Sometime ago, an inside page article in a British paper mentioned the fact that in Jamaica, prisoners on death row had been waiting for years for the British monarch's decision on whether they were to be put to death or not. A month later, the same paper was describing the ordeal of 30 or so holidaymakers from Jamaica on a package tour who had been flown straight back to Kingston after arriving in London, due to a decision by some obscure bureaucrat in Immigration services.
In a nutshell this summarises the nature of the links between the British state and its former colonies - the colonies can wait for Britain's pleasure but Britain cannot wait for the colonies' pleasure.
And although there is not much left of the empire, there are many more such links than one would think. Some are purely decorative. For instance dozens of countries throughout the world, among them Jamaica, although independent still recognise the British Queen as their sovereign and pay for the privilege of having a British Governor-General on their territory. Then there is the case of Prince Charles' visit to Australia to give his mother's blessing to the country's move to become a republic. Ridiculous though it may seem today, not so long ago in 1975, this link was used by the British government to dismiss a Labour government in Australia.
The hostile reception of the Queen and the British delegates by the people of Cyprus, during last year's Commonwealth conference serves as a reminder that Britain's role in the maintenance of the so-called "world order" has acted and still acts as a barrier to the common well-being of many of the former subjected territories banded together under this misnomer. For the "Commonwealth" never did mean that the colonies and former colonies experienced wealth in common with Britain. The Cypriot demonstrators had some first hand knowledge of this; they owe the partition of their island to Britain's past great power games.
But though Britain is no longer the big imperialist power it was, it is still one of the richest countries on this earth, despite the relatively poor contribution it makes to the world economy and the very obvious dereliction of its social life. This is entirely due to the sheer scale of the plunder perpetrated by the predecessors of today's billionaires, backed every inch of the way by the navies and armies of imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was this plunder which made Britain the most important world colonial power by the end of the 19th century and up until the First World War.
It is during this period, when Britain carved an empire greater than any other in history that the powderkegs for the future were set. Today when we hear about warlords fighting it out in Somalia, in the Sudan, or elsewhere, it is only possible to make sense of these seemingly irrational wars by taking into account the role of imperialism and particularly British imperialism in laying the ground for these conflicts.
Yes, today, the heritage of the British empire allows a large number of super-rich individuals whose offices are located somewhere in the Square Mile of London's City, to accumulate huge amounts of wealth beyond their needs. But it means that hundred of millions of people in today's Third World still pay the price of impoverishment, destruction and disruption the basis was created one or two hundred years ago.
The colonial days
Looting has always been the main hobby and source of income of the privileged classes. But when, in the 17th century, the English monarchy began to bid for its share of the world's booty, the scene was already occupied by more powerful and well established gangs, from Portugal and Spain, who were flourishing from the plunder of South American resources. The newer players, England and France, had to be content with living a parasitic existence off the crumbs dropped by or stolen from the big boys.
While on England's highways robbers were being hunted down and summarily hung for relieving the wealthy of their gold, their counterparts on the seas became heroes. Buccaneering was elevated by Elizabeth I to high chivalry. Bloody pirates such as the Drake's and the Raleigh's were awarded titles and the privilege of wearing the Queen's Garter for their astuteness and success as sea wolves.
With time, superior shipbuilding and long guns gave these pirates of the English monarchy control over the seas. Meanwhile Spain and Portugal were collapsing under the burden of their colossal wealth. The way was open for Britain to become the world's dominant looter. This was achieved by the mid-1800's.
Inglorious as it was, however, the beginning of Britain's imperial career proved to be rather petty criminality compared with what followed. Small time pirates like Drake were to be replaced by the mammoth state of the British empire, heavily geared up and trained to ransack the rest of the world.
Pieces of India
By the time of the English bourgeois revolution, the British had established their own sugar plantations in the Carribean and South Carolina in America. After Jamaica was colonised in 1655 it soon became the sugar centre of the Carribean. The English settlers like their Spanish counterparts in the region before them, were neither willing nor able to do the work required. Nor were the few indigenous Carribean people who had survived the colonisation. The British therefore turned to slavery in order to cultivate their plantations.
A prospectus printed in the 1680's explains how the Spanish collaborated with the British Royal African Company to bring slaves from West Africa to the Carribean. It even defines a precise unit of measure for trading slaves, called the "piece of India", just as yards were used to measure cloth for instance:
"...the Company were to ship from Africa 7 or 8000 Pieces of India, out of which the Spaniards were to choose 5000 whole pieces and the Company to dispose of the rest.
"A whole Piece of India was according to the Ages of the Negros, Male or Female. Those between 15 and 45 were a whole piece; between 4 and 8 were 2 for 1; between 8 and 15, or above 45 were 3 for 2, and those under 4 were cast in with the Mother.
"If such a trade as this was guaruanteed by an Act of Parliament for 99 years, it would much improve all our Western Plantations, and by degrees perhaps find as good mines in Carolina as in Potosi; it would increase Seamen and ships for our use at home and encourage Growths and Manufactures here greatly.... "
What took place was a triangular trade. Glass beads, cloth and firearms were traded for slaves in West Africa. They were then exchanged in the Carribean for raw or semi-refined sugar and rum which was then sent to refineries in England where it was processed further. In fact in order to ensure the dependence of the colonies on the "mother country", a tax was imposed on all imported refined sugar. This led to the establishment of the British Sugar refining industry.
After 1680 the triangular trade was one of the quickest ways to accrue a fortune in Britain. This made the new port of Liverpool one of the richest in the world in the 18th century. The whole of the property-owning classes invested their money in the triangular trade: "many of the smaller vessels that carry about 100 slaves are fitted out by attorneys, drapers, ropers, grocers, tallow chandlers, barbers and tailors ." says a Liverpool historian of the period. As a result, industrial development was stimulated on an unprecedented scale. Shipbuilding, the manufacture of household utensils, cloth, iron, guns, and of course, handcuffs, shackles and chains... The capital required for this expansion in turn stimulated the development of banking and insurance. By 1750, sugar was said to be supporting "half Lancashire and a quarter of British shipping ."
In the years from 1450 to the end of the slave trade, in the Carribean alone, nearly 12 million West Africans were sold. But during the raids to capture them, hundreds of thousands were killed. One in four died on board during the voyage and out of every hundred shipped, 17 died within two months. Not more than 50 out of the remaining hundred lived to be effective labourers on the plantations. This meant that for 12 million to be sold, up to 40 million must have met their deaths one way or another. The transport of slaves was stopped by an Act of Parliament in 1807, but the use of slave labour itself was continued until the Emancipation Act of 1833. Except of course in the Southern States of North America where it went on until the end of the American Civil War, in 1865.
It was the slave trade which provided the foundation for the "old empire", based not on direct colonial rule, but on a "free trade" via trading posts in the coastal regions of today's Third World and the plantations of settlers protected if necessary by the British navy. It also provided the wealth which made the industrial revolution possible in Britain and opened the way to manufacturing on a large scale, giving Britain a clear monopoly over an ever-expanding world market. It took quite a while before the emerging rival industrial powers came to be a serious threat to Britain's monopoly position.
