Empire and `Anglobalisation'

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Jeremy Corbyn, British Member of Parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn, Member of Parliament from Islington North in London, has been a consistent advocate of the cause of disarmament and peace in Britain's ruling Labour Party. He counts relations with the Third World and human rights among his other main political concerns. The left-wing MP was in the forefront of the anti-war mobilisation all through 2003 and believes that public action in the coming months could well force a retreat from the militarist policies that now hold the stage. Closely involved with the European Social Forum, Mumbai was his first encounter with the WSF. Excerpts from an interview he gave Sukumar Muralidharan:

Do you see something coming out of the WSF? Because it is so dispersed and vast, there is a sense of participation and exhilaration, but a hundred different agendas are being pursued. Does this, as a Labour Party person, seem to you a strength, a virtue in itself, or a weakness?

I think those that have spent their lifetime in Left politics find it very difficult to conceive of something that lasts for four or five days and doesn't reach any decisions, doesn't have any programmes, doesn't have any bitterly contested elections for any position. These are early days for the WSF and it is feeling its way about. But if one is prescriptive and says that this is a declaration we must agree on, we would spend the whole of our days just discussing the declaration rather than the issues that surround us. I think what one has to do is see how the WSF informs people better and brings forward people who can engage with government and the media. But above all, we should see how the WSF can mobilise people on general themes like war, poverty and justice in world trade.

The WSF is a combination of politically active people and single-issue campaigns. These single-issue campaigns are absolutely fascinating, colourful and very demanding. And the political parties are either excited by this or nervous, because there is an alternative power base developing. What happens in the future, I would hope, would be that we establish some kind of a small, permanent presence of the WSF and that we then use that as a way of pushing governments in areas of particular concern.

You would be going back to the United Kingdom just a few days ahead of the tabling of the Hutton inquiry report (into the death of British weapons scientist Dr. David Kelly). And this is obviously an effort to establish some form of accountability in government. Since accountability is one of the issues before the WSF, how do you expect it to play in the U.K. in the context of the Hutton inquiry report?

The Hutton inquiry has been an absolutely fascinating experience. After Dr. Kelly was found dead, no inquest was held and (Prime Minister) Tony Blair, rather surprisingly, set up a judicial public inquiry. Lord Hutton then decided to interpret this inquiry in a very broad way and called for and received a whole lot of government communications that are normally denied even to parliamentary select committees. And what these showed in my view was a degree of cynicism in Downing Street relating to decisions surrounding and leading up to the war. But also, it demonstrated that the various confusing bits of evidence don't add up. And so Tony Blair then sent a new statement to the Hutton inquiry, which has not been published, which we understand is supposed to be a clarification of a clarification. So the report comes out on the 29th (January) - and the discussion will be on the quality of evidence submitted by the Prime Minister more than anything else, I suspect.

There is a certain degree of bewilderment in the rest of the world over the way in which the U.K. was marching in lockstep with the U.S. behind this war enterprise. We also knew well before Kelly's death that the intelligence basis for the war was very shaky. The dossier which the U.K. government prepared in September 2002, which the U.S. used to pump up its claim about Iraq's alleged purchase of uranium from Niger, had been discredited. And the subsequent dossier was shown to be a plagiarism from a 10-year-old research paper. Now all this pointed to the manipulation of evidence leading up to the war. But why is accountability being enforced only after the war has run its course and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. Did it take the death of one British scientist?

A very fair point. Firstly, there is an uncomfortable message for Parliament in all this, in that Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of Dr. Kelly has been more thorough, more public, better researched and more effective in its performance, than any of the parliamentary standing committees that have investigated the lead-up to the war. I agree that it is strange that we should have a public inquiry into the death of a scientist, but ten thousand Iraqis have died after we were given nonsensical information about weapons of mass destruction. Cluster bombs and depleted uranium were used and no inquiry is held. A number of us in Parliament have called for and voted for an independent judicial inquiry surrounding the policy on the war in Iraq and we will continue to press that. I cannot predict what Lord Hutton's conclusions will be, but he will have to reach some definite findings because of the huge discrepancies in the evidence that was submitted. Dr. Kelly clearly knew a great deal. He clearly did have an opinion on the whole issue.

Coming closer to the theme of this forum, there has been this book that is much cited in the U.K. and in fact has been mentioned in some of the discussions here, by the historian Niall Ferguson (Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, 2003). The term he uses is not "globalisation" but "Anglobalisation" - in reference to his belief that the British empire in some senses, created the modern world, which the U.S. has been the historical legatee to as imperial overlord. Forgetting his rather rose-tinted view of the empire, does he have a point about the reason why the U.K. is getting into lockstep behind the U.S. in all these modern day imperial adventures?

