With Theresa May away pandering to Middle Eastern dictators this week, it’s worth recalling that the British Establishment has always courted deplorable people – from Fascists in the 1930s to Trump in 2017. As long as they serve the commercial interests of British business then they have a place at the table.
Like all Prime Ministers, May presents herself in public as a person of integrity and principle – she claims to uphold ‘British values‘, to be a feminist, a champion of working people and equal opportunity, a proponent of freedom and democracy, she’s apparently against unnecessary wars, repression, torture and injustice (unless it’s for ‘defence’ purposes, of course).
Donald Trump, however, seems a world away – he is a public showman, a billionaire, an obvious misogynist who’s bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, he has repressive, warmongering and authoritarian tendencies, and he has shamelessly harnessed racism, xenophobia and division to win the presidency of the United States, among other reprehensible things.
So when asked about how she’ll manage the differences between herself and Trump, what might we expect May to say? ‘He’s a despicable man’, ‘I intend to avoid him at all costs’, ‘Britain will refuse to do business with him because we are a nation of principle’? No, of course not. When asked this very question in January 2017 she responded: ‘Haven’t you ever noticed, sometimes opposites attract?’
Opposites most certainly do attract, especially when it’s in the commercial interests of Britain for them to do so. In fact, Britain’s commercial interests have always trumped its principles. This is why May and her predecessors have supported the royal family of Saudi Arabia, a repressive, authoritarian, human rights abusing regime of billionaires who permit the beheading of criminals, the stoning of women and the funding of Islamic terrorism around the globe.
They’re also engaged in a campaign of terror in Yemen right now that’s killed over 10,000 civilians, a campaign that May’s government supports and has continued to provide weapons for. How are ‘British values’ being upheld here? Or how are they being upheld when May visits Turkey and brokers a £100m arms deal with its authoritarian, human rights abusing, free speech supressing, misogynistic, ISIS sympathising president Erdoğan? And then there’s British support for Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt under Sisi (and previously Mubarak) – all are repressive, authoritarian human rights abusers who the British government happily trades with (particular commodities include oil and weapons).
Or lest we forget Britain’s collusion with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi under Tony Blair, which helped broker a £550m deal for Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell to explore for gas in Libya. Or Britain’s support for Saddam Hussein under Margaret Thatcher, who continued selling him arms despite knowing he’d used chemical weapons against Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88 and had committed genocide against the Kurds in 1988.
Then there was her support for General Suharto of Indonesia, whose dictatorship has been described as ‘one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century’. After coming to power in a military coup in 1965 his regime tortured and killed around 500,000 people and in his subsequent invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975 he killed around 250,000 more. Thatcher described him as ‘One of our very best and most valuable friends‘, while Elizabeth Windsor received him on a State Visit in 1979.
Or further still, how about Thatcher’s problematic stance on apartheid South Africa, in which she opposed sanctions and condemned Mandela’s African National Congress as a ‘typical terrorist organisation’?
Oh, and then there was Britain’s support for the Shah of Iran from 1953 to 1979. The Shah, another brutal dictator, came to power after the British, under Winston Churchill, helped the US overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh because he wanted to nationalise its oil industry. Where were the so-called ‘British values’ of freedom, justice and democracy then?
Indeed, it’s important to understand, in the light of May’s kowtowing to Trump and the Queen inviting him on a State Visit, that the British Establishment has always pandered to, and supported, the most despicable people when it has suited the interests of British business.
A most outrageous example of this, which has been tactfully erased from most British history books, came in the 1930s when a large portion of the British Establishment, by way of finance, weapons and diplomacy, supported fascism at home and in Germany and Italy. From the Royal Family to Churchill, fascism was of little concern until it directly threatened British interests. As the renowned British historian AJP Taylor wrote:
‘Every politician extolled the virtues of democracy, especially at the expense of Soviet Russia. Despite this rhetoric […] Ramsay MacDonald wrote friendly personal letters to the Fascist dictator Mussolini; Austen Chamberlain exchanged photographs with him and joined him in family holidays; Churchill sang his praises in newspaper articles’.
Or take Lord Reith, the founding director-general of the BBC. He openly admired both Hitler and Mussolini. As early as 1933 he declared that ‘I am certain that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again […] They are being ruthless and most determined’. Dare we even remind ourselves of the following footage of a seven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor giving a nazi salute with her mother, sister and uncle in 1933. It’s certainly a powerful, if controversial, illustration of just how normalised and accepted fascism was among the British establishment during that period – that is, before it threatened our own national interests.
This article was published in the Morning Star on 8th April 2017: https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-ea22-The-strange-bedfellows-of-British-foreign-politics#.WPIlNVPyui4