This article is a somewhat expanded version of a paper I presented, on behalf of the Socialist Labour Party, to the May Day International Seminar in Brussels organised by the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB)


his article is a somewhat expanded version of a paper I presented, on behalf of the Socialist Labour Party, to the May Day International Seminar in Brussels organised by the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB). Although the paper was presented on 3 May this year, the present version makes reference to certain events and data which belong to the weeks following 3 May. The reader may find it irksome and have difficulty reconciling to the fact that, while speaking on 3 May to an international gathering, I give myself the indulgence of referring to events which took place subsequently, in the manner of Biblical prophecies. Keen as I am to give the reader of the present article the most up-to-date information, I have allowed myself this unusual licence. Footnotes would have been a way out, but some of the footnotes would have been so lengthy as to be clumsy in a newspaper article. It is to be hoped that the reader will, in view of this explanation, not judge me too harshly. All the same I offer my apologies for any confusion caused.



By Harpal Brar, National Executive Committee member of the SLP and its Economics Committee Chair.


Comrades, I have been asked to make a presentation on the military strategy of the United Kingdom. In particular, it is required of me to comment on Britain’s military capacity, why Britain is such a ‘running dog’ of the USA, its special role in Nato, and the political and military contradictions between UK and Germany.

Britain’s economic position

In order that I may be able to make any meaningful observations on the above questions, it is necessary for me to refer, albeit briefly, to Britain’s economic position. And this for two reasons. First, the economic strength of a country cannot but have a determining effect on its military strength. Second, the armed might of a country, in the final analysis, serves it to safeguard its economic system and economic strength, for the military policy of a country, like its foreign policy, is only an extension of its economic policy.

Britain was the first country to industrialise. From 1848 to 1868, that is, from the defeat of the Chartist movement — the first proletarian revolutionary party in the world – to the close of the seventh decade of the 19


century, when Britain possessed the largest colonial empire and enjoyed complete monopoly in the world market, Britain was rightly described as ‘the workshop of the world’. During these years Britain was not just the biggest act in town, it was the only act – it was the town.

From the 1870s, Britain’s monopoly position was under challenge, especially from Germany and the USA, and by the 1890s this monopoly was gone forever. Be it said in passing that the ending of the British monopoly by no means put an end to all monopoly; on the contrary, with the transformation of free-competition capitalism into monopoly capitalism, the British monopoly gave way to a monopoly exercised by a handful of monopoly capitalist – imperialist – countries, each of which ruled over an area only slightly smaller than that ruled by Britain in the 1850s. Since then, Britain’s relative decline, in comparison with other major capitalist countries, has proceeded unabated. The two world wars hastened this process further still.

During the past three decades, the manufacturing workforce has been halved (down from 8 million to 4 million), while the number of those employed in banking and insurance has nearly trebled. Between 1979 and 1989 alone, while investment in banking services went up by 125%, investment in manufacturing over the same period went up by a mere 13%. No wonder then that during those ten years employment in banking and financial services went up by over one million. In 1992, manufacturing output was 1% above that of 1979, while manufacturing investment was actually below that of 1979. Within manufacturing itself, one in ten manufacturing jobs are accounted for by the manufacture of armaments. Eleven of the top twenty British companies are involved in the manufacture of armaments. With such an erosion of its manufacturing base, and with such heavy reliance on the manufacture of the merchandise of death, how is British imperialism able to support the increasing proportion of the population involved in unproductive labur – the vast parasitic layers who produce no wealth, no surplus value ? The answer, in the main, must be found in the export of capital and the earnings from it. For instance, in 1990, Britain’s overseas earnings from capital invested abroad were close to £26 billion, which represented 36% of all profit made in Britain that year. With such a high proportion of the profits of British imperialism dependent on the export of capital, one can see why banking (the City) and militarism have assumed such monstruously gigantic dimensions, and why Britain is the most gung-ho of all the European imperialist countries.