Up the Niger
It was not until the scramble for the whole of Africa, the interior, as it were, in the last part of the 19th century, that West Africa again became a focus for imperialist competition. Emissaries of governments and trading companies raced up the Niger River and its tributaries after a monopoly of the lands in the interior.
King Leopold of Belgium, with the aid of Henry Morton Stanley - the man who is rather known in Britain for finding Livingstone - had consolidated his hold over the Congo. France, Britain and Germany concentrated on the West African region around the Niger. A British ex-officer, George Goldie Taubman founded the United Africa Company and embarked in a trading war with the French Company of Equatorial Africa which was operating further up the Niger. Soon the French were forced to sell out to Taubman.
The British also won the race against Germany in gaining concessions from the sultanates of today's northern Nigeria. A British Protectorate (so-called) was proclaimed in 1885, and the following year, the British Government granted a charter to Taubman's company, to be called the Royal Niger Company, giving it authorisation to not only carry on business, but to administer the territory and expand it. The outcome was the Crown Colony of Nigeria, with an area three times as large as the British Isles and a knighthood for Sir George Taubman Goldie.
However the traders found the indigenous political structures were too weak to provide the protection needed for their commerce to flourish. As Palmerston wrote in 1860: "...trade ought not to be enforced by cannonballs, but on the other hand trade cannot flourish without security, and that security may often be unattainable without the exhibition of physical force ".
Ironically the "physical force" in question was the British Navy's "anti slavery squadron" which stayed anchored off the coast, ready to intervene to rescue traders, coerce African leaders or compel the signature of commercial treaties. While the slave trade had flourished, the British had left the hazardous work of capturing slaves from the interior of West Africa to the coastal peoples who they provided with the guns necessary, and to the feudal-like kingdoms of the Hausa and Fulani in the North and East. But now that the British no longer wanted slaves, but certainly wanted minerals and agricultural lands, the Hausa and Fulani peoples were still trading in slaves with the Arabs. The British then used this "righteous" pretext to force their way into the interior of West Africa and literally take over the whole territory.
By 1900, the British government had bought out the territories of the Royal Niger Company for something under a million pounds and took over direct administrative responsibility for the entire Niger area.
The turn of the imperial screw
The development of Britain's industries from the beginning of the industrial revolution and throughout the 19th century would never have been possible without the large and uninterrupted flow of raw materials from the colonial possessions. This also meant a growing dependence of the colonial powers on their colonies. Any break in the chain of supply of raw materials could lead to a crisis, as it happened when the cotton supply was halted by the American Civil War and Lancashire's mills were forced to close.
On the other hand, this fast industrial development meant that ever increasing markets for the mass produced goods were required. The European market was less and less an option due to the increasing competition. As a result the empire ceased to be regarded merely as a source of cheap raw materials and came to be seen as a potential market, and one over which Britain needed to ensure its monopoly while looking to expand even further into new markets elsewhere before her competitors did.
By 1850, one fifth of Britain's exported manufactured cotton goods were going to India. Outside the United States and Germany there was no single country with which Britain did more trade. India also provided Britain with a base from which to exploit the Far East. But this meant that India's political subordination to Britain was essential. After the Indian Mutiny in 1857, Britain knew that its days would be numbered there unless it ensured its grip through direct rule.
A good example of this era of gunboat diplomacy and fight for monopoly is provided by the Opium Wars against China. Victorian times are known in Britain for their extreme puritanism in Britain. But in China, Victoria was the Queen of drug pushers and used such barbaric methods that it makes today's South American drug barons look like petty thieves in comparison. The issue was to gain free access to the Chinese market so that British traders could sell the massive quantities of opium they were producing in India. To break China's resistance, its ports were twice bombarded into submission between 1839 and 1860. In the end, not only were the British granted the right to flood China with drugs, they also took Hong Kong and Kowloon by way of "compensation" for their military efforts!
By the last years of the 19th century, competition between colonial powers was reaching an alarming point. As Lord Curzon wrote in 1895: "Where 50 years ago we had every liberty of movement to go where we chose, we have within the last 20 years scarcely elbow room; and now, where England has hardly elbow room, she will soon have hardly room to move ."
This meant that if the British were to retain their position against their rivals, they had to tighten their grip on their colonies so as to shield them totally from the competition. This was spell out in the same period by Joseph Chamberlain who argued: "...that new markets shall be created, and that old markets shall be effectually developed... for these reasons among others I would never lose the hold which we now have over our great Indian dependents - by far the most valuable of all the customers we have or shall ever have in this country. For the same reasons I approve of the continued occupation of Egypt; and for the same reasons I have urged upon this government, and upon previous governments the necessity for using every legitimate opportunity to extend our influence and control in that great African continent which is now being opened up to civilisation and to commerce ."
As early as 1884, however, Lord Roberts had described the Indian frontiers as "impossible" and Britain's chances of holding on to the colony as hopeless in the event of a full scale attack. It took the Boer War in 1899 to give impetus to the huge military build-up - particularly of the navy, which the politicians began to see as the only hope of maintaining Britain's position in the world market.
Of gold and diamonds
After the relatively easily suppressed Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Boer War in South Africa was, though this might sound paradoxical today, the first instance of a full-blown uprising against imperialist oppression. In that it warranted the full support of socialists in Europe.
The background to this war is easily understood - in two words - gold and diamonds. In 1867, diamonds had been discovered at Kimberley, north of the British Cape colony. Along came Cecil John Rhodes, a young ambitious adventurer who bought up all the claims. The British soon annexed Kimberley to their colony and diamond production went underway under an ambitious capitalist by the name of Cecil John Rhodes. By 1890, in alliance with two other mine operators, Rhodes had established the De Beers Consolidated Mines which had a monopoly of diamonds in Southern Africa and was producing 90% of the world's supply.
Another breakthrough had been made in 1886 with the discovery of the world's largest gold field. Only this time, it was in the Witwatersrand, right in the middle of the Dutch settlers' area, the Boer Republic of Transvaal. There was therefore no question of Britain just moving in as it had done with the Kimberley mine. And, to make matters worse, the Boer government insisted on imposing taxes which the mining magnates found extremely inhibiting, including Rhodes who, by that time, had already established his own company, Goldfields of South Africa, and was soon to become prime minister of the Cape Colony.
The British might have sought some form of compromise with the Boer. However the Germans had also set their sights on the Transvaal gold and were wooing the Boer president Kruger. This was enough for the British government to make up its mind and choose to take the offensive, under the "noble" pretext of unifying South Africa.
Soldiers and weapons were brought into the British Cape Colony to consolidate its position strongly enough to get the Germans to agree to keep out of South Africa. They then proceeded to force Kruger to war over the Transvaal, "one of the richests spots on earth" , which eventually broke out in 1899 and was concluded with Britain's victory in May 1902. In the process the imperial army met with a much fiercer resistance than they had expected, to such a point that the Kimberley mine itself was threatened by the Boers's army. But thanks to its enormous material superiority, the British troops managed to regain the ground lost, forcing the Boers to turn to a protracted guerilla war. It was during this period that British colonialism made its most famous "contribution to civilisation" - although this is not something that text books usually boast about - the concentration camps where Boer women, children and elderly were incarcerated as hostages. Many of them were to die of contagious diseases in these camps.
