National sovereignty and the defence of the Nation State

by C Desmond Greaves

Consultative Conference, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1, 30th November 1985

There are two immediate reasons for holding this conference:

1.The presentation of the Dooge/Spinelli proposals for further European integration, with their perspective of complete federation, implication for foreign policy, and proposed military provisions that threaten Irish neutrality. Whilst these proposals have not yet gained general acceptance, they continue under discussion and powerful interests are pressing them forward. The matter must not be allowed to go by default.

2.The culmination of protracted secret discussion between the British and Irish governments on the subject of Anglo-Irish relations and the future of the six counties of Northern Ireland, with possible implications in the fields of foreign policy and security. It is regretted that the necessity of awaiting an announcement has delayed the publication of this paper.

The purpose of the conference is not to seek agreement on specific points of policy, but to assist the process of policy-making through the examination of some of the general questions relating to nationalism and internationalism in the light of democratic principles.

Some of our English friends have expressed surprise that it should be left to an Irish organisation to initiate discussion on these subjects. The Connolly Association is the oldest Irish organisation in Britain, and moreover the only one that has always approached the Irish question from the standpoint of internationalism, ie it holds that it is the international duty of English Labour to work for Irish independence. It is more-over specially concerned with the attempted “Gleichschaltung” of Ire-land by NATO, in which European embellishments fail to compensate for converting the island into an off-shore military base. And of course the issue of national independence is probably more alive to the Irish than to any other people.


There has been a tendency for discussion of the subject of this conference to become entangled in questions of theory. It is not to disparage theory to hope that this will not occur today. The academic mind is addicted to abstractions which, like fire, are useful instruments but dangerous when out of .control. For example what is a nation? Clearly it is a species of human community characterised by objective features. But there is also a subjective element, frequently the product of very long history. [1] No two nations are alike. We are therefore dealing with a variable category with uncertain boundaries. But if mathematicians can achieve their admired intellectual triumphs through the manipulation of “imaginary quantities” one would think by definition could not be proved to exist, then humble politicians can be excused for not having a pigeon hole for everything.

In their interesting book subtitled “Socialism in a world of nation states” [2] Messrs Jenkins and Minnerup comb history for an explanation of the recent emergence of what they call “neo-nationalism”. Here is their conclusion:

“Nationalism as a political programme to fill a void left by capitalist conservatism and proletarian socialism, is the common denominator of our analysis in all three sectors of the contemporary world.”

This “void” arises they say, from the “absence of bourgeois or proletarian leadership of the popular•(petty-bourgeois, peasant, working class) aspirations for political economic and socio-cultural emancipation”.

There used to be an old tag to the effect that nothing can come out of nothing. Theory can no doubt manipulate absences and voids. Practice dea1s with presences and actualities.


In the eighteenth century Africans were kidnapped and hauled off as slaves to the plantations. In the nineteenth century it became the practice to enslave them in their own countries. The change arose from the development of investment imperialism. The labour force had to be kept at home to work the invested capital. Investment capital was owned for the moat part by industrial/financial monopolies based on developed countries. On their behalf the imperialist states partitioned Africa, divided its territory among them, and periodically fought over the division. As well as spheres of profitable investment the colonies served as markets for manufactured goods and sources of raw materials.

This arrangement, the colonial system, proved unstable. Political independence movements freed one country after another, though the territorial limits imposed by imperialism were usually maintained. A series of nominally independent states was established. But their sovereignty was usually restricted in the interests of the foreign monopolies by imposed constitutions, unequal treaties and military pressure. The colonial system continued, frequently with little modification, under the auspices of domestic interests in uneasy alliance with the former colonising state.[3]

The word “neo-colonialism” was invented by the late Mr R.P. Dutt to de-scribe this arrangement. Viewed from the standpoint of the developed countries it has been called “neo-imperialism”. It subsisted between the USA and her Latin American quasi-protectorates for many years before it became the general modus of imperialism. For imperialism it certainly is. The forces of occupation may have been withdrawn, but the land, sea and air bases are there, the rapid deployment forces at the ready, and the various dirty tricks departments available to stage a coup or blow up a ship as may be required. The “white man’s burden” has evolved into international gangsterism.