In these conditions, if British imperialism is to continue its parasitic existence (and it can have no other existence), if it is to continue to provide privileged conditions for the petty bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy, every government policy must be subordinated to the interests of the robber barons of finance capital ; every military adventure abroad must be fully and enthusiastically supported in order to make sure of the continued flow of tribute from abroad. The support given by all bourgeois parties, including Labour, to the genocidal war against Iraq is but one of the scores of examples one could cite in this connection. The sickening enthusiasm with which all the capitalist parties in Britain are supporting Nato’s war of aggression against Yugoslavia, and the consequent destruction of the civilian infrastructure, is the latest proof of the total subordination of government policy to the interests of finance capital.

If British imperialism emerged from the second world war much weakened economically, by contrast, the end of the war witnessed the rise of the United States as the most powerful imperialist country – both economically and militarily – assuming the mantle of leadership of the entire imperialist camp in the latter’s struggle against the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. The needs of reconstruction, and scarcity of resources, forced successive British governments, bit by bit, to shed illusions about Britain’s independent military role on a world scale and, instead, to accept the position of a junior partner of US imperialism, both within and outside of the war-mongering Nato alliance. This altered position found its reflection in Britain’s reduced military budget and military might.

The role of militarism

Consequent upon this recognition, Britain’s military budget has been declining for quite some years. Especially over the past two decades, in real terms the British defence budget has dropped markedly. This year the defence budget is £22 billion, of which £9.7 billion is for equipment and £8.2 billion for personnel. Defence expenditure as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) has halved in the past 13 years from 5.1% to 2.8%. Correspondingly, the size of Britain’s armed forces has very nearly halved over two decades, from being 347,700 in 1975 to 210,088 in 1997. In addition, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) employs nearly 125,000 civilians. The accompanying charts (1 and 2) show these comparative figures, concerning personnel, and the percentage of the GDP spent on defence, along with a breakdown of the present-day British armed forced into their three separate arms – the Navy, the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the Army. As is clear from these charts, half of Britain’s armed forces are stationed abroad, Northern Ireland included, fighting a never-ending war against oppressed peoples.

From the above figures one must not conclude that Britain is a peace-loving country engaged in the pursuit of peaceful development and co-operation. Nothing could be further from the truth. For, notwithstanding the decreased percentage of its GDP spent on defence, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Britain, with the sole exception of the US, spent a greater proportion of its GDP on defence than any other major capitalist nation, though since 1997 this has changed. For now France, with defence expenditure at 3% of her GDP, spends marginally more than does Britain. The accompanying chart (3) gives details of the defence expenditure, and the strength of the armed forces, of the major imperialist countries.

Since the end of the second world war, Britain’s armed forces have been involved in 96 overseas military interventions, 28 of these in the Middle East alone. The last statistic is hardly surprising, considering that the Middle East is the repository of 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves, upon which depends the health and fabulous wealth of the giant imperialist oil companies, as well as the armaments manufacturers, with whom the oil companies are inextricably linked through investment and interlocking directorships. No wonder, then, that nearly half of the British forces are stationed in nearly 30 countries abroad – in Germany, Turkey, the Gulf, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia, Belize, the Caribbean, Colombia, Peru, Falklands, Gibraltar, Cyprus, and now Macedonia. From these strategic locations they are available for intervention at short notice.