The Boer War had therefore prompted an unprecedented military build-up and completed the tightening of the imperialist screw. A summary of the "achievements" of British Imperialism during the 19th century is provided by Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a well-known critic of 19th century colonial policy, when he wrote in his diary in December 1900:
"The old century is very nearly out, and leaves the world in a pretty pass, and the British empire is playing the devil in it as never an empire before on so large a scale. We may live to see its fall. All the nations of Europe are making the same hell upon earth in China, massacring and pillaging and raping in the captured cities as outrageously as in the Middle Ages. The Emperor of Germany gives the word for slaughter and the Pope looks on and approves. In South Africa our troops are burning farms under Kitchener's command and the Queen and two Houses of Parliament and the bench of bishops thank God publicly and vote money for the work. The Americans are spending 50 millions a year on slaughtering the Filipinos; the King of the Belgians has invested his whole fortune in the Congo, where he is brutalising the negroes to fill his pockets. The French and Italians for the moment are playing a less prominent part in the slaughter, but their inactivity grieves them. The whole white race is revelling openly in violence, as though it had never pretended to be Christian. God's equal curse be on them all! So ends the famous 19th century into which we are so proud to have been born ."
Three decades that shook the empire
By 1914 the whole world had been divided between the main imperialist powers. But it was an unstable situation whose balance was held only through alliances between the great powers which could be broken and re-formed at any point and under any pretext.
Britain dominated a quarter of the globe and a similar proportion of its population - with it's main territories comprising Canada, Australia, South Africa, Rhodesia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Egypt, plus India, Burma and Malaysia, Hong Kong, and a few Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
France and Italy had much smaller empires. France had large areas of Indo-China, West Africa and North Africa, part of Somalia and some Caribbean and Pacific Islands, while Italy only had Eritrea and Libya. The Russian empire, now stretching to the sea of Japan, had occupied China's Manchuria and was spreading its influence towards Persia. Japan was in Korea and Southern Manchuria. As to the USA, they had bought Alaska from Russia and pushed the Spanish out of Cuba and the Caribbean.
It was Germany of course, which, was in the biggest trouble by 1914. It had no markets for its hugely expanding domestic production, which was already technically superior to Britain's. As a colonial power, being a newcomer it had been left with the last choice - today's Namibia and Tanzania, and Togo and Cameroon on the West Coast of Africa, plus a few islands, in any case not much compared to Britain or even France.
This division of the world led to growing international tensions in the colonial world. A conflict over the little known Samoa island, in the Pacific Ocean, gives some idea of this. By the 1880's, Samoa, with its rich copra plantations had become a territory which the British, Germans and Americans all desired. Having built up a monopoly of trade in copra the Germans were threatened by an American attempt to establish a monopoly of access for American ships. Germany retaliated by forcing a new treaty on the King, and in 1885, the German consul hoisted his flag as though to proclaim Samoa a German possession. Meanwhile, hoping for a better deal, the King offered Somoa to the British as a protectorate. However he may well have wondered if his land was still his to bargain with: between themselves the contending countries claimed 1.7m acres in these Pacific Islands - 1m acres more than the existing total area of land! Then in 1889, the three contenders took a more confrontational line. The warships of each of the three countries hovered off the Samoan coast ready to either fight off the islanders or each other. But a terrible hurricane swept the islands and of the seven men-of-war, only one British ship escaped by steaming out to the mid-ocean in the teeth of the gale. This sobered the imperial chess-players somewhat and led to an agreement whereby the island would be divided between Germany and the USA.
The rivalries between imperialist powers on a world scale came to a head with the first World War. But that bloodshed did not resolve them. It only resulted in a redivision of the world on the basis of a different balance of power between the rivals leading to new rivalries which could not be settled any more peacefully than previously.
This redivision of the world in fact had little to do with colonial power. Its main feature was the emergence of the United States as the world's leading industrial country. After 1918, American investments, exports and companies penetrated whole areas in which they had so far been only marginal. The main loser was Britain whose role as the world's largest lender was taken over by the USA, while its national economy was to remain in a state of almost permanent recession for the following decades.
Yet, despite having lost its world economic dominance, Britain retained its territorial empire. France and Britain appeared to share the spoils of the losers by taking over the handful of markets and colonial possessions in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific, previously controlled by Italy and Germany. Parts of what had been the Ottoman empire came under their control too. Though it might have seemed that colonialism was having a new heyday, this was a misleading impression.
World competition for markets sharpened fast. The 1929 crash and the resulting drastic reduction in world trade turned the existing imperial blocks into hostile fortresses. The wealth that was drained out of the imperialist states had to be recouped from their colonial empires, with or without the consent of the colonised populations. The help of the local privileged layers was sought by British colonial strategists, but only where doing otherwise seemed too much of a risk. So some colonies like India and Burma were granted a constitution as a step towards self-government. Elsewhere, the imperial screw was tightened on the local population by one more notch and any opposition was suppressed.
To secure total protection for colonial markets, drastic tariff barriers were raised. The Imperial Economic Conference held in Ottawa in 1932, the first international conference ever attended by delegates from the British TUC, established a complex system of tariffs or so-called "imperial preferences". This meant that the high level of British exports to the empire would be guaranteed, regardless of their high prices, while the empire's exports into Britain would have to remain cheap. At the same time a blueprint of what was to become the Sterling Area was sketched - a protected zone in which the pound, although no longer convertible against gold, would be accepted with no questions asked as the universal currency in trade and finance.
Eventually the same causes - inter-imperialist rivalries - led to even more catastrophic consequences. A Second World War broke out in 1939. Only this time, in addition to Western Europe, the war was to engulf the whole of Central Europe, from Moscow in the north down to Greece in the south, most of the Far East, the whole of the Middle East, and large areas in Northern and even Central Africa.
War and the empire - defeat in victory
Britain's declaration of war in 1939 met with an ambivalent response in the empire. Far from trooping happily behind the Crown, several among the largest members of the empire proved reluctant to join in out of concern for a possible backlash from their own populations.
Ireland, but that was expected, opposed the war. But so did Britain's main partners in India, the politicians of the Congress Party, who were caught by the popular mood and refused to co-operate in memory of the 62,000 Indian soldiers killed in Europe during World War 1. South Africa eventually joined in the war effort, but at the cost of a damaging internal political crisis. Even Canada, the most loyal of all, first submitted the decision to support Britain to a full parliamentary review and debate - a humiliating event for the British government. Only the extremely isolated New Zealand and Australia followed without second thoughts.
