For length of years my fruitless force employ
Against the thin remains of ruined Troy.
What nations now to Juno's power will pray,
Or offerings on my slighted altars lay?
- Arms and the man I sing. Virgil’s Aenid
Boris Johnson’s recent announcement of a £24.1 billion increase in war spending, signals a serious attempt to halt and put into reverse British imperialism’s historic decline as a global offensive power. The increase adds to an existing budget of £41.5bn, bringing the total spend over the next 4 years to a staggering £65.6 billion. It is the biggest increase in defence spending since that of the Thatcher government in the 1980s and is designed to give British capital greater leverage both in partnership with and in competition against its US and NATO allies.
The capitalist media in Britain has a natural penchant for acting as a mouthpiece of Ministry of Defence communiques. In this instance they hit a new low by simply echoing Johnson’s soundbites. In perfect unison their headlines blazed “defending Britain” and “protecting our people” as justification for an increase which far outweighs the spending review forecastes for health and education. When it came to Johnson’s statement as a whole they skimmed over its key features, leaving most people in the dark about its stark objectives.
Making Britain great again.
Even with its own double-speak policy of concealing aggression behind a veil of defence, Johnson admitted that this additional spending would restore Britain as "the foremost naval power in Europe" . In a re-assertion of British imperial identity he stated that “Britain must be true to our history”. Referring to new technology which will “revolutionise warfare” and “multiply existing strike power” Johnson declared that on a world scale “the prizes will go to the swiftest and most agile nations”. In a barely concealed acknowledgement of inter-imperialist rivalry, he argued that:
“Nations are racing to master this new doctrine of warfare and our investment is designed to place Britain among the winners”
A crucial element in this projection of Global Britain was a reassertion of the the benefits of the Union between Scotland and England. In a thinly veiled attack against Scottish independence Johnson’s bullish statement argued that:
“This will spur a renaissance of shipbuilding across the UK”, ad illuminate, “the benefit of the Union in the white light of the arc welders torch.”
As evidence of the projected revival of British imperialism’s maritime power Johnson announced that next year the royal navy flagship Queen Elizabeth “will lead a task group on our most ambitious deployment for two decades encompassing the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and east Asia”
This was a call to arms for Covid crisis Britain and the Labour Party was first to proudly wrap itself in the Union flag. It’s leader Sir Keir Starmer, former Brexit secretary in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, welcomed the additional funding, stating that “under my leadership national security will always be Labour’s top priority” and that “Britain must once again show global leadership”.
Johnson’s announcement is the culmination of a long process of review and revival of the war budget which began in 2015. That year’s review looked at the need for renewed naval capacity as part of what they call “forward deployment”. With the shrinkage of imperial land power, this is now provided by semi-permanent sites on the periphery of territorial waters where the UK is unable to have agreed military bases. Crucial to this is the creation of what they call Litoral (coastal) Strike Ships (LSS) which Wesminster agreed to purchase in 2019.
Writing on the website of the British Forces Broadcasting Service, their technology expert David Hambling, summed up the new capacity thus:
“The ability of the littoral strike ship to provide a fighting force and everything it needs without relying on local infrastructure means it can operate anywhere in the world.”
With this new strike force Johnson clearly intends is to recover some of the global naval capability lost in the aftermath of WW2. .
Some key pieces of this maritime jigsaw have already been put in place with the building of the two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, contracted by the Labour government in 2007, and which are now the largest warships ever built for the navy.
Beginnings of rearmament
The process of British rearmament began in earnest with the 2015 Strategic Defence Review carried out by David Cameron’s Tory government. The Wall Street Journal was quick to explain the significance of this. In an article headlined Britain Begins to Rearm it was amongst the first to celebrate the review:
“So kudos to David Cameron’s government for reversing years of cuts to Britain’s military spending with a strategic review that starts to take account of the world as it is.”
