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Workers’ International News, May 1938


Imperial Prelude to War


From Workers’ International News, Vol.1 No.5, May 1938, pp.5-6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The memory of the national tightening of belts in the civil populations of the belligerent countries in the Great War causes the rulers today, in an atmosphere of spy-scares, air-raid precautions and frenzied arms speed-up, to turn their attention more closely than ever to the problem of securing war-time supplies of food and raw materials. Britain, with a negligible home peasantry, is compelled to import more than two-thirds of her food from abroad, a circumstance that deeply influences British policy at home and in the colonies and dominions.

In Britain, secret plans are mentioned by the Minister of Agriculture for a high speed food-producing campaign “in case of national emergency,” while the Government hints at huge wheat storage schemes, hints which were preceded by exceptional activity in the London Wheat Market following large wheat cargo purchases by the big milling concerns. Side by side with the arms speed-up marches the food “speed up,” a four year plan for agriculture is launched, an Empire food supply plan comes under discussion, the Board of Trade draws up its “ shadow plan.” The machinery of the Marketing Boards facilitates pig plans and herring plans, while the Food Defence Committee organises local boards to control the transport and storage of food “in an emergency.” The emergency might just as easily be a general strike as a war, and the machinery set up serves the ruling class equally well in national war and in class war. But at this moment it is the war needs of British Imperialism that are kept in the foreground. The cattle population is increased in Britain and Ireland by the increased importation of Canadian store cattle, bringing the meat supply to a higher level in anticipation of sudden blockade.

The burden of the expense of these measures has been pushed onto the working population, and the effects are seen in the rise in the cost of living which has been followed by the workers’ campaign for higher wages. The movement of prices, the increase in strikes, the manoeuvres in the commodity markets – all are explicable only in terms of the war preparations in the field of food and raw materials.

But the problem extends itself beyond the shores of Britain and into the colonies and dominions, where the military and economic problems of imperial war preparation provide the only key to the understanding of present British imperialist policy with its generous “concessions” to its subject peoples.

The recent trade pact with Eire is heralded in the bourgeois press as the long-sought solution to the Irish problem. Eire becomes a market for British coal, textiles and manufactured goods and finds in Britain a market for her food-stuffs. Britain, which sought to extract the £150,000,000, which she claimed for land annuity payments, by means of traffic, has “generously” surrendered her claims and accepted £10,000,000 in settlement. The trade war now ends and Ireland becomes once more the larder of England to serve her war-time needs. By the concessions to the Irish landowners they are bound more securely to the chariot of British Imperialism and drawn away from those imperialist rivals who plot to utilise Irish nationalism in another rebellion in the next war.

In South Africa, as in Ireland, during the Great War nationalist rebels took up arms against Britain and accepted aid from Germany. The Africander landowners who make use of the republican anti-British sentiments of the Boer population in order to bargain with British Imperialism are, like the Irish republican bourgeoisie, always ready to trade in their “republicanism” in return for concessions, and in South Africa, a valuable source of minerals and farm products in war time, British Imperialism is ready to pay for the “loyalty” of the republicans, to yield up a bigger share of the booty to them in return for a war-alliance. The landowners have thankfully accepted concessions in the shape of farm loans, the abolition of the Cape native vote, and draconic slave laws to repress and exploit the native population: they have for the most part abandoned the very phraseology of republicanism and have accepted the announcement that conscription will be imposed in the coming war. And now they hold out their hands to receive the native protectorates, rich sources of docile labour for their farms. The negotiations for the cession of the protectorates to the Union of South Africa are made in the atmosphere of pre-war “generosity.”

To end the quarrel between Arab and Jew, the British Solomon physically divides the infant in two, and neither claimant is satisfied. The task of the Partition Commission is by no means however, to reconcile Arab with Jew, but to secure to Britain the economic and strategic basis for her Mediterranean operations in the approaching war.

The mechanisation of warfare places oil in the foremost place among materials required in war. Only 5% of the oil consumed by Britain comes from Empire sources. Supplies for the Mediterranean fleet in wartime must depend mainly on production of Iraq which last year supplied nearly 20% of Britain’s requirements. The Near East interests of British Imperialism and particularly those in Palestine take on in wartime a close relation with the oil needs of the British navy.

The Anglo-Egyptian Agreement is of a piece with the general British policy; here again the bonds are loosened in order to grapple Egypt all the closer. The counterpart of “Home Rule” is “Imperial Defence”, the treaty goes side by side with the military agreement, and Egypt becomes “independent” in order to sit at the table where imperial war plans are discussed.

As in Europe and Africa, so throughout the world possessions of Britain and military and economic needs of impending war have dictated the political terms of the compromises that are being effected.

The imperialist policy of concessions to the nationalist and republican movements in Britain’s colonies and dominions is the means by which the national bourgeoisie and the national landowners are bribed into supporting the British bourgeoisie in the impending world slaughter. For the purpose of marshalling of supplies of food and fuel and raw materials, conscription of men, fortification of strategic points, British Imperialism yields various degrees of “autonomy” to the nationalists of the subject countries, but behind the process of apparent disintegration is the welding together of the British Empire to face the coming strains. On the debit side of the books of the British Shylocks must be placed the bigger shares yielded to the nationalists, but on the credit side stands the betrayal of the colonial peoples who are marshalled by their “republican” leaders to feed and to fight for the monster that has loaded them with chains and drains their blood away.

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