Nor was Britain's alliance with the United States the frank and equal partnership described in today's text books. True, the Lend-Lease Act passed by the American Congress in March 1941 opened an unlimited line of credit for exports to Britain, thereby throwing a lifeline to a British government faced with bankruptcy. In exchange, however, Churchill had to undertake to keep Britain's exports and currency reserves within drastic limits. Officially these conditions were aimed at ensuring that American aid was not diverted from its purpose - to help out Britain's besieged population. In reality the American bourgeoisie was already preparing for the aftermath of the war. By limiting Britain's exports to the empire, the USA aimed at loosening the economic ties which kept it together. And by limiting Britain's currency reserves, the American government ensured that the pound would come out of the war a weak currency with little attraction for its partners in the Sterling Area.
The requirements of the war effort in Britain brought about drastic changes throughout the empire. The need to provide Britain with massive amounts of supplies turned the colonial administrations and governments into monopoly purchasers of local cash crops, often for only half of the price paid on the world market. In India, where the lack of consumer goods led to the hoarding of grain by land-owners and speculators, and to famine, the government assumed full control over grain distribution and imposed rationing in the towns. The death toll was enormous, with three to four million Indians dying of starvation in 1943 alone - between twelve and fifteen times more than Britain's total wartime casualties. In many colonies, particularly the poorest, forced labour was drafted in to meet the production targets defined in London - while the families of the unwilling farmhands were starving in their huts. And, as during the First World War, forced recruitment for military service was introduced across the empire with two million recruits drafted in India, 100,000 in Nigeria, 90,000 in Tanganyika, etc.. No official figures have ever been released on wartime casualties among the colonial contingents - probably for fear of what this might reveal.
The truth is that the sacrifices and casualties imposed on the population of the empire, for King and Country of course, were met not with patriotic enthusiasm but with hatred and often with rebellion. As early as 1940, 17 miners were shot during a strike in the Northern Rhodesian copperbelt which, by that time, included over 30,000 miners. The same year Bombay's textile industry was closed down by a 40-day long general strike. In fact there were strikes and riots right across the empire, from the mines of Gold Coast and the backstreets of Mombasa in Kenya to the rubber plantations of Malaya. And they were all ruthlessly suppressed.
Not surprisingly therefore, the Japanese takeover of Malaya and Burma, and above all the fall of the empire's flagship in South-East Asia, Singapore, in February 1942, marked a turning point. This time not only were the colonial rulers and their 110,000-strong army defeated but their victors were Asian. The British surrender was watched with glee by the local population although, of course, despite the fact that the ambitions of the Japanese rulers were not much different from that of the British.
In any case, Britain's humiliating defeat in Singapore sent ripples across the empire. Long after the event, in the mid-40s, African soldiers returning from the battlefields of Burma were still spreading with great enthusiasm the story of how the small yellow men had defeated the British arrogance. Whether eventually Britain happened to be in the camp of the victors was immaterial. The myth of the invulnerability of the British empire had died in Singapore, for ever.
To all intents and purposes Britain came out of the war a bankrupt country. It had lost a quarter of its pre-war wealth. The lifeline of the wartime Lend-Lease arrangements had been severed within a few days of Japan's defeat, leaving Britain the world's largest debtor. The pound was almost valueless on open world markets and the country's exports were down to under one-third of their pre-war levels. Now Britain's economic survival depended primarily on the goodwill of its main creditor, the USA.
Over the years following the war, Britain kept a high profile on all the world's actual and potential battlefields, from Germany to Japan and Korea, from Greece and Yugoslavia to the Middle East and South-East Asia.
As it turned out, however, Britain never came anywhere close to regaining its already diminished prewar share of the world market. But few politicians seemed to have illusions on this account. The issue of the empire, however, was a different one. Before and during the war British capital had owed its survival to the systematic plundering of the empire's resources. Losing the captive markets and labour forces of the empire would have deprived the British bourgeoisie of its main source of income.
In 1942, the fall of Singapore had been described by Churchill as "the greatest disaster in our history ". From an imperialist point of view this was probably an accurate assessment. But there was no hint of such concern among most of his contemporaries. In July 1942, the then Colonial Secretary had voiced his confidence that "the British empire is not dead, it is not dying, it is not even going into decline ". And the following year, a cabinet committee had declared bluntly that for many parts of the empire, "it must be a matter of several generations before they are ready for anything like self-government ". By 1944 Beveridge's report, "Full employment in a free society ", the blueprint for the Labour Party's 1945 election manifesto, had insisted on Britain's need to retain at least some elements of the old colonial order.
Few voices had ever been heard within the Labour Party in favour of independence for the colonies. But once in office after the 1945 general election, any misgivings there may have been before about Britain's imperial policies vanished. The new Labour government undertook to restore the old colonial order. And to begin with it proceeded to tighten up the financial and economic straightjacket imposed on the empire since the Ottawa conference, demanding that Britain's colonised partners should increase considerably their exports to Britain, lower their prices, leave the proceeds in London with British bankers. And all this without getting much in exchange as Britain's economy was still incapable of producing significant amounts of consumer goods.
To be fair to Labour politicians, it must be said, however, that a major step was taken in 1947 towards emancipating the empire: the word "Dominion" was outlawed in all government statements. The word Commonwealth re-emerged in official parlance, from the dust where its Liberal inventors had left it, back in the days of the Boer War. The Dominions Office was dutifully renamed Commonwealth Relations Office and the old Imperial Conferences were scrapped. No doubt this made British bullets a lot more tolerable for the labourers whose strikes were being suppressed at the same time by British troops in Malaysia's rubber plantations!
The assumption that the old colonial order could be restored did not hold. The whole colonial world was simmering with rebellion, not just in the British empire, but in French and Dutch colonies as well as in countries like China which, while not being actual colonies were not treated much better by imperialism. Within the next fifteen years, Britain lost all its colonies in South-East Asia, retaining only Hong Kong and Singapore; its military presence and influence over the Middle East was ended in a humiliating way while the fire of anti-colonialism spread to what had been considered so far the tamest part of the empire, Africa.
South-East Asia, the fire is lit
Up until the war all the main imperialist powers had been trading in South East Asia. Most had some colonial outlets at least. But none could in any way compete with Britain's grip over the region, ruling over several hundred million people in India, Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka), Burma (now Myanmar), Malaysia and Hong Kong. The best part of the regional banking system was in British hands as well as one third of China's trade.
By 1945, despite the defeat inflicted earlier by Japanese troops, it appeared that Britain was about to build a position even stronger than before the war. Not only were all of Britain's former colonies re-occupied, but up until 1946 there were British troops in former French and Dutch colonies such as Indochina and Indonesia, and even in Japan. However, this was misleading. Those forces which had been bubbling beneath the surface for so long suddenly erupted.
India came first. In fact, since 1942 unrest had been rife. From 1945, the industrial working class took to the offensive. The following year, on 18 February, 20,000 sailors of the Royal Indian Navy came out on strike in Bombay. The Union Jack was replaced with nationalist flags. Four days later Bombay was brought to a standstill by the navy's strike committee calling to action against a threatened clampdown by British troops. There were street battles with the army and 250 strikers were arrested and shot on the spot.