In addtion to rebuilding and equipping an expanded naval capacity Cameron’s review also projected the creation of an expeditionary force of around 50,000 personnel with lighter and modernised armour accompanied by a new cohort of hi-tech weaponry and a substantial special forces capability. Of course, all of Britain’s armed forces, which have a total strength of 193,460 service personnel, is expeditionary by nature. What the rearmament does is recast a large chunk of this as part of the forward and rapid deployment forces undertaking regular overseas operations. This includes a separate UK led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) comprising the Baltic and Nordic states which is entirely separate from NATO. Although based in northern Europe, the main theatre of operations of this JEF is in the Middle East.
JEF member states
“capable of projecting power with global effect and influence. Nowhere is more important to us than our friends in the Middle East and Gulf and in line with clear political intent we would expect, with other initiatives, for JEF elements to spend more time reassuring and deterring in that region.”
The expansion of the UK’s rapid deployment expeditionary forces was one element of a general rearmament in 2015 that included hiring 1,900 new foreign and domestic intelligence personnel, buying 20 long-range drones and setting aside £41 billion to build Britain’s next generation of nuclear missile submarines.
Sovereign and lethal force
With the Trident capability being modified to include “sub strategic” nuclear strikes, i.e. missiles with “just” one nuclear war head capable of local targetting, the UK’s naval war forces continues to uphold Britain’s status amongst the top five military powers. The creation of the new Litoral Strike Ships (LSS) enhances that power even further.
Speaking in 2019, Gavin Williamson (UK Defence Secretary at that time) explained the strategic function of the LSS as follows:
“Our vision is for these ships to form part of 2 Littoral Strike Groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic. And, if we ever need them to, our two Littoral Strike Ships, our two aircraft carriers, our two amphibious assault ships Albion and Bulwark, and our three Bay Class landing ships can come together in one amphibious task force. This will give us sovereign, lethal, amphibious force. This will be one of the largest and best such forces anywhere in the world.”
According to the website Save the Royal Navy, the main role of the LSS will be as a base for special forces operations: “the FLSS may operate semi-covertly and independently for special forces and commando insertion”
In September, two months prior to Johnson’s announcement , over 1,000 sailors and Royal Marines had already sailed for a three-month deployment to the Mediterranean, Black Sea and North Africa. According to Commodore Rob Pedre, the purpose of this was to,
“test cutting-edge technology and innovative concepts such as the Future Commando Force and the Littoral Strike Force concept to ensure our war-fighting edge in an era of constant competition.”
Defence of the realm.
“I have made this decision in the teeth of the pandemic”, declared Johnson,” because defence of the realm must come first.”
Johnson’s language, like that of the class whose interests he voices, is rarely precise but still prone to invoke archaic terminology. In this case “realm” is an essential part of the legacy of imperialist rule and refers directly to the 16 states who still share Queen Elizabeth II as their Monarch. They include the likes of Canada and Australia, but most of them such as the nine Caribbean states were former colonies until winning independence after the WW2. In addition, the realm also includes many more Britiish Overseas Territories and military bases which act as outposts for Westminster’s war forces and as guarrantor of access to oil and gas exploration within their territories…… or realm as they would say.
Apart from the USA, there is no other country in the world which enjoys such far reaching territorial advantages as the UK does. Not even China, Germany, France or Japan come anywhere close to the number and geographical spread of UK bases . However, these are not just some anachronistic remnants of an antiquated system. Together with the UK’s programme of rearmament, they constitute a vital part of 21st century British imperialism.
21st century British imperialism.
British imperialism is a term usually associated almost exclusively with the British Empire and a gunboat diplomacy which established direct colonial rule over vast swathes of territory on every continent. Some argue that with the disappearance of this empire, British imperialism not only came to an end but reduced the UK to a mere poodle or play thing of the American collosus. Nothing could be further from the truth.
British capitalism has undegone an indisputable structural change, one that has weakened its position vis a vis its traditional competitors in Washington, Bonn, Tokyo, and more recently in Beijing and Moscow. This change has been accompanied by an absolute decline in heavy industry and manufacturing with steel, mining and car manufacturing being the most outstanding examples. Despite this, measured by GDP alone, Britain is still the sixth largest economy in the world.
