In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

The US / UK road to Iraq and the corrupting influence of the Anglo-American “special relationship”

Posted by seumasach on December 13, 2008


Christopher King


10th  December, 2008

Christopher King examines the corrosive effects of the Anglo-American “special relationship” on British politics and argues that, if Britain is to safeguard its civil liberties, democracy and independence, it must bring former Prime Minister Tony Blair to account for that ultimate symbol of the “special relationship”, the Iraq war.

You might have heard of the current political row in the British Parliament. The government set in motion an anti-terrorist police action in which Member of Parliament Damian Green’s office in the House of Commons was searched without a warrant. Allegedly, he received information relating to national security which was, in fact, a leak from a government employee that is embarrassing to the government but not even a criminal offence. The police used a catch-all law that they use to harass civil service employees who upset the government. Particularly if you are not British, you might wonder what the fuss is about. This is the tip of an immense political iceberg that connects the United Kingdom to the behaviour of the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan.

It is not immediately obvious, but the UK has reached the political point at which, in 1793, France removed the heads of its ruling class. Fundamental decisions need to be made. England had an earlier revolution led by Oliver Cromwell, which became a civil war with, in 1649, removal of the head of the king, Charles I. That revolution achieved only marginal gains. Although Parliament won the power struggle and established its ascendancy, the monarchy was restored and continues to have great symbolic power. It was during that 17th century conflict that the doors of Parliament were slammed shut in the face of the king, who was refused admittance. The same struggle between Parliament and the executive re-surfaced last week with the unauthorized entry of the police into a weak Parliament that has lost its identity and its way. 

On Monday 8 December I watched the government win a vote in Parliament to postpone an investigation of Mr Green’s arrest and the search of his office. Those members who voted in favour did not return to the chamber to hear the outcome. I believe that they were ashamed and if not, they should have been. I have said previously that the British Parliament is politically corrupt and this is further evidence that it is concerned with interests other than the best interests of the UK.

Because of the rot at its centre, the country is economically disintegrating – ethical collapse having already occurred. The crisis identifiably dates from Parliament’s vote on the Iraq war. Members followed Anthony Blair who had taken upon himself the royal prerogative to decide for war or peace. Individual members considered Iraq to be, in an infamous phrase, “a country far away, about which little is known”. They considered that it did not matter, that they could vote on the basis of personal interests and allegiances. Issues of war and peace, life and death always matter. Consequently, it is now obvious that Parliament was disastrously wrong in that decision but is unable to admit it. It has continued to assert that Anthony Blair’s and George Bush’s invasion of Iraq (on which I concentrate for clarity) was right and legal when the whole world and Parliament itself knows that it was not. That inner conflict and lack of an ethical base is having a corrosive effect on its effectiveness. To gain Parliament’s consent for the war it was necessary for Mr Blair to present it with gross lies and deception that it failed to examine before abandoning its democratic role of representing the people and its cultural heritage. Parliament thus continues to destroy civil liberties and the country’s morale while maintaining the pretence that there is an external enemy when the enemy is within itself.

Gordon Brown’s government has politicized the police, or at least, permitted them to play politics. It is not difficult to see why this has happened. John Scarlett, Prime Minister Blair’s head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, was promoted and given a knighthood for supporting the Iraq war despite his own intelligence analysts’ advice to the contrary. It was seen that patronage pays.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and other senior police got away publicly supporting the government by announcing their wish to extend the period of detention without trial for terrorist suspects when this was debated in Parliament. Conceivably, Commissioner Blair wished to ingratiate himself with the government following his shoot-to-kill-on-suspicion security policy resulting in the death of an innocent man, the Brazilian, Jean-Charles de Menezes. This, the London bombings and the suicide of Dr David Kelly are in direct line of causality from the failure of integrity on the part of the politicized civil servants John Scarlett and the attorney-general, Peter Goldsmith, who declared the war legal. 

In the present case of police searching within the House of Commons, two of the senior officers who authorized the search are applicants for Sir Ian Blair’s now vacant position. It is conjectured that they were establishing their political reliability if not usefulness to the Brown government, although what exactly occurred has now been concealed by Parliament’s refusal to hold an immediate inquiry. But as I said, this is an ancient English conflict. It is the battle of the people against oppressive authority, or in its ancient form, the right of kings to rule. You might well be wondering what this might have to do with the US. The behaviour of the United states has these same roots and I will trace them out.

A critical event occurred in 1066. William, Duke of Normandy, successfully invaded England and stayed there to rule. Until this time Anglo-Saxon law was based on custom and practice. The French introduced the concept of statute law that the king could change at will. William maintained French law and the French language among the ruling aristocracy while the subservient Anglo-Saxons maintained their own language and, subject to that of the king, their laws. The two languages merged relatively quickly, although their origins are still seen in English today with swine and cow (from German) for the peasants’ animals, to become porkand beef (from French) on the aristocrats’ tables. The separation between ruled and rulers was more persistent. The class difference governed by ownership of land and proximity to the monarch persists to this day. It is seen also in the House of Lords, which nominally approves legislation from the House of Commons. Language usage and accent are still important supporters of class but money and political influence are now a means of social mobility. Anthony Blair for example had a working class origin, and despite socialist beliefs, that he dropped when they became embarrassing, might well have saved the British monarchy by advising the Royal Family at the time of its deep unpopularity on Princess Diana’s death. Anthony Blair’s assumption of the right to take the nation to war is entirely an aristocratic, royal attitude, exactly as William I would have assumed, although Mr Blair acted, of necessity, with more guile. 