In fact the stakes went far beyond Britain's narrow trading and financial interests. In addition to growing nationalist and industrial unrest in India, communal forces which the British colonial administration had used for decades to enforce its rule, particularly during the war itself, were now raising their heads. Communal politicians, both Muslim and Hindu, were busy whipping up religious tensions for fear of being marginalised by the Congress Party, by now back on the political scene. In 1946, one single campaign started in Calcutta by the Muslim League resulted in 18,000 being killed on both sides of the communal divide in Bengal and Bihar. A full-scale civil war loomed, in which all camps would turn almost inevitably against those responsible for the terrible hardships of the past years - imperialism. And if that happened, with the vast numbers of Indians and Muslims scattered in the neighbouring countries, the whole region could be destabilised for many years to come, becoming a liability rather than an asset for imperialism as a whole.
This threatening catastrophe led to Britain's precipitated withdrawal. Within a year the Mountbatten settlement thrashed out a new "order" splitting India in two. On the one hand an unviable Pakistan made of two territories one thousand miles apart, on the other hand India as we know it today. This partition triggered an unprecedented communal backlash. Several hundred thousand were killed while ten million were forced to leave their homes. But none of that prevented the functionaries of the Colonial Office from enjoying their whisky in their London clubs. After all hadn't the two new states agreed to remain within the Commonwealth? Hadn't Mountbatten succeeded in avoiding the risk of an independent united India becoming, due to its sheer weight, a dominant regional power? As to imperialism, British or otherwise, it no longer had to carry the burden for whatever happened in these "independent" countries!
While in Ceylon a more orderly withdrawal was staged in 1948, in Burma things turned sour for the Colonial Office. The British government had been hoping to restore their domination after Japan's departure without too much trouble. The 1937 constitution had been suspended and the country put under direct rule in order to restore the old ways of the British administration disbanded during the Japanese occupation.
The only significant political forces were the two guerilla movements which had fought the Japanese occupation - one was the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League, led by urban intellectuals which enjoyed some support among small peasant owners; the other was the Communist Party, based in the poorest layers of the population, both in the towns and the countryside. Very quickly the army hierarchy came to the conclusion that restoring law and order would be extremely costly if it was possible at all, and in any case, out of proportion with the strategic importance of Burma.
Therefore, following a very effective general strike by civil servants, including the police, in Sept 46, which showed the rising influence of the Communist Party, the British authorities chose to call the most respectable of the two guerilla forces into office. A general election was organised the following year where the AFPFL won a majority with British support. However the AFPFL, fearing the growing influence of the CP guerillas, who were still operating underground, turned down Britain's offer of dominion status, the acceptance of which would undoubtably have lost them support among the population. In this case, Britain chose to avoid a confrontation and in January 1948, Burma left the British empire for good.
Malaysia - colonial hell breaks loose
At face value, the situation in Malaysia looked similar to that in Burma. There were two major differences however, as far as Britain was concerned. One was that this country had produced one third of the world's tin and a substantial part of its rubber before the war and, as such, it was one of the empire's biggest potential dollar earners, with exports worth over half as much as that of India. The other was Singapore's strategic position to control the South China Sea and therefore Chinese trade. It was therefore little wonder that, in 1945, the official assumption was that achieving self-government there would take at least another 25 years if not more.
The colony's population had been transformed considerably by colonisation with massive import of labour from China and India to work in the rubber plantation and the tin mines. So that by 1942, Singapore had become an overwhelmingly Chinese town, while in the rest of the colony the native Malays only made up 49% of the population. And as usual, to consolidate their rule, the British had been careful to maintain deep divisions between the various ethnic groups.
The Japanese invasion completely destroyed the colonial setup. Not that they introduced any more democracy than the British. But, by ignoring ethnic differences and treating the colony as one single entity, a feeling of national identity could emerge that had been totally absent so far.
When the war came to an end, the only existing political force in Malaysia was the largely Chinese-based Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) and its guerilla wing, the Malaysian Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA).
When the Japanese started retreating, the MCP took over control by setting up People's Committees in every town and village. Despite the fact that for over the month, the British were unable to send troops into the colony, the MCP stopped short of proclaiming independence. However, not only did the returning British troops ignore the People's Committees, but the British general staff ordered the Japanese units stationed in Malaysia to maintain law and order themselves until the British troops arrived. And when they did, there was no longer any talk of power sharing, self-government, let alone of democracy. The British Military Administration (BMA) that was set up was a dictatorial military bureaucracy and a docile instrument of the tin mine and rubber plantation owners.
The business orientation and corruption of the BMA was so visible that it came to be known as the "Black Market Administration". And while the arrogant BMA bureaucrats were parading and making a quick buck, unemployment and food shortages were now running at catastrophic levels and inflation had already reduced workers' wages to about 12% of their prewar value. The poorer layers of the population reacted in utter disgust.
Just over a month after the BMA was established, on 21 October 1945, there were hunger marches involving a total 130,000 demonstrators in the Perak province. More decisively the towns and the industrial working class immediately joined in the rebellion. On the same day as the Perak hunger marches were taking place, 7,000 Singapore dockers went on strike, joined four days later by the island's transport workers. On the mainland, tin and coal miners and railways workers were on strike as well. By December, the strike wave showed a new impetus in Singapore, with all workers in essential services joining in, together with taxi drivers, rubber factory workers and even cabaret dancers...
All these strikes were against the starvation wages, lack of food availabilty and downright poverty. But hatred for the colonial exploiters and the desire for a fairer society was an integral part of strikers' aspirations. This was shown on 26 January 1946, when a police frameup against Soon Kwong, the MCP leader in the Selangor province, was met with a general strike across the colony, the first ever. In Singapore alone, the British Special Branch reported 150,000 strikers while in Selangor, panicked rubber plantantion owners talked of 60,000 strikers. The BMA retorted, accusing the MCP: "The strike is not by the will of the majority but through the intimidation of a small minority which is seeking its own ends ". After two days the strike was called off and, despite the poor face-saving attacks by the BMA, Soon Kwong was freed.
For about nine months, there was a lull in the industrial unrest. Then in January 1947, the coal miners downed tools again. This triggered a new strike wave spreading to electricity and dock workers and then to the tin mines and rubber plantations. In the latter, union activists organised a very effective movement for better pay, free rice and the abolition of toddy (coconut wine), an alcohol used by the owners to keep the workforce submissive. By August, British planters told London that they could no longer control their workforce and that as a result they could not guarantee that rubber production would continue. The repression was scaled up, shooting incidents in the plantations became daily events. But the wave did not abate. In May 1948, all the rubber estates in the colony were at a standstill. Eventually, in June 1948, jumping on the pretext that three white foremen had been killed in a riot (but how many hundred of victims had British bullets made among strikers since 1945?), the British declared a state emergency in the whole colony. What was to become known as the "Malayan emergency" had started. As a result the MCP was cornered into resorting to armed guerilla warfare, not by choice but for its survival.
