saudi Arabia and Turkey sponsored and supplied the jihadists in Syria. Cameron and the British government and state are allies of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, they arm them, they are the terrorist sympathisers; indeed they are the terrorists. Ceaseless war in the Middle East since the Soviet Union collapsed, with Britain in the thick of it. Saudi Arabia, stoking sectarian hatred, practicing Medieval barbarity, and Turkey laying siege to it Kurdish people with tanks and heavy artillery – both pass unremarked by the British government.

British companies  

If we look at British companies and their operations abroad: of the Financial Times 100 biggest multinationals in the world, ranked by their market value, two are oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, two are banks, HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group, there is Unilever, British American Tobacco, the mining group AstraZeneca, plus Vodafone, SAB Miller, a brewer, and GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical and health care company. Four of the top six mining companies are British or Anglo-Australian. That is they overwhelmingly extract raw materials and fuels from abroad.

At the same time nine of the top 100 companies in the world for arms exports are British: BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce being the biggest British arms firms. Arms production is the largest part of British manufacturing industry; employing about one in eight manufacturing workers in this country. A look at BAE Systems board of directors reveals something of the concentrated power in this society - this is the ruling class for here sit the current and former directors of among others: the British Land Company, one of Europe’s biggest property developers; Bovis Homes; Barclays Bank; Goldman Sachs; Scottish Power; Cable and Wireless; Rolls-Royce; the Noor Hospitals Group, providing private hospitals in the Middle East; HMV and, as we are in a pub, Moet Hennessy, Diageo, Mitchell and Butlers and Coca Cola. Two directors sit on the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group and one is a fellow to the Said Business School of Oxford University, named after its founding benefactor Wafic Said, a Saudi-Syrian billionaire.

The militarisation of science

The extent to which monopoly capital and its accompanying military component have permeated British society can be seen in scientific research. The direction of scientific research is increasingly determined by monopoly corporations in combination with the state, and it is there that are primarily responsible for the militarisation of science.

At least half of UK universities have received military funding since 2000. This is funding for arms research. The biggest recipients have been Cambridge, Imperial College, Oxford, Sheffield and Cranfield universities. Several universities refuse to disclose details on military funding. Funding comes from the British government and arms companies such BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce and from the US Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Government military R&D spending has risen in recent years while public civilian R&D has been cut back. Spending on developing combat aircraft is approximately ten-times that spent on developing renewable energy. Three-quarters of the government’s military R&D is for offensive purposes, that is attack weapons, not defensive weapons. The main projects being drones, strike planes, attack helicopters, long-range submarines and nuclear weapons. Over 50 British universities have received Atomic Weapons Establishment funding; this body develops, manufactures and maintains Britain’s nuclear warheads.

Under decaying capitalism the forces of production are being turned into forces of destruction; science is increasingly being used to destroy.

The 2012 National Security through Technology white paper, that is a government policy document, backs increased arms exports to keep the costs of government weapons purchases down. Since 2008 Britain has issued over £8bn worth of export licences to sell military equipment to Israel. As you can see in an article on our web site (Israel’s war against the people) Israel is used a laboratory and testing ground for imperialism’s weapons and tactics; from drones to cluster bombs to robotic machine guns and so on. After Israel, Britain’s next biggest arms customers are the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both countries’ troops put down a democratic rising in Bahrain in 2011, equipped with BAE Systems Tactica armoured vehicles. The Royal Navy has recently established a permanent base in Bahrain.

What is in the offing: the British Medical Association has produced several reports on the use of drugs as weapons – the militarisation of medicine. The cabinet of horrors is being stocked with the instruments of genetic warfare. Shaker Aamer, recently released from Guantanamo, reports that a British officer observed his torture at the hands of US soldiers.

People in Britain are conditioned to accept that the state is permanently at war; it becomes unexceptional and normal. For over 100 years the mass media has been developed and deployed by monopoly corporations, they dominate the media in Britain. Before the age of television the Czech writer Franz Kafka said, ‘The cinema involves putting the eye in uniform.’ In his book 1984, George Orwell foresaw the way that the ruling class would use the media to condition and control people. Fidel Castro described the bourgeois media, ‘It is the most sophisticated media ever developed by technology, employed to kill human beings and to subjugate and exterminate peoples.’ The media is used to administer fear and demonise potential targets: Evil Saddam, Mad Dog Gaddafi, Putin and so on; repetition to create ‘facts’. Lies like Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Libya and the impending massacre in Benghazi.

Read our newspaper, view our website, develop your own media, get out on the streets, get involved, join us and spread the message. We need a movement that is open and democratic and on the streets.

I am not the only one to see in Syria today the ominous portents of a greater war; the configuration of forces and alliances, the rivalry of great powers, international capitalism in crisis. This configuration, so like that in Sarajevo in 1914, that sparked with an assassin’s bullet that lit the conflagration that was the First World War.

International capitalism, imperialism, monopoly banks and corporations that guide the British state to war on the Middle East, to exploit its resources, labour and markets, now turn their attack on us in Britain, on the working class, on our housing and homes, on wages and jobs, the health service and education, the rights to strike and protest, to assemble and to express ourselves. The ruling class is promoting racism, introducing more racist laws and measures. This is capitalism in crisis and a ruling class that we must isolate and conclude them, end before they end us all and finish the human experiment in nature. To do this socialism is necessary.

Be assured that if we do not oppose the British ruling class’s wars abroad we will be unable to prevent the use of armed force against ourselves here in Britain.