It was no accident that Marx and Engels took their examples from England in employing class analysis to economics for the first time, since it was in this country that social division was most marked in Europe. 

As for law, to this day, common law and statute law exist in parallel in England, as they do in the Commonwealth countries that took the basis of their law from that of England. This is also the case of the United States. 

In brief, the division of English society by William of Normandy into two distinct classes, with one having privileges that the other did not, persists to the present day. 

The English pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower were a branch of English culture. They reached America in 1620, having left in the period immediately before the English civil war and the struggle for ascendancy between the king and Parliament. The Pilgrim Fathers emigrated due to their objections to the the king’s right to dictate their religion. The Puritan, Cromwell, who led the Parliamentarians in England, went further, wanting reforms to the king’s right to rule, a process that had begun at Runnymead in 1215 when the terms of the Magna Carta first laid constraints on the monarch’s absolute rights.

Having escaped monarchy and religious oppression, the Pilgrim Fathers and subsequent settlers attempted to realize their ideals in setting up a society in which all men were equals, aristocracy did not exist and all could worship as they wished. They threw off English rule, established the United States and expressed their ideals in the US Constitution. 

There was a problem, however. On encountering the Indians, a decision had to be made whether the Indians were their equals, to be treated according to the colonists’ laws, or a class over whom the settlers and their laws had priority. They chose precedent rights for themselves and their laws. The settlers appropriated Indian land, massacred them and broke the treaties that they made with them. The US Constitution applied only to European settlers. It was a situation reminiscent of William I’s conquest of England. This occurred because, in making all men among themselves equal while excluding the Indians, they had elevated themselves to an American aristocracy, following the model of the English culture they had left behind. That self-perception persists to the present time in the same way as the Afrikaaner culture of South Africa perpetuated elitist 17th century self-perceptions in the apartheid policy of its government.

Similarly, the foundations of US culture are frozen to the values of 17th century England. This cannot be perceived within US society – it only becomes evident in American attitudes to non-Americans, particularly in its foreign policy. The original settlers’ rationalization that seizing the First People’s land was part of civilizing them is repeated in the US’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is purportedly for the good of those unfortunate countries and the protection of their neighbours. It is reflected in the US prerogative to ignore other countries’ borders and sovereignty as in the cross-border attacks on Syria and Pakistan as well as its openly illegal clandestine operations against Iran, in which it perceives no wrong. The US’s creation of the Guantanamo Bay prison and torture of its inmates is an expression of the monarch’s right to act without the constraints of law. The immunity of US troops and employees in Iraq and Afghanistan from the laws of those countries is the immunity of princes above commoners. President Bush’s ability to pardon criminals such as “Scooter” Libby to avoid their trial is a regal prerogative that no longer exists in England or Europe. These are not metaphors. They are genuine petrified cultural characteristics from the 17th century. 

This is the origin of the United States’ myth of its mission to bring democracy to the world together with the necessity for freedom from international law in order to do so. I have described elsewhere two secondary factors that influence its foreign policy and did so in the US’s decision to invade Iraq: 

  • Support for Israel: This too can be traced to the Pilgrim Fathers’ break with the conservative traditions of the Church of England and Roman Catholicism. It permitted fundamentalist belief in the Jews’ biblical claim to be God’s chosen people, identification with the biblical destiny of the Jews in Israel and their own self-perceptions as being, broadly, spiritual Jews. There is strong belief in the US’s “manifest destiny” and “right to lead”, which are religious, aristocratic concepts.
  • The US’s past experience of finding expansionism and an interventionist foreign policy profitable and its success self-reinforcing.

Because of these cultural characteristics, I have expressed doubt that Barack Obama will make significant changes to US foreign policy. The US has never explained why it ignores laws and principles that it expects other nations to respect. This is because the US is unaware of the driving forces in its own culture. As in the UK, the dysfunctional aspects of these forces have been disguised by a period of prosperity due originally to advantages of technology and economic strength together with, in the case of the UK, colonialism. More recently, the illusion of continued prosperity has been based on borrowing. Both these factors have now run their course and the US and UK must manage their economies in a highly competitive world where resources are scarce and industrial production has passed to Asia. The US’s response is to use its military power to seize other countries’ resources and meddle in their politics; the UK’s response is to follow the US. 