The "Malayan emergency" was a fully-fledged colonial war which was passed off for nearly six years by the hypocrisy of the successive British governments as a police operation against "terrorism" - an all too familiar tune! By December that year, the only one for which official figures were published, over 6000 people were rotting in jail without any charge or conviction. Within two years there were 130,000 British soldiers operating in the colony, to implement the Briggs plan, which involved the massive resettlement of half-a-million mainly Chinese farmhands and labourers into so-called "New Villages", in other words barbed-wired military controlled tenements, a British invention halfway between South Africa's townships and Hitler's concentration camps. This new policy met with such a hostile response that the following year, in 1951, faced with a full-blown uprising, Britain had to ship in more troops, bringing the total to 380,000, over three times the number that had been mobilised to oppose the Japanese armies in 1942! And yet this was in addition to a police force which included 73,000 full-time officers and no less than a quarter of a million part-time auxiliaries, all this in a country where the population numbered about six million!
This enormous military might, whose only purpose in the last analysis was to defend the interests of a handful of British mining and rubber companies together with those of a dollar-hungry Exchequer, eventually managed to overwhelm the resistance of the MCP. In 1953 a series of damaging defeats were inflicted on the MCP guerillas and in January 1954, the British Command claimed that they had forced the MCP headquarters to move to Borneo. However, the "Emergency" remained in force until 1960 when it was eventually called off, three years after the setting up of an independent Malaysian constitutional monarchy entirely manufactured by British colonial strategists.
Booted out of the Middle-East
The Middle East was another of London's postwar nightmares. Throughout the war, the region had been a major operational base for Britain from where they overthrew the pro-German ruler of Iraq, took over Lebanon and Syria from France and forced the king of Egypt to nominate a British-supported prime minister by surrounding his palace with tanks.
However, after the war Britain found it was no longer the only player in the territory. The wartime economic machinery set up in Egypt to attend to the needs of the large troops stationed in the area was operated jointly with the USA while the occupation of Iran was a joint Anglo-Russian operation. American representatives kept sneaking everywhere with their dollars in hand so that, for instance, a former British-controlled regime like that of Saudi Arabia had turned pro-American by the end of the war. Yet, the Middle-East retained a vital strategic and economic importance to Britain, if only because over 60% of its oil came from there.
In 1945, Egypt was Britain's most trusted ally in the region. The Suez Canal zone by itself included 40 military bases capable of servicing an army half-a-million strong and 100,000 British soldiers were stationed around Cairo alone. Not surprisingly a wave of anti-British unrest developed including strikes, demonstrations and bombings, to such an extent that the British High Command decided to shift its strategic base to Palestine.
As it turned out, Palestine was not much of a better choice. With the growing inflow of Jewish settlers from Central Europe, the agitation led by zionist groups was gathering momentum, with the backstage support of the USA whose leaders were not averse to weakening Britain's hold on Palestine. Attacks by zionist groups against Palestinian villages were on the increase. On the other hand, anti-British unrest was brewing among the Palestinian Arabs, involving a wave of strikes among labourers and workers. As the policeman of Palestine, Britain's job was to find some sort of settlement to bring back some stability to the area. But what settlement? The only solution the Foreign Office stategists could come up with, was the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. But, as Bevin put it, Britain would then have been "engaged in suppressing Arab resistance, antagonising the Arab states, at a time when our whole political strategy in the Middle East must be founded on cooperation with those states ". So Britain withdrew, leaving the new state of Israël to police the area.
Britain's retreat from Palestine did not leave it off the hook in Egypt. Anti-British agitation carried on there, reaching the point where, in 1952, a wave of riots resulted in ten British casualties in Cairo. By July that year, the disconsidered pro-British Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by a nationalist coup led by junior officers, among them, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Soon Nasser, who was riding a high wave of popularity in Egypt, proved his determination to push Britain out of the region and London felt compelled to make some concessions. First British rule over Sudan was ended in return for Egypt renouncing unification with Sudan. Then, in 1954, London agreed to withdraw its troops from the Canal Zone provided they retained the possibility of using their old bases in case of the Suez Canal being under threat. Of course, Britain still retained its military bases in Aden, Iraq and Jordan, which were close enough to the Canal anyway. But Nasser made a laughing stock of the Foreign Office's credulity by nationalising the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956.
This triggered one of the most farcical episodes in the history of imperialism. In October 1956, Israel launched a "surprise" invasion of Egypt. A week later French and British paratroopers landed at Port-Saïd in the Canal Zone, under the pretext of keeping the belligerents apart. Of course, as was suspected at the time and proved later, the whole thing was a sham: a secret agreement had been passed between Israël, France and Britain in the hope that the rest of the Arab states and, above all, the USA would remain neutral. As it happened, the USA did not. Faced with an American ultimatum threatening to cut their oil supplies, France and Britain agreed to a ceasefire 24 hours later and eventually staged a humiliating retreat. Within the following two years the pro-British monarchy of Iraq was overthrown while even the arch-loyal Jordanian monarchy felt compelled to denounce its treaty with Britain.
In the meantime, British interests had been dealt another blow in Iran. In 1951, a new parliamentary majority led by a liberal prime minister, Mossadeq, nationalised the Iranian assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the ancestor of today's BP through which Britain had been pumping most of Iran's oil production at a cheap price since 1909. Britain positioned the Navy off the Abadan oil terminal and troops along the Iraq-Iran border but then backed off due to American opposition. Two years later a military coup overthrew Mossadeq, killing thousands of protestors in the streets. The American CIA was heavily involved in this coup and when, some time later, the new regime redistributed Iranian oil rights, BP lost its virtual monopoly, getting a 40% share, while another 40% share was given to American companies. The USA had taken another tooth out of the lion's mouth.
Then Britain's problems moved to Cyprus. In 1954, Cyprus had been selected to replace Suez as Britain's advanced base in the Middle-East. But no sooner had the British garrison been moved in than it found itself in the middle of a full-scale guerilla war against British occupation. This led to another of these so-called "emergencies", another colonial war masquerading as a police operation against "terrorism". And it took five years and 30,000 British soldiers (one soldier for about fifteen islanders) to reach the conclusion that Cyprus had to be granted independence, although this time, Britain did manage to retain two military bases on the island.
Although Africa had been the scene of the first liberation war in a British colony - the Boer war - there had been absolutely no question in the minds of British politicians of any process leading to self-government, let alone independence of African colonies.
Yet the end of the war was preceded by a two-weeks strike in the gold mines of Gold Coast (today's Ghana) and followed by a six-week general strike by public workers in Nigeria. This set a trend which lasted until the end of the 40s, with recurring riots and strikes both against appalling material conditions and against the continuation of British rule which, in the view of the population and rightly so, was responsible for their increasing deprivation.
It took, however, fifteen more years before Macmillan's famous speech in Cape Town, in January 1960, where, talking about the African national consciousness that he had allegedly just discovered, the then Prime Minister added: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact and our national policies must take account of it ". By that time a decolonisation process was already in motion in the French African colonies. This undoubtedly relieved Macmillan of the fear that Britain's imperialist rivals may take advantage of a loosening of Britain's imperial links. But if Macmillan had seen the light at last, it was certainly primarily due to the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya and the fear of seeing similar events developing across British colonies in Africa.
