Owen Jones: Just another social Imperialist?

“The greatest peril of Imperialism lies in the state of mind of a nation which has become habituated to…deception and which has rendered itself incapable of self-criticism.”[1] J.A. Hobson, “Imperialism: A Study.”

Immediately following his successful appearance on BBC’s ‘Question Time’ programme, the author and journalist Owen Jones dedicated his weekly column in the ‘Independent’ to lambast the current UK political spectrum. He rightly noted the almost complete banality of consensus of the three main parties on the major issues of the day. From financial regulation, austerity to foreign policy, it is literally a case of tweedledum and tweedledee when it comes to their respective political positions. Yet, there was something all very déjà vu about the article. It simply read as though it was based on a reading of Peter Oborne’s book, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’ published several years ago on the conformity of the ruling class. Oborne, who clearly belongs to the moderate (culturally, at least) side of the Conservative Party, bemoaned the decline of traditional British oppositional politics and its supplantation by a technocratic, careerist ‘modernising’ class who rarely substantially disagree or venture outside the Westminster bubble. Owen has every right to partly rehash this argument even if it is executed with a good dose of left-wing spice.

In contrast to this contemporary dreary state of affairs Owen conjures up the Labour politicians of yore and specifically, the “leading lights” of the first majority Labour government of 1945. These “leading lights” are in his “dewy eyes” Prime Minister Clement Atlee, Nye Bevan – “founder of the NHS”, Ernie Bevin – “Britain’s representative on the global stage” and the humble “errand boy” Herbert Morrison. 

Jones is rightly concerned that a third of politicians at the last general election intake in 2010 were privately educated unlike Clement Atlee, who was educated in a manger next to goats, horses and a flying pig or was old ‘Clem’, as he was affectionately referred to, educated at Haileybury private school. The school which was originally purpose built as a “training ground for generations of those destined to govern British India” by that bastion of conquest, loot and impoverishment, the ‘Honourable’ British East India Company.

As for Bevin, according to William Roger Louis in his magisterial “Imperialism at Bay”, there were “sceptics” who doubted whether he could maintain the interests of British imperialism but as he assures us, if “they had been privy to the secrets of the British government they would have confirmed the impression of Bevin as the inheritor of the imperial legacy from Churchill.”[2]

Indeed, Jones is clearly oblivious to the fact that Bevin unleashed the counter-insurgency in Malaya 1948. The insurgency was largely conducted to protect British interests against independence guerrillas and to safeguard profits from the Malayan rubber and tin industry for British capitalists. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Malayan raw minerals were the “biggest dollar earners” in the Empire. The international earnings of these minerals according to one Lord in Parliament, “have very largely supported the standard of living of the people of this country and the sterling area ever since the war ended…” before going on to add, “What we should do without Malaya , and its earnings in tin and rubber, I do not know”.

In order to combat any threat to British standard of living which clearly entailed the financing of the nascent British welfare state, Bevin waged war on Malayan rebels. The war included using the forerunner of the cluster bomb, the fragmentation bomb; forced resettlement programs of half a million people and other aspects of chemical warfare. Many of the military strategies employed by the British in this counter-insurgency or “emergency” as they called it were later driven barbarically to their logical conclusion by the United States in Vietnam.

But rest assured, according to Jones, Nye Bevan resigned when Hugh Gaitskill introduced prescription charges in the National Health Service. Bevan was a man of “uncompromising conviction”.    

It was also under Bevin that the majority of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed, between November 1947 and May 1948 under what was then Mandate Palestine. The British had issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 endorsing full and total assistance to Jewish immigration and colonisation of Palestine. For the British Empire, a Jewish state in Palestine was one way of pre-emptively minimising any threat to its interests in the Suez Canal.

However, Bevin “the union leader,” was not content with the colonisation of Palestine with European Jewry. He had also toyed with the idea of colonising Libya with European Jews.  An idea, to be fair, which seems to have been floated by Winston Churchill during the Second World War.[3]  

Bevin’s successor as foreign secretary Herbert Morrison, the former “errand boy”, also distinguished himself with a ‘cunning plan’ (as Baldrick from Blackadder would say). After Mohammad Mossedegh’s dastardly nationalisation of the British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), “leading light” Morrison concocted a plan to overthrow the democratically elected Mossedegh.[4] The plan successfully manifested itself two years later but only after the British humbly cut the Americans in by guaranteeing them a 40% take on Iranian oil profits. After this coup d’état, AOIC changed its name to British Petroleum (BP).

When British imperialism was military crushing, raping and castrating its way through Kenya under the pre-text of fighting the Mau-Mau rebellion in the 1950’s, not one of Owen Jones’s “leading lights” proffered a contrarian ‘dewy-eyed’ squeak. 

By virtue of exalting members of the immediate post-war Labour majority government as a yardstick by which to measure the current crop of Labour politicians Owen Jones does nothing more, than at best, reveal his total indifference to the victims of this Labour government’s foreign policies. At worse, could Jones be revealing something more sinister than this? Is Jones implying that as long as the British white working and middle classes are sufficiently supported economically by the British state it doesn’t matter how many ‘wogs’ are slaughtered and exploited by Her/His Majesty’s Government in foreign lands for this righteous end?

Yet social imperialism, that is the socio-economic amelioration of the peoples of the imperial metropolis at the expense, indeed exploitation and subjugation of the people of Africa and Asia runs deep in British history. J.A. Hobson in his book on “Imperialism” quotes an Indian economic historian:

“Under the pretence of Free Trade, England has compelled the Hindus (Indians) to receive the products of the steam-looms of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Glasgow, etc., at mere nominal duties; while the hand wrought manufacturers of Bengal and Behar, beautiful in fabric and durable in wear, have had heavy and almost prohibitive duties imposed on their importation to England.”[5]

The net effect of this policy in the early decades of the nineteenth century, according to Hobson, was the “irreparable ruin” of Indian industry. Also, keep in mind that the raw materials and finance of England’s industry in this period was most likely originally accrued on the backs of the captured and shackled African laboured plantations in the Caribbean. Albion’s gentlemen needed to be employed, fed and “Rule Britannia” must be sung with heartily blood soaked gusto.

Jones is correct when he writes that we are living in “turbulent times” but what adjective would have been used to describe these “times” if it wasn’t for the United Kingdom’s artificially concocted Persian Gulf principalities and their despotic nepotistic rulers pouring their “investments” into the UK.

The London Stock Exchange, Carilion, British Aerospace, La Senza, football teams, racing horses and hundreds of thousands of jobs are all intimately connected to the divide and rule spoils of Arabia.

The undeclared ‘bailout’ of the British economy by Britain’s favoured Gulf despots is not given – excuse the pun – the appropriate credit, in these “turbulent times”.

Jones rightly lampoons the vacuity of David Miliband but the real historical fact is, his “leading lights” would have happily welcomed him into their company as one of their own after his performance during the Blair years and since.  


[1] J.A. Hobson, “Imperialism: A study”, Unwin Hyman, London, 1988, pg. 211

[2] W. R. Louis, Imperialism at Bay, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, pg.555.

[3] ibid. pg. 58-64 and pg. 555-560

[4] Stephen Dorril, ‘MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations” London, Forth Estate, 2000,  pg.561-562

[5] Hobson, op. cit., pg. 292

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