This can be explained in large measure by the British state’s strategic decision to boost the financial sector and create a financial machine able to extract profits from the world economy, both directly from its own investments abroad and indirectly as a global broker for other capitalist powers. As the preeminent world financial center, the City came to provide the financial muscle which an ailing industrial capitalism was no longer able to furnish. By the beginning of the 21st century, London become the world’s biggest banking centre. It had the largest share of the global foreign exchange market and a leading position in all areas of finance.
Britain’s undeclared realm
As the balance of the British economy shifted from manufacturing exports to financial services, Gulf wealth in particular played a significant role in financing its current account deficit. Petrodollars from Saudi Arabia in particular flooded the City and helped navigate the imperial ship through the financial Tsunami of 2008.
This has allowed Britain to receive a net income from foreign investments despite being a net debtor to the rest of the world. Such a position is shared with only one other country, the US, which operates in a similar fashion.
Of course being a broker is not the same as being the owner. It’s a bit like being a real estate agent. You do not own the properties but you can earn a fortune as an agent for their sales and purchases. By 2008, in the year of the banking meltdown, the British economy’s earnings from financial services alone had already topped £40bn.
Even at this level you can appreciate why Britain is bulking up its military muscle Any global broker worth their salt, and British capital has barrels of the stuff, is highly protective of its business. Westminster regards any threat to its interests in much the same way that a real estate agent would sneer at an anti-social family or failing business moving into their patch, especially one that didn’t pay the rent to the landlord whose property they are managing. Stern measures would need to be taken to stop falling property prices and sales commissions. In the event that an eviction order is ignored the agent would call in the bailiffs or the cops.
The British state acts pretty much in the same way.Traditionally this translates into a Washington/Wesminster military axis, but while there is an indisputable pecking order here, this is a relationship that entirely serves British capitalism’s interests. And there is much more to this than the profits earned as middle man.
Whilst the steep decline in manufacturing has produced regular deficits in Britain’s balance of trade, this has been offset by exceptionally high returns on overseas investments, particularly in Third World countries. This trend was confirmed in the data for 2009 which showed that compared to a 4.6% return on domestic investment, overseas assets were almost double at 8.5%. It was even higher in Africa where direct investments furnished a rate of return 2-3 times higher than the world average for British capital.
The data for foreign direct investment confirm that British capitalism, despite the strength of the City, is much more than a purely financial market operator,. Of course it is hardly surprising that the country with the largest foreign direct investments is the US. Britain lags well behind this vast power, but has still remained in second place in the opening years of the new century followed closely by France and Germany.
A similar distribution of economic power is demonstrated by the ranking of major global corporations. Of the world’s top 100 non-financial corporations ranked by the value of foreign assets they held in 2008, 18 were American, 15 British, 15 French, 13 German and nine Japanese. In other words, just five countries accounted for 70% of the top 100 companies! More recent (2017) data shows a slight change in numbers but essentially the same ranking.
These then are the material bases underpinning British rearmament in general and which are highlighted even further by its military-economic position in the Gulf region.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States
The vast bulk of UK trade is with the EU and the USA. However, outside of these two giant markets, Saudi Arabia comes third in terms of the UK’s export market and constitutes a central pillar of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council} comprising all the Arab states – minus Iraq – in the Persian Gulf. In a speech to the GCC in 2017, the British Secretary of State for Overseas trade, Liam Fox, highlighted the crucial economic importance the region holds for British capitalism:
“UK companies export over £30 billion worth of goods and services to the GCC nations every year, more than to China, and almost twice the value of our exports to India.” Deal or no deal, the GCC will never be a substitute for UK trade with the EU. However, what is already a common market aiming for monetary and political union comparable to the EU, is opening up new possibilities for investment and trade. Saudi Arabia is at the centre of this bloc and is leading the effort to diversify its economy and become less dependent on oil. Known as Vision 2030, it’s programme of “modernisation” is being driven by extensive privatisation particularly in the health and education sectors.