Kenya was by far the richest agricultural possession in East Africa. Its best lands, a large stretch at the heart of the country known as the White Highlands, had been reserved exclusively for white settlers. These settlers dominated the colonial institutions with London's approval. At the beginning of the century, to resist an inflow of peasant squatters in the White Highlands, they had introduced a comprehensive system of labour controls comparable to that used by apartheid after 1948, complete with pass system and townships. Subsequently this system had become a means for the settlers to force the African squatters to work as cheap labour on their farms.
By the mid-40s, the squatters' community reacted more and more consistently against the settlers' harassment, organising itself to support demands for security of tenure and better wages. Eventually, in 1952 the British government gave way to the settlers' pressure and declared another "emergency", arresting dozens of nationalists and squatter activists. Fearing the repression thousands of squatters fled to shelter in the mountains where they formed the "Land and Freedom" armies. These armed groups, which became known as the Mau-Mau movement, began to attack police stations, settler farms and other targets linked to the colonial system.
There followed four years of warfare. Over 50,000 British troops, partly consisting of African soldiers, were brought in to fight what the British authorities described conveniently as "tribal criminals". Over 12,000 were killed among the rebels, of which 1000 were executed, and nearly 2,000 on the British side, but only 70 of those were white. In the course of this war, the British used the same methods they had introduced earlier in Malaysia. Concentrations camps were set up for 90,000 prisoners who hardly survived in horrific conditions, while one million Africans were forced to live in "designated villages" under army "protection".
The uprising was finally crushed in 1956. But at such a political and even economic cost to Britain, that it brought to a final end the long-standing illusion that African colonies could be taken for granted and in January 1959 a conference of the governors of all African colonies held in London laid out the blueprint of a process towards self-government across Africa. A year later, self-government was not on the agenda any more. What Macmillan was actually referring to in his Cape Town speech was full independence.
Between 1960 and 1968, all African colonies acceeded to independence one after the other, except Rhodesia. In most cases, however, it was only as a result of a cautious choice among the political forces available and only after a trial period which was used to test the ability of the potential rulers to maintain stability as well as their acceptance of British interests.
Rhodesia had many points in common with Kenya except that its proportion of white settlers was larger and its African opposition was more respectful of the colonial institutions. By 1962, when London eventually produced its first constitution aimed at giving limited political rights to a small minority of the black population, demagogues whipped up successfully the fears of the settlers to the point of getting them to support a unilateral declaration of independence in 1965, under white rule.
The stalemate could have carried on for ever had the black nationalist organisations failed to build some influence. But what was eventually decisive was the independence won in 1975 by the FRELIMO guerilla in neighbouring Mozambique. By 1976, with the help of FRELIMO, the black Rhodesian guerillas started making significant gains, occupying whole areas in the country. The fear of another guerilla victory induced the USA to put pressure on Britain. Various attempts were made to cobble together a deal that would be acceptable to the settlers and to British interests. Eventually, this was reached in 1980 with the white Rhodesian army being entrusted with keeping law and order while the nationalist guerillas had to retire in fifteeen designated camps. This in itself summed up the deal. This time again, Britain had managed to obtain a settlement on its own terms, which would leave little space for the population to endanger British economic interests.
British imperialism after the empire
Only the main stages in the disposal of the British empire have been mentioned. Nothing has been said in particular about the large number of smaller British possessions which were scattered over the world's oceans, bearing witness of Britain's past dominance over the seas. These too were disposed of, in various ways, over the past thirty years or so.
Limited as they are, Britain's last remaining colonial possessions may now seem throroughly ridiculous. They may be seen only as symbols of the extent of its past plundering of the world. But in fact they are reminders of the fact that this plundering is still going up, even though it uses different channels.
Hong Kong's alleged economic "miracle", for instance, is only due to its having been used for decades as the storehouse of Western companies trading with China and to its increasing usage of cheap labour in mainland China. The Gibraltar rock looks just like the rock usually allocated to baboons in Western zoos. And in a way, that is exactly what it represents in the Mediterranean's zoo of extinct species - hosting the last remaining specimens of the imperial British soldier. Except that it is less innocent and symbolic than it may seem at face value. This other remnant of the British empire, the Falklands Islands, another rock which should have been left long ago to its overwhelming majority of sheep and penguins, bears witness to the fact that even the most ridiculous and symbolic remnant of Britain's imperial past can be used as a pretext by imperialism in general, and its British variety in particular, to remind the world of its power.
For British imperialism did not die with the empire, far from it. The fact that in 1993 financial and business services - which are totally unproductive - represented roughly 30% of Britain's Gross Domestic Product, shows how parasitic the existence of the British bourgeoisie still remains. Parasitic on British society, of course, but in fact parasitic on the whole world.
In carrying out the decolonisation process, the British governments' objectives were no more philanthropic than during the colonisation period. Their primary aim was to ensure that direct colonial rule would no longer undermine political stability, as it did for most of the postwar decades. But equal to this preoccupation was that of preserving the interests of British capitalists, both against the colonies' population and against imperialist rivals.
With a handful of exceptions, the politicians to whom power was handed over at the time of independence were duly selected and tested, not from the point of view of their democratic credentials or support among the population, but from the point of view of their reliability as rulers, their preparedness to enforce law and order and their commitment to and respect for British interests. Most of them had been educated in British universities and in any case trained in the British civil service or in the British army. They had many connections with British businessmen and politicians which guaranteed a certain level of "understanding", even in the case of radical leaders such as Nkrumah in Ghana or Kenyatta in Kenya, or guerilla leaders such as Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
As to the provisions that were made, as part of the independence deals, to preserve British economic and financial interests, they ensured that the new countries' economies would remain tied to its old exploiters. Of course, in many cases, Britain has had to agree to share, mostly with the USA, Japan, Germany and France to a lesser extent. This, however, was nothing but the recognition of the real balance of forces between the imperialist rivals. Besides, with its derelict economy, Britain would have been at pains to provide for the needs of a market the size of India - whose main trading partner has been the USA for a long time now. But on the whole, most of the large British companies whose main source of income had been the empire so far, have retained their positions after decolonisation. Even where, like in the case of Nigeria's oil, whole industries were taken over by the state, British companies have secured some form of monopoly over the transformation or distribution of the local production that allows them to retain the large profits which they were used to in the past.
The scars of poverty
Even if it were not for the direct and almost open plundering of the former colonies by British companies, the operation of the world market would in and of itself ensure high pickings for imperialist powers. With no source of capital, no basic industries and no network to distribute their productions, the former colonies are stuck with buying - at a very high price - the services of foreign industrial, commercial and financial companies. At the same time, for lack of technology and lack of capital to improve it, the social cost of exported products in terms of the labour required is much higher than that of imported goods from the industrialised countries. At this game, independent or not, the former colonies can only lose out. Even the horrific exploitation imposed on the proletariat in these countries does not come close to making up for this fundamental imbalance. Far from being "developing" countries, as they are claimed to be, they are becoming poorer and poorer and the permanent world crisis of the past two decades has sharpened this trend for most of them.