Further, Britain is, after the USA, the second largest holder of overseas assets : half of Europe’s 50 largest multinationals are British. The City of London, which is one of the three main financial countries of the world, accounts for a quarter of Britain’s earnings – a contribution of the same size as that made by manufacturing, in which the manifacture of armaments plays a very significant part. If the British ruling class does not want to jeopardise its overseas investments and markets, military power, and its frequent use, and the stationing of British military forces abroad, are indispensable. The strategic review, of which more anon, with admirable candour declares :

« Our economy is founded on international trade. Exports form a higher proportion of GDP than for the US, Japan, Germany or France. We invest more of our income abroad than any other major economy. Our closest economic partners are the European Union and the US, but our investment in the developing world amounts to the combined total of France, Germany and Italy. »

Britain, like all the other imperialist powers, needs to project her military power abroad, for ultimately it is the surest way of guaranteeing her ‘fair share’ of valuable markets and raw materials. Marx long ago explained the importance of cheap raw materials for increasing the rate of profit 

: « other conditions being equal the rate of profit… falls and rises inversely to the price of raw materials. This shows, among other things, how important the low price of raw materials is for industrial countries… It follows furthermore that foreign trade influences the rate of profit , regardless of its influence on wages… »

(Capital, Vol . III ).

The development of monopoly only serves to intensify the struggle for the seizure of raw materials. Developing Marx’s analysis, and applying it to the era of monopoly capitalism, Lenin comes to the conclusion :

« The more capitalism is developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the competition and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout the whole world, the more desperate the struggle for the acquisition of colonies. »

British imperialism, in order to maintain its position, is left with little choice other than to be constantly involved in counter-revolutionary war against Third World countries, as well as in the struggle against its rival imperialists.

The Arms industry and arms exports

Nor must one conclude that the British arms industry must have fallen on bad times consequent upon these developments. Despite budget cuts, the arms industry is in robust shape. British armament manufacturers have responded to budget cuts by a combination of rationalisation, consolidation, and increased exports. During the last 10 years, the export activity of the defence industry has increased beyond recognition. Britain’s ceaseless war against oppressed countries is supplied by her lucrative and powerful arms industry. British Aerospace (BAe), after its recent acquistion of Marconi from GEC, is the third largest armaments manufacturer in the world. Britain, with a 25% share of the legal global arms market, is the second biggest arms dealer after the USA. In 1990, overseas sales represented 65% of BAe’s turnover. Of the top 20 British manufacturing companies, no fewer than eleven are involved in the manufacture of armaments.

As the British defence budget has been cut by nearly a third in the decade following the fall of the Berlin wall, arms manufacturers have come to acquire an even greater dependence on the sale of arms abroad. In Britain’s case the need to export arms is crucial in view of the erosion of its manufacturing base and the trade deficit in manufactured goods. If Britain’s trade in manufactures has been in deficit for over a decade, significantly the trade in armament continues to be in surplus. British governments recognised long ago the importance, in fact the dire necessity, for British imperialism to get its ‘fair share’ of the lucrative international arms market. It was in appreciation of this dire necessity that Denis Healey, when he was Labour’s Defence Secretary, established the Defence Sales Organisation for the promotion of arms sales. At the time Healey explained his decision in the following terms : « While the government attaches the highest importance to making progress in the field of arms control and disarmament, we must also take what practical steps we can to ensure that this country does not fail to secure its rightful share of this valuable commercial market. »

In other words, the characteristic bourgeois lip service to arms control, disarmament and ethical foreign policy, hand in hand with the real business of exporting merchandise of death on a massive scale in the interest of the profits of monopoly capitalism.

Mrs Thatcher was only following in Healey’s footsteps when she struck the biggest, and mouth-wateringly lucrative, arms deal with Saudi-Arabia – the Al-yamamah arms deal, which even today accounts for 11.2% (£3.1 billion a year) of BAe’s £28.1 billion order book, and a gigantic 75% of its export sales.

George Robertson, Labour’s Defence Secretary, is neither blazing a trail nor exaggerating when he speaks of Britain’s defence industry as

« one of the best in the world, worth £5 billion a year in exports, with 440,000 people employed in it. »

He goes on to add

, « we have to show a commitment to it. »

According to the 1997 figures, exports account for a huge 76% of the turnover of the UK aerospace and defence sector. The destination of the entire yearly turnover of the British arms industry is as follows : UK 24% ; US 23% ; Middle East 19% ; Europe 19% ; Asia Pacific 11% ; others 4% (see accompanying Chart 4).

