Friday 30 August 2013

The final end of empire

Yesterday's vote in the House of Commons to reject a war against Syria may be the final nail in the coffin of Britain's imperial dreams, let's hope so at any rate.

In the aftermath of the Suez disaster when the Americans pulled the plug and demonstrated to London that the country could not move without America's permission, the British had two choices. They could have retreated into a post-imperial sulk, or they could accept the reality of the situation and work with it. Harold McMillan's telephone call to President Eisenhower when he genially said, "Over to you, Ike," shows which path the British ruling class chose to take. McMillan would later say privately that he saw Britain's role as being akin to that of the civilised Greeks vis a vis their thuggish Roman overlords. That analogy conveniently overlooked the fact that the Greeks who served the Romans were slaves, but we can see what he was getting at.

With the honourable exception of Vietnam, for the next half century our country acted as America's most loyal servant and all the talk of a special relationship could not truly disguise the fact that the relationship between Washington and London was more akin to that between a man and his dog than any true partnership between sovereign states.

This policy reached its logical conclusion in 2003 when President Bush gave the order to initiate the war against Iraq and simply forgot to tell Tony Blair. The point is that Bush was giving the order to British troops as well as his own. Blair's spin mongers had to run around in blue-arsed fly mode to spin that act of cravenness away.

What happened last night was the end of all the fantasies about "punching above our weight on the world stage," and the final acceptance that the days of empire are now over. It took a long time, but the House of Commons last night buried the last remnant to the old British post-imperial dream.

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