It is an interesting theory and it is not wrong, in the sense that the U.S. empire which exists around the world is a largely commercial one. And the British empire of the late-19th century, yes it did colour much of the world map pink, but in quite a lot of the areas it didn't colour pink it had massive imperial interests. In much of Africa, at the Congress of Berlin in 1884, it was Germany and Belgium above all that wanted their names on the map, (while) it was the British and the French who wanted trade and they achieved an awful lot of that.

There are a few things happening that are of great interest - there has been a sort of reinvention of the history of the empire by right-wing historians who present the British empire as wholly a force for the good. They don't talk about the genocide, they don't talk about the slave trade or about the brutal treatment of the indigenous people, or the straight lines all across Africa which were the product of the Congress of Berlin.

Britain's relationship with the U.S. has been a curious one and a very interesting one. The special relationship I would say, started around the first World War, and ever since, Britain has been both commercially and politically in hock to the U.S. Globalisation is the power of multinational corporations. It is making the world's three main economic institutions - WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - work in their interests. But it has also been the imposition of a sort of Anglophile culture, Americanised Anglophile culture - of fast foods, of film, of media - on Third World countries all over the world. So it creates a sense of values which owe themselves entirely to freebooting American capitalism, much more than to any kind of European cultural identity.

Is Blair being pushed along by the irresistible force of recent history or are there more fundamental reasons of commercial interest here?

I think Blair sees Britain as a kind of American bridgehead into Europe. Whereas Europe - by which I mean France, Germany and Italy and I'm not talking about individuals like [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi here, but of the generality of the political culture - see Europe as an identity of itself, as a counterpole to the U.S. Blair came into office pledged to build better relations with Europe because Thatcher famously sort of hated everything "Europe". But then, Blair got very angry when the E.U. would not support him on Iraq.

The argument he made was that he could be a voice for moderation when the U.S. was embarked upon what was a potentially very hazardous course. But has it worked that way or has the U.K. been merely coopted into the worst excesses of this militarist adventure?

I asked him this question during a meeting of our parliamentary party and his words, I paraphrase him slightly, were "Look, Jeremy, if I told you how good the influence was, it wouldn't be any influence at all". So he then has to answer the tougher question: if it is any influence at all, how come British nationals at Bagram and Camp Delta (in Guantanamo Bay) have not been released to face trial if there are charges against them anywhere else? And what possible benefit has there been to Britain in all this? I think he ends up being a prisoner to the U.S. in all this, rather than an effective influence upon them. British troops have gone into Iraq and soldiers have died and the contracts that are being handed out - the war prizes that are being handed out - are all going to George Bush's friends.

The decade (or two decades) of globalisation - all through this period the U.S. and the U.K. have been marching to the same beat in international affairs. Internally too, have they been evolving the same way. Like, economically, they have been moving away from manufacturing and public ownership and control of basic services, towards growth based on Information Technology and financial services. Is the regression of the political culture in these countries partly accounted for by this aspect?

Trade union membership has always been a politically huge factor in Britain and to a lesser extent in the U.S. The influence of manufacturing trade unions on politics has been enormous, particularly on the Labour Party in Britain. The decline of manufacturing industry and the growth of the service sector has led to the growth of the sort of upwardly mobile class. But in the last three years, the upwardly mobile class that was working in computing and service industries and international transactions has been threatened with job losses in exactly the way that manufacturing workers were threatened two decades ago. So they are now joining trade unions. And, in a sense, if you are working as a computer operator, processing financial information, you are no more an owner of that company than if you are a metal basher at Ford in London, turning out wheels for cars. Deindustrialisation has obviously had an effect on trade union membership, but trade union membership is now going up again in Britain.

Does that have any potential political implications, for instance on foreign policy stances that the U.K. could take in the next few years?

The close relationship with the U.S. is cultural, it is economic, but above all it is a military relationship. In trade terms, Europe is far more important than the U.S. or any other part of the world. The influence of the U.S. is considerable at the political level in Britain, but I suspect that as time goes on and the U.S. gets involved in more and more conflicts over access to resources to supply itself, then the political opposition that it faced over the war in Iraq will get stronger. And certainly Blair will not be keen on getting involved in any war having been through the political problems he has already faced over Iraq.

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