British imperialism has gaily shared in the bonanza of arms sales abroad, especially to the Middle East in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Accusing the US of arming Israel so as to deprive the Palestinians and other Arab peoples of their legitimate rights, the Arab oil producers, meeting in October 1973, reduced supplies, causing a ten-fold rise in oil prices – and an eight-fold increase in their own incomes, from $7.2 billion in 1972 to $57 billion in 1977. If by 1980 Opec funds amounted to an unprecedented $350 billion, third world countries spent $60 billion on arms and defence, with half the weapons being sold to countries in the Middle East.

The importance of the Middle East to imperialism, not only as a repository of vast oil and gas deposits, but also as a huge market for arms, may be judged from the following few, but significant, statistics. In 1984 alone, Iraq spent $33 billion on arms imports. According to reliable estimates, between 1980 and 1990 Iraq spent $80-100 billion – at least $10 billion more than Britain spent ($69 billion) on arms during the same period. Iran, before the fall of the Shah, in some years, accounted for nearly half of the entire US export trade in arms. In the decade 1973-83, US arms exports to Saudi-Arabia amounted to $35 billion, to Iran $14 billion, and to Israel $11 billion. In 1996 alone, Saudi Arabia imported $9 billion (£5.6 billion) of arms – more than any other country in the Middle East and three times more than Egypt, the second largest importer of the region in that year. Today, the Middle East is the destination for 19% of the turnover of the British armament industry.

While over the decade the US share of the $46.3 billion arms export trade has grown from 7 per cent to 45 per cent, that of Britain has grown from 4 per cent to 15 per cent. The target of $8 billion a year arms sales abroad set by the Ministry of Defence has thus been over-fulfilled. In this frenzied and breakneck struggle over the most lucrative market in the merchandise of death and destruction, there is no room for considerations of morality, conscience, ethics and humanitarianism, all of which are but trifles as compared with the extraction of the maximum profit, which is the sole rationale for the existence of imperialism.

British imperialism’s continued decline

Although Britain is a powerful imperialist country, all the same British imperialism has been in decline – a decline which became all too evident after the Second World War. Other imperialist countries have overtaken it in terms of productivity and economic strength. In recognition of, and to compensate for, this declining strength, the British ruling class long ago opted for a ‘special relationship’ with US imperialism, on the one hand, and protection of its armaments industry at any cost on the other hand. Britain’s role in the Gulf War ; the maintenance of sanctions against Iraq ; the recent air strikes against Iraq ; and now the murderous war of aggression against tiny Yugoslavia – all furnish eloquent proof of these propositions. If one adds to this the fact (1) that the US constitutes Britain’s biggest arms export market, (2) that Britain accounts for 40 per cent of US arms imports, selling more weapons to the US than any other European country, (3) that the British aerospace and defence industry relies for 23% of its turnover on the US market, which amounts to just 1% less than that accounted for by its home market, then one begins to see why Britain is prepared to go to any length to be part of any counter-revolutionary expedition organised by Uncle Sam, and why successive British governments, Tory and Labour, are ever willing to render flunkey service to the US in fields military and diplomatic. The following obseqious words of a servile lackey shed more light on the relationship in which Britain stands to the US than a hundred learned theses could ever do :

«We must never forget the historic and continuing US role in defending the political and economic freedoms that we take for granted. Leaving all sentiment aside, they are a force for good in the world. They can always be relied on when the chips are down. The same should always be true of Britain. » (Tony Blair).

It only remains for us to add that, far from being « a force for good », US and British imperialism are a counter-revolutionary evil force prepared to drown tens of millions of people in blood the world over for the sole purpose of defending the profits of giant imperialist corporations of their countries – for the maintenance of the system of exploitation of one human being by another, and of one nation by another – and blocking humanity’s onwards march to emancipation.

