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Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Millionaires Control British Foreign Policy

Does it matter that the new Conservative-Liberal government is dominated by millionaires, including premier David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg? The Sunday Times counted 18 millionaires in the "austerity cabinet" (ST, 23.5.10).

Does it matter that the foreign and national security policy of this Con-Dem administration is in the hands of a group predominantly educated at exclusive public schools and Oxbridge, with previous careers in the City of London and big business? The Sunday Times calls them the "New Establishment...a new elite... pulling the strings in Britain".

Does it matter that the New 'Labour' administration of Gordon Brown also featured several millionaires, businessmen, and had cosied up to the City since the mid-1990s, and fetishised the 'market' to such a degree that it brought the 'market' itself into disrepute?

And, does it matter that New Labour's leadership race is set to be dominated by those, almost to a 'man', drawn from backgrounds far from the 'soul' of the labour movement?

Of course, USBlog believes that background matters, to a degree: social origins are important in so many ways but tend to get discounted as a key factor in political attitudes, behaviour and ideas. Years ago, American political scientist, Thomas Dye, showed that social background determined how large Americans thought a 'quarter' (25 cent coin) was, let alone how strongly it determined life expectancy, level of education and income, general welfare, and world-view.

Ironically, it was a man called (Ralph) Miliband who made this argument most cogently when David (Miliband) was still wearing short trousers, and Ed was yet to be born. In his classic study, The State in Capitalist Society (1969), Miliband argued that British (and Western) political systems were dominated by big business and their supporters who also determined the character of the 'national' interest in such a way that it enshrined the interest of big business into its very heart. Consequently, political philosophies and arguments could not be brooked that failed to take into account their impact on 'business confidence' and the 'markets', international or national.

Analysing the rest of the state, Miliband argued that the civil service, military, judiciary, BBC, among others, were led by (mainly) men drawn from the same elitist social backgrounds as the political elite, further reinforcing the 'conservative' character of the British state, and acting as a brake on radical political agendas.

Labour governments in the postwar era were structurally constrained by the character of the British state as well as the generalised power of big business over economic affairs and policy, not to mention 'popular' culture and thinking. But Miliband also emphasised that the Labour party was no vehicle for revolutionary transformation but a symptom of the development of capitalist industrialism, seeking concessions from big business and some measure of social protection for workers. In the main, Labour governments managed capitalism rather than damaging or undermining it.

Furthermore, Labour leaders were hardly revolutionary, even in the nationalising phase of 1945-50: Clement Attlee was educated at Haileybury College, an elite public school established by the East India Company to train its servants for service in the empire. Attlee's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who had headed the massive Transport and General Workers' Union since the 1920s, was authentically working class, of course, and offers an excellent example of how such individuals rise to the top of the greasy pole of British politics. He was deeply anti-communist and, like the majority of his party, an imperialist. Where the likes of Churchill openly declared Britain superior to all other races and nations and therefore justified in exploiting and dominating the colonies, Bevin et al wanted to 'develop' the 'backward' countries for the 'betterment' of their peoples. The old imperial ties and connections were maintained, despite (or because of) 'de-colonisation', along with Britain's large, but diminishing, global role.

While the benefits of a welfare state, inaugurated in 1945-50, are undoubted, it remained the case that at a fundamental level, the Labour project was at heart an ameliorative one of reforming capitalism and offering workers social protection from 1930s-style economic crises and deprivations. It did not fundamentally challenge 'market supremacy' in economic policy and the distribution of income and wealth.

Hence, we now have a situation where the government and opposition are dominated by rich and exclusively educated individuals, market-oriented in 'philosophy', and unrepresentative of the broad mass of British people. They claim to champion 'new politics' but are mired in the British aristocracy and the mindsets of the City of London. Like its American counterpart, British politics now features just one ideology - focused on free market economics and regular elections between parties that manage capitalism. There is a Centre, a Right but no Left in British politics.

Background matters: the outlooks at the heart of government today are more congenial to the City than ever; even the opposition is drawn from diluted versions of the same. Those backgrounds will shield the government from the social impact of the savage cuts in public spending that are to come and allow them all the more to enshrine market philosophy as the sole criterion of value.

Those backgrounds - focused so much around globalised finance and global markets as the basis of British national interests - will also strongly determine the character of Britain's foreign and national security policies. Global flows and networks, as the Ministry of Defence noted, under the previous government, are fundamental to the British state, and any threats to those flows are the object of Anglo-American power.

And the promised Tory-Liberal diminuition of Britain's "slavish devotion" to the United States, (amid recent talk of building a new special relationship with India and greater attention to China), seems to have disappeared with several other election promises. The Obama administration, refocusing on India and China itself, will be very pleased with the 'new politics' in Britain.

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