The dysfunction of the UK Parliament is due to a similar self-perception of having been elevated to the aristocracy. I watched the entire Iraq war debate on television and marvelled at what I was seeing. Immediately following the unprecedented march of a million citizens in London’s streets in opposition to the war, that debate showed not the representatives of the people examining ethics, known facts and international law, but an aristocracy indulging itself. I have mentioned Anthony Blair’s assumption of the monarch’s privilege in deciding to declare war and his deception of Parliament and the country to achieve that. His relationship with George Bush and the much vaunted “special relationship” between the UK and the US is based on the English ruling class’s resonance with the US’s cultural attitudes that I have described above. It was a meeting of aristocrats.

The two forms of law originating with the Norman invasion of England are nevertheless still alive. Immediately after the horrors of World War II the cultural memory of common law emerged in both the US and UK. These countries took the lead in defining the Nuremburg principles as a basis for prosecuting the leading Nazis. These principles were incorporated into international law by the UN with the intention that they should serve as fundamental guidance, custom and practice and hopefully to be ingrained in world culture. This common law approach is persistent and stabilizing in its nature, like the US Constitution and the continuing French motto of the revolution, “liberty, equality, brotherhood”. By contrast, statute law, implemented by the executive, has the potential for arbitrary oppression and infringement of the people’s rights. That is currently the case in the UK following the Iraq war, with a greater deal of hasty and unnecessary legislation that encroaches severely on this country’s traditional freedoms. The UK Parliament continues to be influenced by its proximity to the monarch whose motto “God and my right” dates from Henry VIII.

Anthony Blair’s attorney-general, Peter Goldsmith, sought to evade the Nuremburg principles and the values that they represent with a plainly false representation of UN Security Council’s Resolution 1441. The UN is in this respect a court that legislates by its resolutions. The present position is that we have both a representation of that resolution that permits pre-emptive and aggressive warfare and a war based on it. That is a precedent that cannot possibly be permitted to stand. To date, there is no authoritative ruling against it from the UN or any other authority, although we have the UN secretary-general’s and the UK’s Lord Bingham’s views that it was illegal. 

That precedent will, with absolute certainty, be the basis of a future war if it is permitted to stand. It is the route to the disintegration of international law and international instability as we have seen in the Middle East and, recently, in Pakistan, India and South Ossetia. The UK Parliament’s collusion with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan is already exerting a corrosive effect on UK government, indicated by the politicized actions of the police. The police are experts at sensing falsity and pressing their advantage. That is their job and senior civil servants attain their positions by both ability and political astuteness. They have sensed the weakness of Parliament and certain individuals have attempted to gain advantage by showing political support for the executive. 

The UK Parliament has created immense problems by its Iraq war vote:

  • Weakness from its own internal contradictions
  • Failure of confidence in Parliament by the army and population
  • Politicization of the security services and police
  • The international precedent for aggressive, pre-emptive warfare

These can be rectified by a public examination of the causes of the Iraq war. The routes to do this are through the International Court of Justice or the direct trial of Anthony Blair by the International Criminal Court. A UK Parliamentary enquiry will not do for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, Anthony Blair and his role in the Iraq war are the UK Parliament’s specific responsibility. Mr Blair’s head must roll in order to restore Parliament’s authority and ability to govern the country in this time of economic and cultural crisis.

If Parliament can bring itself to put an internationally judged enquiry in motion it will have broken with US foreign policy. It will be free to re-orientate toward Europe and away from the US social experiment that is in long-term decline ethically, socially and economically. It will also be free to develop a post-colonial identity that it has not yet achieved. The “special relationship” with the US has impeded this to date. The UK has been attempting to retain world influence through this sterile, one-sided relationship from which in the past it has received mere crumbs and at present the world’s opprobrium. Its natural partners for future development lie in Europe. Gordon Brown has recently floated the idea of joining the euro-zone and has attracted scorn for it. In part this is deserved since it is due to economic desperation and lack of direction with the simultaneous economic failure of the US. In principle, however, he is correct to look to Europe for assistance and the future. 

To commit fully to its European partners, however, it will be necessary for Parliament to detach itself from the US’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Victorians had confidence and ability that did not rely on the US. To regain that confidence through reliance on the strengths of its people and culture, it must bring Anthony Blair to account.

Christopher King is a retired consultant and lecturer in management and marketing. He lives in London, UK.

One Response to “The US / UK road to Iraq and the corrupting influence of the Anglo-American “special relationship””

  1. inthesenewtimes said

    An excellent attempt at an overview of Britain. I think it needs clarifying, however, that the executive is only too strong relative to parliament: it is too weak relative to entrenched oligarchy. Magna Carta, the Cromwell revolution, 1688 and the Thatcher/Blair revolution were all attempts to reinforce oligarchy. As Machiavelli never ceased to stress no nation can prosper without subjecting the grandees to executive control.

    The stuff on the Puritans is excellent but needs to go further: as John Dee, the Elizabethan founder of the British Empire idea had it, we were literally descendents of the lost tribes, literally, not metaphorically, the chosen people, the Jews. The King James bible deliberately incorporated this idea in its new translation according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. This British/Israelite doctrine is fundamental to understand Britain. The Puritans were more pioneers of empire than refugees from oppression.

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