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Manchester, United Kingdom – 27th March 2021: Protesters marching on the streets of Manchester with signs
Photo by Juiced Up Media
On 16 March 2021, Boris Johnson announced that the UK would be breaking its commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons that the UK signed among with 191 other countries in 1968. It came as part of a defence and security review announcement in which Prime Minister Johnson outlined Britain’s plan to once again become a dominant, aggressive, imperial power on the world stage. Most notable was the commitment to a 40 per cent increase in nuclear warheads to be purchased from the USA, taking Britain’s total from 180 to 240. No doubt Iran and North Korea will see the irony. In an impudent show of imperialist intent Britain will also invest more in all five sectors of military defence, including cyber, maritime, land, sea, and space. Within this is the creation of a National Cyber Force, new special forces regiments called ‘rangers’, and a Counter Terrorism Operations and Situation Centre in Whitehall. Also included in the review is a two per cent increase in contributions to NATO.
The defence and security review is timely as it arrives alongside three parliamentary bills that will further hasten Britain’s increasing imperialist ambitions. In tandem with the defence and security review, the overseas operations bill is currently making its way through the House of Lords. This bill seeks to protect the British military from prosecutions enshrined by international law, even extending to torture and war crimes. It does this by introducing three measures: a presumption against prosecution (claims cannot be ‘vexatious’), a five-year statute of limitations on allegations, and necessitating approval from the attorney general. In effect, it allows the British military to operate with much greater impunity abroad and make them much less accountable to the courts or the people. Regarding the overseas operations bill together with the defence and security review, Britain appears to be preparing itself for more aggressive future conflict.
Oppression at home
The exact conflict is evident: the government has been evoking the spectre of an Indo-Pacific tilt and explicitly opposing China as justification for its militaristic expansion. But imperialist ambitions abroad go hand in hand with oppression at home, or protest among Britain’s conscientious anti-imperialists could spread to the masses. In the last 12 months, to partner the defence and security review and the overseas operations bill, the Conservative government has introduced two new draconian police bills that give the government wide-ranging domestic powers to quell any form of dissent. First was the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act (CHIS Act), officially given royal assent in March 2021. In essence, this gives the police and secret service legal protection to commit crimes if necessary for their investigation. It also allows the use of minors to conduct sting operations and gives permission to law enforcement to continue covert relationships with citizens, including child-rearing and marriage, in the name of national security.
While these methods have been widely used for many decades by the British secret service to destabilise left-wing groups, as with the overseas operations bill, it now allows for security services to act with legal impunity to breach human rights.
Imperialist ambitions abroad go hand in hand with oppression at home
The other frightening bill currently under proposal – although it has already passed its initial vote in the House of Commons – is the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill (or police and crime bill, for short). Some have correctly suggested this bill is in direct response to 2020’s BLM protests, alongside the long-term actions of Extinction Rebellion. It also seems to be protection for the government from future dissent as the standard of living for Britons begins to fall and imperialist wars increase. Of note, protests which are causing a ‘nuisance’ can be shut down by the police and carry a potential 10-year sentence for the offending party. Use of megaphones outside parliament will carry the risk of prosecution, while the bill also proposes a maximum ten-year prison sentence for those who deface statues. That is to say, the bill outlaws peaceful protest, including industrial action, unless it poses no threat to the government in power.
In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, the government has also proposed the introduction of plain clothes/undercover police in bars and nightclubs to catch sex offenders. Not forgetting it was a policeman (PC Wayne Couzens) who allegedly committed this horrific crime, since undercover police themselves can now perpetrate sexual crimes with relative impunity owing to the CHIS Act, this proposal only increases the threat to the public. Furthermore, the bill legislates against the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities by strengthening police powers to evict ‘trespassers’, seize their vehicle/home, and ban them from said land for up to a year. This a naked attack on the culture of a people who have been brazenly persecuted for centuries across Europe and entirely criminalises their way of life.
The failure of the left
When looking at these government implementations together – the defence and security review, the overseas operations bill, the CHIS Act, and the police and crime bill – all of which have been proposed in the past year, it’s clear the UK is heading full-throttle into an imperialist, fascistic nightmare. We often hear the term ‘creeping fascism’ applied to the increasingly authoritarian governments of the west, yet this phrase is disingenuous. Fascistic tendencies are inherent to capitalism, particularly imperialist capitalism – it’s just that now these tendencies are becoming more and more overt.
Where is the resistance on the left? The parliamentary left has at best been silent and at worst tacitly complicit. The Labour party were whipped by leader Keir Starmer to abstain from voting on the overseas operations bill and the CHIS Act, giving the Tories a complete free pass. The party was also going to abstain on the police and crime bill, but owing to the death of Everard and the heavy police repression of the vigil, they made an abrupt u-turn and voted against it. However, had it not been for this event, the Labour party would have implicitly supported this bill too. None of this should be in the least surprising given Starmer’s former role as a public prosecutor or his condemnation of the BLM movement in 2020. As for the defence review, many Labour party members showed support, with some even questioning why the government was not further increasing the number of foot soldiers or building a greater number of the nuclear warheads in this country (jobs are jobs, after all, even if it serves the mutually assured destruction of our planet).
Outside of the parliamentary left, there has been some encouraging fledgling resistance at the grassroots level. A #KilltheBill movement has emerged across Britain in response to the the police and crime bill, led primarily by Sisters Uncut and Extinction Rebellion, with thousands of young people, some of them school-age, taking to the streets since 14 March. On 16 March, while the House of Commons voted on the bill, these protestors – without Labour Party support, Socialist Worker Party support, or any of the big players on the UK left – gathered in Parliament Square and then by New Scotland Yard in opposition. Yet as with the BLM protests of 2020, activists in Bristol took resistance to the next level. On 21 March, as they marched against the bill, hundreds of Bristolians were forced to defend themselves against vicious police brutality that involved dogs and charges by horse-mounted officers. The Bristol activists fought back and in retaliation torched police vehicles and smashed the windows of a police station. These scenes were repeated throughout that week, with footage appearing online of Avon & Somerset Constabulary bludgeoning peaceful protestors with their riot shields.
Politicians across the political spectrum have quickly moved to denounce the Bristol uprising. It’s already been classified by home secretary Priti Patel as an act of ‘thuggery’ by a criminal ‘minority’. But the people of Bristol once again demonstrate how this movement could and should develop. Indeed, the fact it remains a minority is the issue. Without popular support and similar acts of solidarity across the country, the Bristol uprisings will be condemned as an aberration and only bolster political support for the police and crime bill. Nationwide, activists must follow suit behind Bristolians to show they’re not alone. The world has seen in Chile how students can overturn a country’s constitution, or the fierce resistance of the French left against the global security bill which also seeks to increase police powers; this action is what is required to build any serious resistance to the government’s increasing draconian police state and military imperialist ambitions.
Rohan Rice is a writer and photographer from London.