In general the process of neo-colonial exploitation is threefold. International loans are expended, developing infrastructures designed to facilitate foreign investment. These loans must be serviced and the investors paid their dividends. The exports designed to provide the necessary re-sources face adverse :terms of trade. The result is that many neo-colonies have built up mountainous debts that present an ever-increasing danger that massive defaults will shake the financial stability of the capitalist world and even spark off a series of revolutions. The resultant low-wage economies in turn offer a threat to the standards of workers in Europe and the USA.

At the beginning of the century each imperial power tended to invest in its “own” colonies – British South Africa, French Equadorial Africa etc. With the end of direct rule this exclusiveness was progressively eroded, particularly as a result of the immense expansion of American investment which has exceeded and so to speak enveloped the rest. The role of neo-colonialism in the development of transnational finance has not, so far as I am aware, been exhaustively investigated. That it has played a significant part need not be doubted. By the same token, notwithstanding the continuation of inter-imperial rivalries, the possibility that a neo-colony, or combination of neo-colonies, might strive to play off one imperialism against another, has contributed towards the somewhat rickety solidarity of neo-imperialist political organisations such as the EEC, and the military treaties by means of which the USA endeavours to rule the seven seas. Without the so-called “third world” the so-called “first world” would not exist. The two are the sides of one coin and to confine attention to the. developed world is to exclude all possibility of comprehending it..

Britain and America

The decline of British influence in world affairs and the transfer of its imperial hegemony to the United States is one of the outstanding features of modern history. The process has been steady and relentless, and British governments have blamed everything .but their own policies.

Britain ceased to be the “Workshop of the world” in the eighteen seven-ties, but made up for her loss of industrial competitiveness by .means of colonial tribute. The result was a process advancing parasitism. By 1914 her strongest industrial competitor Germany felt able to challenge her imperial monopoly. The first world war exhausted the two main combatants with spectacular consequences. The Japanese secured a place in the sun. The USA achieved parity. [4] And the establishment of the Soviets removed one sixth of the world’s surface from the imperial system.

The rulers of Britain dedicated themselves to the overthrow of the Bolsheviks. When direct intervention failed they adopted the “Munich” pol-icy of building up Fascist Germany and encouraging an attack on the USSR which they hoped would result in the mutual destruction of two enemies. When Hitler instead signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR it was because he was unwilling to tackle the Russians with the British and French armed to the teeth at his rear. The defeat of France removed this danger and the non-aggression pact was torn up, with results we know. Britain, that had hoped to emerge virtually unscathed and able to dictate terms, suffered severe destruction and was trans-formed from a creditor to a debtor. The USA was the winner and stood in the place Britain had hoped to occupy.

The British problem was clearly expressed by Winston Churchill. Here was a vast territorial empire, containing investments built up over many years. But the country was no longer able to hold it unaided. Churchill accused Roosevelt of trying to destroy the British empire but added “But we know and you know, that without you we cannot survive”. This was the birth of the “special relationship” with the USA. It was Churchill who initiated the “cold war” in his Fulton speech in which he called for a capitalist crusade against the USSR. He hoped that an America embroiled with the Soviets would be more dependent on Britain. He was hoist by his own petard. Throughout the years British imperialism has survived under an American umbrella, displaying at the same time rivalry and dependence, every revolt being quelled by appeal to common anti-Sovietism. And stage by stage she has been compelled to relinquish one position after another to the USA, while sustaining a military expenditure that ruled out the re-equipment of industry, exerting only a marginal influence on American policy and handing her territory over to the Pentagon as a forward base for the third world war. When this process reached the appropriate point the USA forgot about the “special relation-ship” and found Britain a “role in Europe” where the belittling process continued.

It is interesting to note that the late Joseph Stalin did not expect this process to continue to its logical conclusion. He expected an effort by Britain to break free from American tutelage, and it was presumably with this in mind that he favoured the notion of transforming the British empire into a voluntary association of free peoples, where Britain would nevertheless still occupy a vital position.[5] It is of no practical use, but it is of interest to speculate whether Britain would be worse off today if in-stead of fighting rear-guard actions in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya, Aden etc, she had felt the “wind of change” early enough and carried out voluntary withdrawals. Certainly no such alternative presented itself to the mind of Mr. Attlee’s government. His reaction was to develop the atom bomb.

