Britain at War – The Never Ending Story?

UK imperialism

As the political establishment of the UK state begins to soften up the populace, via an ever-compliant media, for yet another foreign military adventure – this time in Syria – I thought it would be worthwhile seeing how the military history of Britain informs this latest rush to war. Another inducement for examining this issue is the tone of the current rhetoric coming from the Scottish Referendum ‘No’ Campaign regarding the so-called benefits of staying within the UK. The political parties which comprise the Better Together campaign are all of the opinion that the people of Scotland should be jolly grateful to have nuclear weapons stationed a mere 30 miles from our most heavily-populated city. What’s more, we should be positively euphoric to belong to a state which, according to the SIPRI Yearbook 2013(1), is the world’s fourth largest military spender, bettered only by the US, China and Russia, all of which have much larger populations.

So, at a time when all of the mainstream parties are telling us that public spending is too high and that, as a result, we have to suffer the bitter medicine of austerity, why does the UK spend so much on ‘defence’? Why do none of the parties in Westminster make the case for radically reducing defence spending in favour of increased spending on social welfare, for instance? If we have a quick look at the Better Together website it is easy to recognise the familiar yet vague phrases which those who champion the UK state use to justify this prioritising of taxpayers’ money on military expenditure:

“As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has a strong voice in the world.”

“ Not only are we at the top table, but being part of the UK it means we have real clout and influence too.”

“The UK is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – sitting alongside China, France, Russia and the United States. However, the nationalists’ plans for independence put the strength, influence and security at threat.”

The British nationalist parties put much emphasis on a rather nebulous notion of “strength, influence and security” and often use phrases, such as “a strong voice in the world” or “at the top table”, when attempting to explain the benefits of remaining part of the UK – but what do they really mean, and why do these terms crop up time and time again in the mouths of Westminster politicians? It seems that they reveal a particular UK establishment mindset and that what they really represent are euphemisms for the just-below-the-surface threat of violence and intimidation which has been the primary tool of British foreign policy since the Act of Union.

Now, some may protest at this point that I’ve gone too far and that the UK is a peace-loving country and a force for good in the world. This view, although completely at odds with the evidence, isn’t surprising, as the military history of the British State and its automatic, consistent and enduring use of violence to build and maintain the Empire are subjects which are almost taboo in this country. Let’s examine them now.

By 1922, the British Empire was the largest empire in world history, holding under its control about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world’s population at the time (2). The empire covered more than 33,700,000 km2 (13,012,000 sq mi), almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area, with territories on every continent (3). So, how did Britain come to claim these far-flung possessions and how did so many people across the globe come to be governed by one nation?

The answer is both simple and brutal. Since the political construction of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 by the ruling classes in Scotland and England, this state has been a devastatingly effective imperialist machine designed to wage war, to enslave, and to steal territory from other nations. From the moment of its inception, this is what it has done almost continuously, using its military power to inflict terror and its financial power to control through economic means. During its history, Britain has been involved in armed conflict on all continents except for Antarctica. British forces, or forces with a British mandate, have invaded at some point of time all but 22 of the world’s countries, or nine out of ten of all countries (4).

For those raised on the idea that the British Empire was a benevolent project designed to bring cricket, Christianity and the civil service to a grateful and welcoming world, the thought that Britain is an aggressor out to grab resources rather than a resolute defender of decency can bring on a bad case of cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, the history of the UK demonstrates one simple fact – Britain is the world’s most belligerent state with only a handful of years in its entire history without an armed conflict. To demonstrate this, please take a look at the following:

This is a list of the wars and armed conflicts fought by the Kingdom of Great Britain from 1707–1801, those fought by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1801–1922 and those by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1922