Strategic Review

A few words must now be said on Britain’s most recent Defence Strategic Review. Since the Second World War, there have been more than a dozen defence reviews, but

« few »,

says the

Financial Times


« can have involved such rigorous questioning of fundamental issues as that … conducted by George Robertson, the current defence minister ».

While recognising that

« a strong defence capability is an essential part of Britain’s foreign policy »

(Tony Blair), the review puts emphasis on

« flexibility »


« rapid deployability »

– moving further away from the static posture of the Cold War. Further, the review focusses on cost-effectiveness, a kind of greater military productivity, which can only mean more killing and destruction for every pound spent. A higher proportion of the armed forces are now actively engaged in operations than at any time since 1945. Time and again the review stresses the need for

« expeditionary forces »

which Britain expects to be sending to

« trouble spots »

in the future. According to the

Financial Times

of 2 February 1998, British forces are in demand because Britain is one of the few countries which can truly project power and engage in high-intensity warfare, adding that

« this capability provides influence – especially in Washington – which Mr Blair is unlikely to throw away lightly. »

As the government’s Strategic Defence Review seeks to make forces more flexible and cost-effective, high priority is given to making them more « purple » – the word used to describe mixing the colours of the Navy, the RAF and the army. Officials and military chiefs see more « jointness » as essential considering that Britain expects to deploy multi-role expeditionary forces which integrate easily with those of its imperialist allies, in particular the US. There is to be more common training, integration of logistics of the three services, more mobility and versatility. With this in mind, there is to be augmentation of resources available to the Joint Rapid Deployment Force (renamed the Joint Rapid Reaction Force), parts of which are ready to move to trouble spots at less than 24 hours’ notice. Since 1996, British forces have been got ready for rapid deployment in two operations against Iraq, two in Albania and two in Zaire.

The role of aircraft carriers (

The Invincible


Ark Royal



s), with their proven ability to project global power even when use of local bases is denied, is to be upgraded. Two new carriers, costing £4 billion each, and double the size of the present ones, are to be built and deployed on a global scale, ever ready for action. Labour’s review is based on the following underlying assumptions, the last of which is being increasingly undermined, as will be shown shortly, by the course of events in the European Union : first, that no power poses any threat to Britain or NATO over the next 10 or so years; second, that Britain must have the military preparedness to fight on two fronts at the same time if she is to maintain her global position ; third, that Britain will buy the Eurofighter and, Britain’s status as a nuclear power being sacrosanct, the four Trident nuclear missiles, each armed with 48 nuclear warheads, were excluded from the review, for they are a guarantee of British imperialism’s assertion, and retention, of a

«historic role as a global player.»

(Tony Blair).

«Nothing is sacred,» wrote the

Financial Times

of 2 February 1999 apropos the Strategic Defence Review,

«except for two facts : Britain will maintain its nuclear deterrent, housed in Trident submarines, and will buy the Eurofighter. »

There is yet another assumption, to which we shall come in a moment.

As was to be expected, the Review hypocritically speaks of

« peace-keeping and humanitarian missions

 » – euphemisms designed to portray in pretty colours the missile attacks on Iraq and Sudan, and now Yugoslavia, and aggression against and pillage of other countries. And this murderous and mercenary military machine is referred to as

« a force for good »

in the service of

« ethical foreign policy ».

No euphemisms, no dulcet phrases, no hypocritical assertions, can hide the reality, namely, that monopoly capitalism

« is, by virtue of its fundamental traits, distinguished by a minimum fondness for peace and freedom, and by a maximum and universal development of militarism »

(V I Lenin). And further, nothing can hide the fact that :

« Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom. Whatever the political system the result of these tendencies is everywhere reaction and an extreme intensification of antagonisms in this field. Particularly intensified become the yoke of national oppression… » ( V I Lenin ).

[This article will be concluded in the next issue of LALKAR]

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