The European Economic Community

In 1973 the Norwegian writer John Galtung disclosed the prescription to which the EEC was dispensed. [6]

“Take five broken empires, add a sixth later, and make one big neo-colonial empire out of it all.”

This is fair comment. The Rome agreement of 1975 regularised relations between the EEC and former colonies and semicolonies throughout the world, and the pamphlet issued by the Wilson government in favour of Britain’s remaining in the EEC, contained a map .of the world with the EEC dependencies marked. It was almost as if the old empire had been got back! And indeed were there not confident predictions of a European third super-power confronting the Russians and America on equal terms? These were of course dreams. The EEC countries were already committed to the USA, on whose military strength they relied for the security of their far flung investments. Any attempt at independent action would come under stern scrutiny as breaking the imperialist front and aiding the USSR.

The establishment of the EEC gave an immense impetus to the growth of transnational companies, which became the typical expression of imperialism of the late twentieth century. A company might have its head-quarters in London, Paris, Bonn or New York. Its assets were spread throughout the world. In its board room decisions were taken that determined the lives and livelihoods of millions who had no say in them. Assets were moved about the globe like pieces on a chess board. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of unaccountable dictators. These often disposed of funds greater than those available to independent states. The transnationals flourished under EEC rules, and EEC policy decisions usually facilitated them.

During the referendum campaign the anti-EEC pamphlet warned against the destruction of the British steel and coal industries. The same man was brought in to butcher the two of them. In the case of coal EEC policy was to discourage mining in Europe and instead to import from the “third world” where coal could b produced by cheap labour working for subsidiaries of the transnationals. The destruction of the. British coal industry is now in full swing, and people who used to buy Welsh steam coal are now being offered South African anthracite, another reason why HMG are soft on apartheid. Nationalised industries are the teeth of economic resistance. It is not surprising that when they are “privatised” care is taken to bring in foreign capital. The EEC is in short, an. institution designed to minimise interference with the operations of transnational big business.

Behind the whole neo-imperialist system stands the military alliance NATO, and its antipodean counterparts. It is ostensibly designed to “contain Soviet expansion” – code language for keeping neo-colonies in the system. Sending American troops to Grenada is not expansion: sending Cubans to Angola is. Without doubt the US militarists would like to achieve military superiority over the USSR. It might, they have suggested, then open its frontiers to penetration by transnational companies. But it is a purpose fraught with risks. Many Americans are opposed to it. There is an America we hear little of, whose industries are being destroyed, whose communities are being uprooted by the agency of trans-national companies operating there. NATO and the arms race serve the interests of imperial America, the influence of the generals and the prof-its of the armament manufacturers – the military industrial complex.

Freedom – an interlude

Establishment politicians speak of the “free world” which we understand include South Africa, Turkey and Chile. What’s free about it? Free enterprise? Most people’s enterprise is not very free. They go to their work every day and do If unemployed they are free to draw benefit. The conclusion? Free enterprise is only available to those with sufficient funds. The greater the funds the greater the freedom.

Should capital be free from all restraint? Most people, even ardent capitalists, will say no. But who can restrain it? The only force ultimately strong enough is the state. While it will always favour one class rather than another it will have to respond to the interplay of interests within the community. If you are running a vast transnational monopoly, with a stake in every country, you may be tempted to say: “If it weren’t for these elected governments, I could do just what I liked.”


“Freedom” is a much abused word. So is “democracy”. Strictly speaking the latter means government by the people. It could exist in its literal sense in a city state whose entire population could attend a meeting, though obviously the entire population could not sit in permanent session. This dilemma is so1ved through representation.

What is surprising is how small a part representation plays in the con-duct of proclaimed “democracies”. In Britain the head of state is a hereditary monarch. The demand for national representative institutions in Scotland and Wales is virtually ignored. The upper house of the legislature is part hereditary, part appointed. The judiciary and magistry are appointed. The executive is appointed, and certain sections, for example police, army, security forces, have protection from interference by representatives. The legislature is elected, but not for a fixed term. Representatives who do not fulfill their mandate cannot be recalled. The party forming the government is under no legal obligation to carry out the programme on which it was elected. Virtually all positions in the legislature are in the Prime Minister’s gift. Parliament is bound by treaty to accept as legislation thousands of directives sent from the EEC commission in Brussels, though there is machinery by which a veto can be imposed- (by the government) on decisions gravely prejudicial to national interests. Radio and television are restricted in their coverage of election campaigns, and candidates are limited in their expenditure. Otherwise the mass media are free to interfere to their hearts’ content in the electoral process.

