The announcement this week that Britain will provide a loan of £10 billion to Iraq may appear an unremarkable financial agreement. But its critical stipulation – that the whole sum must be spent buying British goods and services – is deeply troubling. Both during and after colonialism, European powers have exerted influence over foreign states, and this deal reflects the continuation of this dynamic. This loan is not a fair agreement between two equal partners, but an exercise of power rooted in a repressive history.
The idea that mandated rule in Iraq, as in other colonies, was benevolent and civilising is often peddled, but this is an outrageous myth. Britain’s only interests were economic aggrandisement and geopolitical expansion. Resources were plundered and communities violently suppressed; for Churchill, Iraq was a ‘testing ground’ for new weapons against resistance to British rule. Most tragically, however, was that upon gaining independence, hopes for freedom were in vain: having shaped and defined global power structures, western colonial states continue to pursue policies that benefit their interests. In Iraq’s case, the state’s vast oil production has left it reliant on exports for cash and imports of most goods, whilst internal institutional development has been weak.
Iraq has suffered years of turmoil and instability, in particular since its unjustifiable invasion in 2003, and the idea that it should only buy services from its most formidable oppressor is abhorrent. This deal continues a legacy of British control and influence in the state: a power dynamic that is morally and economically problematic. The country is struggling to move beyond its past and tackle its current issues, not least of which include the existential threat of Daesh, and doing this requires it developing its economic capacity on its own terms. But in the face of domineering, neoliberal powers that have the greatest control over global finances, Iraq is given little choice in the matter. All states deserve self-determination but, in dictating their choices, European powers have deprived many of this. By insisting on such a form of indirect influence, Britain is ensuring its post-colonial vassals are raised to its needs, not their own. The shallow commitment of the UK to helping Iraq is most truly shown in its failure to bear responsibility for the Iraq War: there has been no commitment to tackle the scatterings of depleted uranium that were left in the country during the conflict, and have been linked to birth defects since.
The critical importance of this deal, however, comes in its timing. A post-Brexit Britain is suffering an identity crisis, and the years to come will determine what direction this troubled identity will take. It was a plan flaunted during the run-up to the referendum that the UK could reorient from European integration to a revival of Commonwealth relations. But, considering the imbalance of resources, status, and power that this entails, this must be rejected. Discourse on this subject is worryingly prevalent and without much opposition: last year, MP Heather Wheeler tweeted that the Olympics medal count was actually won collectively by the ‘British Empire’. The idea that imperial revival is a viable, sensible and morally justified course of action is far too commonplace. For the sake of development and global justice, it must be resisted. It is imperative that Britain recognise the effects of its imperial violence, and begin to confront its legacy.
Image: Salwan Binni