I want to start with a quote:
“Every modern state is governed by the privileged, that is, by those who control industry by owning railroads, lands, mines, banks, and credit. These men thus obtain enormous and unearned capital, for which there is no use in the country where it is produced, because the poverty of the workers limits the home market. Those who control this surplus capital must seek new countries and new people to exploit, and this clash of selfish interests leads to war.”
… and to ask you “When do you think that was written?”
But first I would like to consider the idea and whether it has any lessons for us today.
Few will need convincing that wars are often fought over resources: access to resources themselves or access to trade in resources. Some examples are obvious. The Opium wars, the First Anglo-Dutch war, the Battle of Plassey when the British consolidated their hold on India, the Finnish-Soviet War over Nickel and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait were all over resources directly or the right to trade in resources. Others are less obvious. Many would say that the American War of Independence was about taxation and votes, but control of trade routes was of key importance, and that is why the French joined in on the side of the Americans. The American Civil War was at least partly about slavery, but cotton was central to the dispute between the northern states and those in the south who used slaves to grow it. When Germany invaded Russia in the Second World War it was largely to gain access to Russian and Ukrainian oil and grain. (References 1, 2, 3 )
Next we might consider the effect of giving more money to the rich as opposed to giving it to the poor. Trickle-down economics has been roundly discredited. This excuse put about by the wealthy for being allowed to acquire even more wealth has been demolished by Nobel Prize winning Joseph Stiglitz, and the IMF (Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective. 2015) among others.
If you want more evidence for the damaging done of inequality there is a wealth of information and statistics in the excellent book The Spirit Level by by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.
Now let us consider whether the allegation that we are governed by the privileged stands up to scrutiny. Consider the educational backgrounds of cabinet ministers. Consider the revolving door between government service and work in “the City”. Robert Peston has written a book on the rise of the ‘super-rich’ called Who Runs Britain? How the Super-Rich are Changing Our Lives . For a wider look at the way money buys power and influence and the way the UK is governed by a small coterie of very rich people who are either directly in government or buy influence with the government I suggest Donnachadh McCarthy’s book The Prostitute State. Then consider, perhaps, how New Labour surrendered so many of the traditional Labour Party values when they sought the support of Rupert Murdoch and big money in ‘the City’, or the way Nick Clegg fitted in with his Tory coalition partners to the distress of traditional Liberal Democrats. All in all, it would seem to me that the case is made; Robert Peston is right: Britain is ruled by the super-rich.
It is now time for me to answer my own question. The quotation that I started with was written to the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, by his friend George L. Record in 1919. He was criticising the settlement in Europe post World War I. He suggested that another war was inevitable. As we all know it was only twenty years until his (and President Wilson’s) worst fears were realised.
So, now let us look again at the decision of the UK to leave the European Union. Despite all the undoubted economic gains, the cultural and scientific advantages, the benefits to the environment and the advantages in pursuing criminals and terrorists across borders, the greatest benefit of the EU has been the prolonged period of peace in Europe. When I think of the improved employment and maternity rights promoted by the EU, the presence of workers on company boards in Germany or the experiments with a universal income in Finland it seems to me that the EU has to a limited degree promoted a more egalitarian society than has been traditional in the UK. When I think of the wealthy politicians and newspaper proprietors who persuaded British voters to vote for Brexit, I find myself wondering if they were finding the EU too egalitarian for them.
Was the key interest of those who promoted leaving the EU a desire to de-regulate, to strip away workers rights, to remove regulations relating to food hygiene and animal welfare with the ultimate objective of increasing further their own dominant wealth?
If that is true and George Record was right then the UK is set on a path of inevitable conflict with other countries. The prospects for the future peace of Europe do not look good.