But alongside the formal democracy of periodical elections, there are important civil rights such as access to representatives, freedom of expression, assembly and organisation. These are all under threat. At the same time there is a central point from which the vital interests of the state can be looked after. And there are national armed forces by which those interests, if necessary even sovereignty itself, can be defended. The Dooge/ Spinelli proposals would abolish the veto and compel the British Parliament to accept any orders Brussels might give. They also propose to deprive national governments of the right to form foreign policy, and the ultimate aim is a European army which could compel nations to remain in the EEC by force of arms. Under such arrangements Irish neutrality would become impossible.

Anti-national brainwashing

In this discussion paper we have adopted the principle of examining actual things as they are, avoiding abstractions and theorisations. If there is to be social change in Britain, and unless there is social change in Britain there will be no change in the bi-partisan• imperialism of the main parties to former colonial countries like Ireland, then there will have to be an enormous advance of democracy. Democracy is the key to progress. And as James Connolly put it, the principle of democracy must function nationally before it can function internationally.

It is not surprising therefore that the opponents of democracy have for the past thirty odd years concentrated their attacks on the principle of national sovereignty. Whereas before the war children were taught nationalism was a good thing, now they are taught that it is bad. Soon after the British House of Lords (in 1960) decided that Irish sea bases would be useful in time of war, newspapers were deploring the national con-tent of Irish education which preserved opposition to partition and sup-port for neutrality. A concerted effort was made to infiltrate the educational system and control the media.

Professor Herbert I Schiller has exposed the role of the news and advertising agencies run from the USA. “National sovereignty” he said “is the dirtiest expression in the American language” [7]. All advertising agencies in Britain, but one, are American controlled. And it was logical that when the USA wished to use national territory for war-purposes they should tell the inhabitants not to keep it for themselves. If the six counties were to be maintained for strategic purposes the inhabitants of the twenty’s it would be less insistent on recovering them if they could be got to believe that nationa1ism was out of date. A certain learned professor has recently been publishing articles denigrating practically every national struggle the Irish ever engaged in. It is easy to get books published debunking Pearse, watering down James Connolly, describing 1916 as a terrible mistake, and claiming opposition to imperialism is based on psychopathology.

Within the labour movement there are sections that decry the national independence struggle as a diversion from the task of getting socialism. They really mean talking about socialism. For there is scarcely one progressive step decided on by a Labour Party conference that would not involve the defiance of the EEC and flouting its rules. Tremendous pressures would be applied. But up to now there has been no European army to enforce the will of Brussels. It is time that the labour movement declared national sovereignty to be one of the fundamental elements of democracy. The British people have a fight for sovereignty on their hands. Sovereignty for the Welsh and the Scots (if they want it, and it is up to them) stands in no sort of opposition to this. And as for the Irish, they will go on fighting for it, until the majority of the Irish people rule the whole of their country.



1. I have met Welshmen who insisted that Wales was “part of the British nation”. Welsh historians have suggested that this is national not non-national in origin a folk memory of Romano-Britain with its emperor in London. See “Haxen Wledig in the Nabinogion””, which shows nostalgia for this period.

2. The book has the somewhat odd title Citizens and Comrades and the subtitle better indicates its contents. Despite some obscure theorising the authors conclude: “Far from being the dark source of all modern evil the nation state actually represents the pinnacle of human achievement in the field of political emancipation”.

3. The first colonial country to be brought under neo-colonialism was Ireland, the six counties being kept in the old relation.

4. An example of this is the Washington Naval Treaty, 1921.

5. J. Stalin. Economic problems of socialism. p.38. 1952.

6. Quoted in A Coughlan, The EEC, Ireland and the making of a super-power.

7. Herbert I. Schiller. New modes of cultural domination, Dublin 1977.