A dangerous new era in British foreign policy: Talk at Stop the War annual conference

by Mark Curtis

What an extraordinary time this is: Surely the most dangerous era since the new cold war of the early 1980s when the US elected a neocon madman as President. How times change.

I’ve been studying British foreign policy for 30 odd years but it’s hard to capture in words what is going on now. If I try, I think there are four big things:

First, British foreign policy has significantly gone underground. We’re fighting at least seven covert wars, using troops and secret drone strikes – in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. The reason they’re covert is because parliament wouldn’t approve and the public would be opposed. And also because most of these operations are illegal, though you would never know it by reading the media. So, this is critical – no parliamentary involvement, public opposition, illegality, very little media coverage. This is really serious: the government is operating outside serious democratic control.

Second, there’s basically a war on human rights. Apart from North Korea and Syria, Britain has deepened relations with most of the world’s worst human rights abusers in the past nine months: Egypt, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkey, the list goes on. Even Sudan has been touted for increased trade by Britain; that’s the country whose president is subject to an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur.  What’s also interesting is that the government is hardly now even going through the motions pretending to lie to be interested in human rights. It’s pretty much given up bothering. Probably because it is palpably obvious to anyone who doesn’t work at the BBC that Whitehall does not give a hoot about human rights.

I’ve looked through hundreds, probably thousands of declassified government planning documents for the books I’ve written. These documents cover issues like UK interests and plans in the Middle East, Africa, Asia etc. Human rights do not figure in these documents. The interests of the people who live in these regions do not figure in British planning except in extrenely rare cases. They’re simply irrelevant: the key interests are commercial, political and military – for the elite, not the country.

The UK is arming pretty much anyone of course. There are no real arms export controls: the idea that these are restricted on human rights ground is a joke, a myth for public consumption. If the government does even not halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia given what it is doing in Yemen, when would it ever do so? The government’s arms export ‘controls’ are meant to enable arms exports.

Crucially, we’re also stepping up training of repressive states. The government has openly announced its willingness to train states in “internal security”, meaning repression. UK support has increased to repressive states like Egypt and Bahrain as repression has deepened – this is not a coincidence. What the liberal media cannot report is that the UK supports repression in the Middle East; that’s why the UK trains militaries and police and sells arms. It’s not that we sell arms despite their human rights records, but because of them. Britain supports those states’ control over their populations as long as they: promote ‘correct’ economic policies, support our foreign policy, buy our weapons, and, increasingly, invest in the UK.

My third point is that we have an extraordinary new relationship with the US. Military relations are deepening. In the Gulf British pilots fly US warplanes from US carriers so ‘US’ bombing might be British. In return, an agreement was recently signed allowing the new British aircraft carriers to deploy US combat aircraft. Britain has military personnel in US aircraft carrier strike groups and in the US Africa Command and other US military commands, but the government has refused to disclose which. The US military has 10 bases in UK, all of which are nicely called ‘RAF’ bases to mislead the public. Very little of this has been properly reported. And this extent of ‘inter-operability’ as it’s called by the chaps in the MOD is not very reassuring, is it, as the present time, when the US president is not wholly committed to international peace.

Of course it’s no surprise that the UK is supporting Trump’s new aggression and sabre-rattling. The UK has supported every US act of international aggression since 1945 except one – Grenada in 1983, and even that was not opposed in public. I don’t think this is mainly because Britain is America’s poodle. It’s worse: British governments want to see the US ruling the world by force because UK commercial and political elites benefit from it. That’s the whole point of the special relationship. Whitehall must now be delighted to see Trump bombing lots of other countries because it feared before that Trump might have some crazy ideas of not doing this and even seeking some sort of peace with Russia. This is probably why Theresa May immediately flew to Washington to tell Trump to resume business usual. Britain is the world’s primary warrior state so it stands to reason that May had to deliver hawkish messages to the more liberal Trump.

Theresa May’s government makes Thatcher’s foreign policy look quite liberal and cautious in foreign policy. Thatcher supported US aggression in Central America and there were some covert operations, notably a very large one in Afghanistan to support the mujahidin, but Thatcher’s project did not involve so many countries so early in government. We are getting close to having the most unethical foreign policy since the worst government in postwar history: the Labour government under Wilson in the late 1960s. I want to mention this because this remains buried in UK elite culture. That Wilson government, as shown in the declassified files, depopulated the Chagos islands, covertly supported Indonesia’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands in 1965, secretly armed Nigeria as it destroyed Biafra killing 3 million people, secretly armed Iraq as it slaughtered Kurds in the late 60s and secretly backed and armed US aggression in Vietnam.

So the present hard right Conservative government has not yet quite reached the depths of old Labour, but sadly things are on course to get worse. Which brings me to my fourth point. The UK is gearing up for more war. There’s no other interpretation for what is going on. We’re building two new aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever in the Navy, to deploy “in every ocean around the world over the next 5 decades”. We’re developing a military programme called ‘Joint Force 2025’ involving more drones, attack aircraft, strike brigades, warships. And UK elites could hardly have made it plainer that they do not consider themselves bound by international law in their military operations.