What British capital sees a lucrative market for superprofits, is in fact a site for vast social inequality and poverty. The the social landscape of the Arab world in particular constitues one of the greatest portraits of exploitation and underdevelopment. Out of a population of 400 million some 250 million people are estimated to be living in absolute poverty or on its threshold. This is a product of a class divided region where the top 10 percent of its people own 64 percent of its wealth. Historically this class inequality stems from colonial domination and has been sustained by either military intervention and/or extremely autocratic regimes which trample on human and democratic rights. In most cases this combination has insured an entirely lopsided economy characterised by extreme underdevelopment. Despite formal political independence and the acquisition of enormous oil revenues, it is a region heavily dependent on imperialist investment and military support. Saudi Arabia is the foremost example of this. Known for its oil sheikhs and property tycoons, the Royal family alone is the richest in the world, with a net worth of around $1.4 trillion. Unemployment runs at around 10% and an estimated 20% of the population live in general poverty. Buttressed by huge weapons contracts and military training by Britain. the kingdom now functions openly as a pro-western regional power acting as a deterrent against all shades of insurgency. The kingdom is one of the UK’s most important trading partners. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the UK exported £6 billion worth of goods and services to Saudi Arabia in 2018. British companies present in the market include Shell, GlaxoSmithKline, BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and Unilever. Over 6,000 UK firms export goods to Saudi Arabia.
A large chunk of this comprises UK arms exports provided by BAE contracts. According to a recent BAE Systems' annual report.the company made £2.5 billion from Saudi Arabia in 2019 alone and £15 billion between 2015 and 2019. This makes the Saudi government BAE's third-largest client after the US and UK.
This extraodinary volume of arms sales to the Saudi regime is much more than a source of profit for individual weapons companies. In addition to sustaining Britain’s domestic arms industry, which is vital to projecting British imperialism as a global power, these sales form part of a strategy of forming and training a high powered, high tec and heavily armed force capable of sustaining offensive operations in the region. The war in Yemen illustrates this.
The repressive nature of these regimes and their medieval ideologies are no barrier whatsoever. On the contrary, it is precisely because of their reactionary character that they provide such reliable bases for imperialist interests across the length and breadth of the Arabian Peninsula. Which is also why they prize Westminster’s central role in honing their apparatus of repression.
Today, there are currently around 130 British military personnel permanently based in Saudi Arabia, comprising military advisors, intelligence, and training specialists, not to mention the 22 high ranking Saudi officers who have undertaken specialist training at the Sandhurst military academy. In addition to providing a potential base of war against Iran, the Saudi regime plays a pivotal role as guarrantor of global energy supplies as a whole. With proven reserves of some 47 per cent of global oil capacity and current suppliers of 32 per cent of world production, the region’s geo-economic and military power is vital to the stability and ambitions of Western imperialism generally and to US imperialism in particular which continues to dominate the region. This is all the more so given the extraordinary surge in hydrocarbon consumption by China, India and other Asian states. In the case of China alone, over 50 per cent of its oil imports come from the Gulf region. The fact that all of the GCC states are monarchies, run by Sultans, Kings, Sheikhs and the like, is not unimportant. Besides the extra leverage which this provides for the British monarchy in the region, their archaic and reactionary political and social structures blend perfectly with Western imperialists interests. Wherever extreme riches rest on even more extreme poverty, despotic rule is its natural companion.
Although British imperialism’s reign as first lord of the desert came to an end after WW2, Westminster managed to retain some of its key advantages which it is using to even greater effect today.
Crushing the Omani insurgency There is no better example of this than in Gulf state of Oman which occupies a strategic postion by the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow stretch of water which bypasses the southern coast of Iran and is the route for ships carrying $1.2 billion of oil every day. Sounds a lot and it is because it accounts for about 40 per cent of the global trade in crude oil.
What’s there not to like about Oman? Well, rather a lot actually, not least of all the absolute monarchy that has governed the country with an iron fist from independence in 1951 through to today.