1707-21        Great Northern War
1707-14        War of the Spanish Succession (including Queen Anne’s War)
1715             Jacobite Rising (including the uprising in Cornwall)
1717-20        War of the Quadruple Alliance (including The Nineteen Uprising in Britain)
1721-25        Dummer’s War
1740-48        War of the Austrian Succession (including King George’s War, The War of Jenkin’s Ear, The First Carnatic War)
1745-46        Jacobite Uprising
1749-54        The Second Carnatic War
1754-63        The Seven Years War
1757-63        The Third Carnatic War
1758-61         Anglo-Cherokee War
1763-66         Pontiac’s Rebellion
1766-69         First Anglo-Mysore War
1774-83         First Anglo-Maratha War
1775-84         American Revolution (including Anglo-French war, Anglo-Spanish War, Fourth Anglo-Dutch War)
1780-84          Second Anglo-Mysore War
1788-1934      Australian Frontier wars
1789-92          Third Anglo-Mysore War
1793-96          War in the Vendée
1793-97          The War of the First Coalition
1798                Irish Rebellion of 1798
1798-99           Fourth Anglo-Mysore War
1799-1802       War of the Second Coalition
1801-07           Temne War
1802-05           Second Anglo-Maratha War
1803                Emmet’s Insurrection
1803-05           First Kandyan War
1803-05           War of the Third Coalition
1806                Vellore Mutiny
1806-07           War of the Fourth Coalition
1806-07           British Invasion of the Rio de la Plata
1806-07           Ashanti-Fante War
1807-09           Anglo-Turkish War
1807-12           Anglo-Russian War
1807-14           Gunboat War
1807-14           Peninsular War
1809                War of the Fifth Coalition
1810-11           Anglo-Dutch Java War
1810-17           Merina Conquest of Madagascar
1811                Ga-Fante War
1811-12           Fourth Xhosa War
1812-15           War of 1812
1814-16           Anglo-Nepalese War
1815                Second Kandyan War
1815                Hundred days War (War of the Seventh Coalition)
1817-18          Third Anglo-Maratha War
1818-19          Fifth Xhosa War
1820-30          Greek War of Independence
1823-31          First Ashanti-War
1824-26          First Anglo-Burmese war
1828-34          Portuguese Civil War
1833-40          First Carlist War
1834-36          Sixth Xhosa War
1837-38          Rebellions of 1837
1839-40          Egyptian–Ottoman War
1839-42          First Anglo-Afghan war
1839-42          First Opium war
1839-51          Uruguayan Civil War
1843               Gwalior Campaign
1845-46          First Anglo-Sikh War
1845-46          Flagstaff War
1846               Hutt Valley Campaign
1846-7            Seventh Xhosa War
1847               Wanganui Campaign
1848-49          Second Anglo-Sikh War
1851-53          Eighth Xhosa War
1852-53          Second Anglo-Burmese War
1853-56          Crimean War
1856-57          The National War in Nicaragua
1856-60          Second Opium War
1856-57          Anglo-Persian War
1857-58          Indian Mutiny
1859                Pig War
1860-61          First Taranaki War
1863-64          Second Ashanti War
1863-66           Invasion of Waikato
1864-65           Bhutan War
1867-74           Klang War
1868                Expedition to Abyssinia
1868-69           Titokowaru’s War
1868-72           Te Kooti’s War
1869                Red River Rebellion
1873-74           Third Ashanti War
1877-78           Ninth Xhosa War
1878-80           Second Anglo-Afghan War
1879                Anglo-Zulu War
1880-81           Basuto Gun War
1880-81           First Boer War
1884-89           Mahdist War
1885                Third Anglo-Burmese War
1888                Sikkim Expedition
1896                 Anglo-Zanzibar War
1897-98           Tirah Campaign
1899-1901       Boxer Rebellion
1899-1902       Second Boer War
1901-02           Anglo-Aro War
1903-04           British Expedition to Tibet
1914-18           World War I
1916                Easter Rising
1918-20           Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War
1919-23           Turkish War of Independence
1919                Third Anglo-Afghan War
1919-21           Irish War of Independence
1920                Somaliland Campaign
1920                Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920
1936-39           Great Arab Revolt in Palestine
1938-48           British-Zionist Conflict
1939-45           World War II
1945-49           Indonesian National Revolution
1945-46           Operation Masterdom
1946-47           Greek Civil War
1946-90           Cold War
1948-60            Malayan Emergency
1950-53            Korean War
1952-60            Mau Mau uprising
1955-60            Cyprus Emergency
1956-57            Suez Crisis
1956-62            Border Campaign
1958                  First Cod War
1962                  Brunei Revolt
1962-66             Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation
1962-75             Dhofar Rebellion
1963-67             Aden Emergency
1969-98             The Troubles
1972-73             Second Cod War
1975-76             Third Cod War
1982                   Falklands War
1991                   Gulf War
1992-96              Bosnian War
1998                   Operation Desert Fox
1998-99              Kosovo War
2001- present     War in Afghanistan (Fourth Anglo-Afghan War)
2001- present     The War on Terror
2002                   Sierra Leone Civil War
2003-9                Iraq War
2011                    Libyan Intervention
2013                   Northern Mali Conflict