Many of Britain's former colonies are among the world's poorest countries. Many of them are not even viable by any stretch of imagination. The myriad of tiny independent islands sprinkled all over the world by the British empire is an example of this. In the best cases they survive on tourism. At worst they are doomed to a slow death in isolation. But many of Britain's former colonies in Africa are not in a better shape. Their economy was entirely geared towards one or two productions in the colonial days. No provision was ever made to develop food crops to allow an increasing population to eat. And this trend is sustained by the pressures of the world market at the cost of growing starvation.
From the colonial days, the local privileged in these countries have learned their lesson from the colonial bourgeoisie - "make profit". Except that on the basis of utterly poor economies, the greed for profit of the tiny local bourgeoisie is enough to pump a significant proportion of the local resources out of the economy and there is no space for all the contenders. The state machinery, as a result, is the place to be in order to make profit. Hence the extreme corruption of the states of these countries, and their dictatorial character. For any improvement in the conditions of the population would have to be paid by cutting the meagre pickings - by Western standards - of those in office.
The poverty, the corruption and total lack of democracy, are a direct inheritance of the colonial past. Yet this does not prevent British politicians who are so keen to talk about democracy when it comes to Ireland for instance, from turning a blind eye on the crimes of their local stooges. How long did it take for Britain to admit that Idi Amin, the former dictator of Uganda, an officer trained by the British army in Burma and in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising, was responsible for the most horrific atrocities? In the colonial days, the British government was prepared to cover up almost any one of the many crimes which were committed against the population by its representatives in the colonies. Today the same attitude still prevails. The smokescreen of "Queen and Country" is gone. All that remains is the crude determination to help vested capitalist interests to screw profits out of empoverished populations.
Not only are most of the former colonies unviable in economic terms, the way their borders have been drawn often makes no sense at all. A quick glance at a map of the Middle East shows the borders of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria as almost straight lines. Indeed they were pencilled on a map in a few hours in 1922 by the then British High Commissioner in Baghdad. Likewise the patchwork appearance of Africa, particularly on its Western coast, reflects more the long history of rivalries between colonial powers and Western companies, than any local necessity.
Many of the difficulties and social unrest in the ex-empire have been blamed in Britain on tribal or ethnic conflicts, implying that they are due to some built-in backwardness. But then why have so many ethnic groups, in Africa in particular, been sliced between several countries whithout taking the slightest notice of the aspirations of the local populations? Ethnic groups which had nothing in common and no traditions of living together, except that of being under the domination of the same colonial power, have been enclosed in national borders which they never chose. They have been forced by extreme poverty into a struggle for survival in which they appear to be in competition with one another, since those responsible for the mess have now withdrawn. And because of the pressures and constraints imposed by the world capitalist market, there is no possibility of an economic expansion significant enough to provide hope for everyone, which would be the only way for the populations to learn to live together, not out of compulsion but out of choice. It is indeed easy and convenient for politicians here in Britain, to wash their hands of such conflicts and blame them on those involved!
And this is all the more hypocritical as one of the corner stones of Britain's imperial domination was precisely a power game aimed at playing one ethnic group against another, one religion against the other, in the hope that it would divert the hostility of the population away from the colonial exploitation.
India exploded at the time of independence in a communal backlash which was rooted in the British authorities' long-standing tradition of playing Muslims against Hindus. The same powderkeg has resulted in the unending civil war in Kashmir. The absurd partition of India eventually led to the bloody break up of Pakistan. And the recent resurgence of religious fundamentalism in India could well set the powderkeg alight again.
In Sri Lanka, Britain left another time-bomb with the forced deportation of massive numbers of Indian Tamils to work in the tea and rubber plantations and by using the Sinhalese to keep law and order among them. Nearly twenty years ago this time-bomb exploded into an open civil war which is still going on today. And Britain's systematic deportation of populations for the needs of its production has resulted into similar, if less explosive situations, at least for the time being, in the former colonies of Burma and Malaysia.
In Nigeria, a combination of rivalries between Western powers, ambitions on the part of local politicians, ethnic tensions and desperation among populations faced with an unprecedented poverty led to the Biafra war in 1966. After four years of fighting, the war left up to two million casualties, many of whom died of starvation as a result of the war.
These are only the most glaring examples of the empire's "civilising" effect and of the traps left for the colonised populations after Britain withdrew from its colonies. But there are no doubt many others, some already visible, others that are still concealed.
The imperialist plague
In its heyday colonialism was able to develop in Britain and in the rest of the industrialised world by the fact that there was little resistance against it from the working class of the imperialist countries. The reformist organisations who led the working class and spoke on its behalf made a conscious choice in this respect. In the hope of getting some improvements for the working classes of the colonial powers, they turned a blind eye to the crimes that their bourgeoisie were perpetrating in the colonies. Worse, they even found moral justifications for these crimes and promoted the idea that, after all, the rich bourgeoisie were bringing the "progress" of modern civilisation to otherwise backward countries.
British workers, like their brothers in the other imperialist countries paid a dear price for their blindness. For the colonial stampede only concealed the ferocious rivalries between the capitalist powers. And these rivalries meant war. For decades the battlegrounds of this war remained limited to Africa and Asia. This was the time when the leaders of the working-class reformist leaders were extolling the virtues of Western civilisation in the colonies. Then the battleground shifted from the colonies to Europe. World War I came, and the same reformist leaders who had been so complacent about the colonies while expressing a vocal opposition to any war, joined governments to help the bourgeoisie in its war effort. The working classes of Europe, and then of America, were thrown at the throats of one another in the killing fields of Europe, with the help of their own leaders, for the benefit of their exploiters.
Twenty-five years later, the same catastrophe happened again, only on a much wider scale. This time, although the reformist leaders of the working class were still sitting in National Governments to support the war effort, there were probably fewer illusions as to the legitimacy of this war among those who were sent onto the battle fields. The Labour Party here, like all other parties in government in the Allied camp, pretended it was a war for democracy, when it was a war for the bankers.
What of tomorrow? The rivalries between imperialist powers are not over. Their representatives may sit down ceremoniously in international conferences every so often, but their economic war goes on all over the planet, and with increased bitterness as the world capitalist crisis reduces the markets they all share. They may be staging joint military interventions, as they did in the Gulf War, but in the background, as so many British politicians complained afterwards, the USA were quick to reap all the contracts, all the markets, all the opportunities, under the noses of their alleged allies.
In 1939, the world bourgeoisie could have faced a determined refusal to enter another world-scale butchery from the proletariat across the world, in the rich countries just as in the poor countries. It did not. Today, the proletariat worldwide has grown stronger, in numbers and in concentration than it ever was. And it has a mighty weapon in its hand - it is an international class in the sense that it has no vested interests in any kind of national divisions. If we are to prevent the imperialist rivalries from developing yet again into another major butchery, the voice of the working class must first be heard against the minor adventures which may prepare bigger ones in the future, be they theatrical, although costly in every respect, exhibitions like the Falklands war or elaborate machineries of death like the Gulf war. The concluding words of Marx in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, "Proletarians of all countries, unite! " have never been more relevant than today.