Before the current Sultan was installed in a palace coup engineered by Westminster, Britain carried out a series of counter-insurgency operations that were clearly a foretaste of what was to come in Iraq. Between July and December 1958, for example, the RAF flew 1,635 sorties, dropping 1,094 tons of bombs and firing 900 rockets on mountain-top villages and irrigation works. This was more than twice the weight of bombs that the Luftwaffe dropped on Coventry in November 1940.
In 1966, a new rebellion broke out in the south of the country, among the people of Dhofar province. This was an uprising in the only country on earth where slavery was still legal, with the Sultan himself owning 500 slaves, 150 of whom were women.
Little wonder that the British war against the Omani rebels remained a secret for decades after, even more so given that the British-led forces poisoned wells, torched villages, destroyed crops and shot livestock.. Areas populated by civilians were turned into free-fire zones and prisoners were tortured with the developing sensory deprivation techniques that became so notorious in later wars.
The current Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who was installed in the palace coup and hailed as a moderniser because he ended slavery, functions very much along the lines of his predecessor and as such remains an invaluable British ally.
In 2018, for example, Oman introduced draconian legislation containing harsh penalties against free speech and other rights, with jail sentences being imposed on anyone who publishes material that poses “a challenge to the rights of the Sultan and his prerogatives, or disgraces his person” or which “undermine the stature of the State”. The new penal code supplements the existing tyranny under which political parties are banned and political meetings are likely to result in arrests. The Sultan himself formally holds the positions of prime minister, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, chairman of the central bank, and minister of defence, foreign affairs and finance.
Britain’s active internal support for the Sultan’s repressive regime was confirmed in 2017, when the Police Service of Northern Ireland ran programmes training Oman’s police, military and special forces in how to manage strikes and protests. The 6 counties is the only part of the UK where the police are routinely armed and where the use of rubber bullets and water cannon is also sanctioned.
In total, more than 100 Omani officials and officers have travelled to Northern Ireland, while five teams of Northern Ireland business consultants and police officers have visited Oman. Most recently, 13 Omani officials travelled to Northern Ireland in March for command-and-control training for senior officers.
Bolstering the apparatus of state repression is just one part of British backing for the Sultanate. It is a partnership which is solidified, as ever, by arms sales. Of the weapons imports valued at $2.4bn between 2014-18, Britain was by far the largest supplier.
British commercial interests in Oman are also growing, especially in oil and gas, which accounts for 30 percent of Oman’s GDP. Shell has a 34 percent interest in the Petroleum Development Corporation, which manages the country’s oil, while BP has a 60 percent interest in the massive Khazzan gas project, in which it has invested $16bn.
At the heart of this very special relationship, is the Omani regime’s licensing of expanding military bases for Britain, codified in 2019 with the Comprehensive Joint Declaration on Enduring Friendship and a Joint Defence Agreement. Britain already has two military bases in Oman, the biggest of which is the Duqm port complex in central Oman, which will house the two 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth aircraft. This will provide “a strategically important and permanent maritime base east of Suez, but outside of the Gulf” and “serve as a staging post for UK Carrier Strike Group deployments across the Indian Ocean”.
Prior to this the two kingdoms launched the UK’s largest military exercise in the Middle East in 20 years. Known as Exercise Saif Sareea 3, it involved over 60,000 personnel from the Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces as well as 5,500 from the British Armed Forces.
Britain’s military bases, investments, police training programmes in other Gulf states such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, confirm a general profile of what is now being described post-Brexit as Global Britain. It remains to be seen how this will pan out economically. However, what we can see clearly are the contours of an imperialist state whose so-called defence spending goes someway towards increasing its military leverage, above all in the crucial seas of the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Indian oceans.
An integral part of this profile is Westminster’s complete disregard for the human and social rights of the majority of people who inhabit this region. By the same token, Johnson’s rearmament has nothing to do with defending “our” security. At its core is the need to perpetuate and extend their class rule and the elite interests of all those who feed from the trough of world capitalism. Inevitably, the more that world spirals into decline, the more they threaten to take us to war. That’s what Britain’s rearmament is all about.