The Head of the Royal Navy has recently given some extraordinary speeches – all unreported obviously – on the Navy’s expanding global military role and in backing the UK’s ‘growing global economic ambition’. The Whitehall chaps are really eager to get back ‘East of Suez’ and regaining their empire, patrolled by Navy gunboats and nuclear submarines. It’s truly hilarious until you realise that some of them are actually serious.

During the Brexit debates, some people were criticised for saying that the British people were ignorant about the nature of the EU. It’s far worse than that. The British public is generally ignorant about the country’s entire foreign policy. Not through any fault of their own, they’re not stupid, but because they are constantly kept in the dark and bombarded with disinformation, principally by the media and so-called independent think-tanks which are not independent at all. I’ve never been convinced that even I, who spend a lot of my time analysing these things, knows even 20% of what the UK is actually doing in the world.

Media disinformation is surely at record levels. The only way to watch or listen to BBC or ITV news is as an analyst of propaganda not as a consumer of news. Corbyn’s human rights-focused agenda has been attacked from day one by virtually every newspaper, showing just how extreme they are. Even big policies – in fact, especially big policies – are not reported. For example, how about the deep special relationship the UK has struck with the Egyptian regime that killed a 1,000 people when it took power and now has 60,000 political prisoners? Then there is the failure to report that Britain is at war with Yemen. We’re supplying the arms, aircraft, pilot training and have military officers in the control rooms but the media has played along with the government’s preposterous contention that the UK is ‘not a party’ to the war, even when it has bothered to cover it at all. It’s pretty amazing that a 24/7 media full of educated people with massive technology doesn’t even notice when the country is at war. But as we saw with the recent Westminster Bridge terrorist attack, the media loves violence, terrorism and war – as long as this is approved and against us. Indeed, the 24/7 media appears to be increasingly dependent on war for income. This is a very dangerous situation.

I have no magic answers about what can be done. But we do have to continue raising awareness of what this country is really doing in the world. We shouldn’t under-estimate the importance of this for the reasons I’ve just been saying. As regards the media, there is something called the Editors Code of Practice which demands reports are accurate, among other things. This is being violated dozens of times, probably, a day. We need to think of ways to uphold this and prevent the mass production of ignorance. We need to be challenging the terrible things being done in our name and think of creative new ways to organise together to do this. There are certainly precedents for how we have been able to stop wars and challenge elites and we need to step up efforts.


  1. Well that’s just about the most terrifying thing I’ve read in some time…I had no idea to what extent our nation’s abhorrence reached.

  2. Don’t forget the elite can look inwards too, look at their retrospective tax legislation , accelerated payments , punitive penalties on unresolved tax , all the while ignoring the mossak fonseca leak in case it harms them. Cameron and Osbornes legacy.

  3. MichaelK says:

    It is… terrifying, the virtual return of old-style aggressive, British imperialism in the service of the corporations and economic advantage. It’s like we’ve slipped through a hole in the fabric of time and are back at the very beginnings of imperial expansionism where the state functioned as the military wing of the great trading companies as they spread across the world.

  4. MichaelK says:

    It struck me that what you’re describing here, and I agree with most of your analysis, makes the threat from FN and Le Pen look like a type of ‘fascism’ that’s already way behind the curve and almost nostalgic, compared to the ghastly reality of where we are already? What you’re describing is a merging of the powerful corporations with the state which is becoming increasingly militarized. Aren’t we really talking about a form of state that could easily be characterized and defined, already, (and heaven knows what the future holds!), as fascist? It is frightening. Underneath the liberal gloss something really rather terrible is emerging once more.

  5. TM says:

    Britons need to be reminded. When Britain was great, it wasn’t great for the large majority of us. Look how the living standards of the majority decline again, as Britain seeks to regain it’s imperial crown.

  6. Valerie Knight says:

    Perhaps we could get these things reported about us in the press of other European countries so that it spreads from those sources. Or are they all doing the same thing?

  7. Ady Cheale says:

    We’re walking towards a 2033, only a Neo-Capitalist nazi 2033. The government and it’s dutifully obediant media are so right wing, so vile and so extreme, you can just smell the sickness pervading the air in this country. I’m not only ashamed at being English, knowing someof our vile history (NOT taught at school or by the media) but also in how this country’s elites are just carrying on the sick ideologies of the British Empire- still !! Thanks to Mark Curtis for showing those of us who also care, just what is going on.

  8. James Charles says:

    I sent the ‘article’ to a friend.

    His comment:

    “I think much of this has been going on for decades and longer. There were ‘secret’ wars in the 1970s in Oman and elsewhere as for flogging weapons we were selling warships to Russia in the Crimean War & sword blades to France in Napoleonic wars.”

  9. Eddie Ray says:

    Thank God for your great site which I discovered just a few days ago. No better place to learn about Britain’s true foreign policy and the factors shaping the General Election.

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