As you scroll down through that list you will, hopefully, have observed that the overwhelming majority took place many miles from the British Isles. What was Britain defending – Freedom, democracy, justice? No, the answer, sadly, is British economic interest. How many of the countries featured above invited the British war machine to come and ‘solve their problems’, do you think?

The list above starkly demonstrates 300 years of plundering by the British ruling classes. Plundering in which rape, torture and murder happened on a grand scale. Tens of millions of people all across the globe have died at the hands of the UK state – some of them as a direct result of policies which promoted racist genocide (6)(7). Millions of working-class soldiers have died miserably and needlessly, thousands of miles from home, as part of a system designed to make a tiny elite extremely wealthy. “Rule Britannia” we sing, while holding to a romantic, last-night-at-the-proms, version of Empire, but the truth is Britain’s wealth and Britain’s power was, and is, all based on murder, theft and exploitation.

And who paid for all of these military adventures? Certainly not the ruling classes who grew fat and rich on the profits of empire. The price, in both financial and human terms, was paid by the mass of ordinary working people. For hundreds of years the UK state has levied taxes and redirected resources to pay for overseas wars while simultaneously telling the poor to ‘tighten their belts’. For hundreds of years the fighting has been carried out by those from the poorest parts of society who, denied work at home, are used as cannon fodder by the British establishment. Does this sound familiar in 2013?

As time has gone by, the UK war machine has kept grinding up human lives. The reasons for going to war have become more obscure as lies pile on lies. The death tolls have got higher, the weapons more destructive and more expensive. We now have weapons that cost £100 billion and can destroy all human life on earth. Where does it end?

Next year, the people of Scotland have a chance to bring to an end the history of the war-mongering UK state. This state is one of only nine in the world which possesses nuclear weapons. We have a chance to disarm it forever. For over 60 years the UK has maintained a nuclear arsenal – for most of that time based in Scotland. Regardless of which of the UK establishment parties is in government, none has ever seriously considered disarmament; they are all committed to preserving the status quo. This is not set to change. Where does this leave the people of Scotland, saddled with expensive, dangerous nuclear weapons in our backyard?

Perhaps it is time for a truly radical change. The Scottish referendum next year gives us a chance to make Scotland work in the interests of its people, and not just in the interests of its rulers. What sort of country would you choose to live in? What ideals do you cherish? What is most important to you and your family? Do you value peace, justice and fairness? Will you choose to take an opportunity to put these values at the heart of government, better still, at the heart of society, or will you fall for the repetition of empty phrases like “strength, influence and security” with their insidious, subtle evocations of 300 years of warfare?

Choose carefully – the next generation of children, all over the world, may live or die by your decision.

Steven Griffiths,
Member of Scottish CND
Supporter of the Radical Independence Campaign

Footnotes and References

(1) Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
(2) Maddison, Angus (2001). The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. ISBN 92-64-18608-5.
(3) Elkins, Caroline (2005). Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. Owl Books. ISBN 0-8050-8001-5.
(4) Laycock, S. (2012). All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded – And the Few We Never Got Round To. The History Press.
(5) For further information on each specific conflict see: and/or The nomenclature used to for each conflict is that used in wikipedia. I have done this for ease of searching within that site but recognise that the conflicts may be referred to by different names in different cultures. This list does not include the UK intelligence operations, covert interventions and coup d’état. Nor does it include all instances of the use of the military in the suppression of rebellions at home.
(6) Davis, Mike (2000). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. ISBN 1-85984-382-4
(7) Tatz, Colin (1999). Genocide in Australia. Research Discussion Paper – Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies