Protesters urge the government to help elderly people with their energy bills, London, January 2022. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images)
Since the statue of Edward Colston was dumped into Bristol harbour by Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020, the British media has been seized by an interminable debate over the virtues or ills of confronting Britain’s imperial legacy. Talk of ‘decolonisation’ has been at the heart of an explosive ‘culture war’ that has seen statues brought down and road names changed, all in the face of an aggressive backlash by politicians and journalists who insist such gestures are ‘cancelling’ history.
While it may have ignited the pages of newspapers and magazines, for many more people across the country the decolonisation debate has been experienced as indulgent, intellectual masturbation for the chattering classes. Who has time to engage in moral judgements about the past while trying to survive a pandemic, an economic crisis and climate breakdown all at once?
Decolonisation was never a solely or even primarily cultural project, however. In the mid to late twentieth century, as the world of empires was coming to a close, decolonisation became a lens through which to reimagine the political and economic structures of the globe. The outcome of this project continues to have a direct material impact upon people in Britain today. Far from being a distraction from real world concerns, the study of decolonisation can help us understand contemporary economic struggles, such as why the upcoming cost of living crisis is likely to see the poorest Britons hit hardest whilst oil companies get to rob the bank without the need for masks.
While the British public prepares to face a steep rise in the cost of energy, the oil giant BP – whose CEO Bernard Looney has described how the increase in energy prices has turned his company into a “cash machine” – has enjoyed profits of £9.5bnover the past year. As such, there are growing calls for the government to impose a windfall tax on companies like BP. For the government to pursue such a policy, however, would require it to take drastic action against a company that has enjoyed the loyal support of the British state since the heyday of empire.
Before BP was British Petroleum it was known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, founded after British businessman William Knox D’Arcy struck oil in Persia in 1908. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was the latest in a long line of ‘private’ companies that did the dirty work of extending Britain’s imperial reach across the world, including the Hudson Bay Company, Colston’s Royal African Company and, perhaps most famously of all, the East India Company.
Today, we think of colonialism as the bloodstained history of conflicts between nations, or even clashes between ‘races’. But it was to a large extent a corporate endeavour, with private companies making use of the unified structure of empire to extract and trade goods across the world. The problem started once those empires began to fall apart after World War Two, and decolonisation became the order of the day. The wave of newly muscular ‘Third-World sovereignty’ spread to Iran, where the election of Mohammad Mosaddegh as prime minister signalled trouble for Britain’s colonial oil company.
Mosaddegh came to power with a plan to use the oil produced on land within the sovereign state of Iran to fund mass education, housing and welfare programmes. This meant getting a better deal from Anglo-Persian Oil Company than the one that was currently in place, where Iran received only 20% of the value of the oil extracted from its lands. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company had been willing to change their name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to reflect the changing times, but beyond this rebranding they weren’t giving up anything else – least of all the profits they were enjoying. The year before Mosaddegh’s election win, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) registered profits of £170m (around £5bn in 2020).
Frustrated by the failure of negotiations with the company, Mosaddegh decided to tackle them head-on. On 1 May 1951, Mosaddegh seized the assets of the AIOC, claiming that if ‘Third World sovereignty’ was to mean anything, then a democratically-elected government should have more say over what occurs within its territory than foreign multinational corporations. The plan for nationalisation included a provision for the Iranian government to give 25% of the profits they made from the oilfields to the AIOC as compensation for their loss. For the directors of the company and their allies in the British government, this offer of compensation was just a further insult. To them, Mosaddegh’s actions were theft, plain and simple.
The Westminster government in charge at the start of the Iran oil crisis was the same government that is now widely canonised as the most progressive in British history. Clement Attlee’s Labour government was at that very moment embarking upon an expansion in unemployment insurance and council housing, and giving birth to the NHS in a welfarist project that included the nationalisation of private industries. Over the course of just one term in office, Attlee took into public ownership the essential but fiscally unproductive industries of gas, electricity and coal and the railways. Given the circumstances, the Attlee government might have been expected to have some understanding of Mosaddegh’s desire to use his nation’s resources to invest in the education, health and welfare of his citizens. Yet if the Iranians were expecting sympathy from a progressive Labour government, they were soon to be disappointed.
The government’s first instinct upon hearing of Mosaddegh’s nationalisation was to launch a military invasion of Iran to take back the oilfields by force. However, with the UK still counting the costs of World War Two, a full-on military invasion would have been an expensive endeavour. As an alternative, the Attlee government imposed a naval blockade and economic sanctions on Iran, blocking Iranian industries’ ability to access key British exports, like steel, and freezing Iranian bank accounts held with British banks. Britain then submitted a formal complaint to the recently formed United Nations, claiming that Iran’s nationalisation actions had placed world peace at risk. To the shock and embarrassment of the government, they were unable to secure enough votes from the UN Security Council to support their claim. They then took Iran to the International Court of Justice, where they would lose again.
With legal routes exhausted and the military option seemingly unviable, the British government eventually turned to more underhand options for dealing with the Iranian problem. As the crisis dragged on, Attlee’s Labour government was replaced by the Conservatives in October 1951, ushering back into power an old ally and one-time paid consultant of the AIOC Winston Churchill. Churchill’s government mobilised the anti-communist fears of the US and, in 1953, with new president Ike Eisenhower and his administration fearing that Mosaddegh’s success could inspire even more radical policies by governments across Asia, Latin America and Africa, US support for drastic action in Iran was secured. Documents declassified in 2017 detail the precursor meetings held in 1952 between Sir Christopher Steel of the British Embassy in Washington and the US assistant secretary of state Henry Byroade in order to organise a coup against Mosaddegh in Iran, code-named Operation Ajax.
In August 1953, the US and UK teamed up with wealthy Iranian military general Fazlollah Zahedi to stage a riot that led to Mosaddegh being removed from office and placed first in prison and then under house arrest. He would stay under house arrest until his death in 1967. Zahedi succeeded Mosaddegh as prime minister, and with a new pro-Western administration in place, the AIOC regained its oilfields. Of course, as any good businessperson knows, the best way to rescue a brand damaged by controversy is to change the name, so following the coup, the AIOC rebranded itself as British Petroleum.
At the time of the crisis, Ludwig von Mises, one of the godfathers of ‘neoliberalism’, understood the hypocrisy of Britain undertaking ‘nationalisation’ at home but defending the AIOC in Iran. He wrote: “If it is right for the British to nationalise the British coal mines, it cannot be wrong for the Iranians to nationalise the Iranian oil industry.” Of course, for von Mises, the solution was not for the British to recognise Iran’s right to nationalisation. Instead, the way to correct this hypocrisy was for Britain to accept greater domestic privatisation and, over the coming decades, this vision came to pass. In 1987, as part of a great rush to privatise as many state resources as possible, Margaret Thatcher’s government sold its final shares in British Petroleum, the company for which Britain had, just a few decades earlier, risked international embarrassment to protect. In 1998, British Petroleum completed a merger with the American oil giant Amoco, creating BP Amoco, or just BP for short, and became one of the largest companies in the world.
Long-term, what was the reward Britain received for throwing its weight behind the AIOC in the 1950s? In its current incarnation as BP, the company has been consistently cited as one of the UK’s consistent tax-avoiding firms. It has also been responsible for causing huge environmental damage, including the Deepwater Horizon disaster – the largest oil spill in history. Boris Johnson – who was then London mayor – immediately leapt to BP’s defence, claiming that anyone attacking the company for the 11 lives lost in an oil spill or the devastation of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico was just ‘anti-British’. Yet is BP really a noble, commercial representation of the British people?
Today, Boris Johnson is prime minister (just), and his government looks like it will once again protect BP by rejecting calls for a windfall tax on the company to help hard-up Britons facing the energy crisis. Their directors will be making champagne toasts over the increasing value of dividends and share buyback options whilst millions of families stare in exasperation at their monthly budgets, trying to reconfigure the numbers so that they somehow balance.
The study of ‘decolonisation’ can help us understand how this state of play came into being. By siding with the AIOC in its conflict with ‘Third World sovereignty’, Britain helped set the global economy on a path where corporate power was increasingly estranged from democratic control. As the empire was crumbling, both Labour and Conservative governments treated old colonial companies like they were a beloved family dog that was allowed to bite whatever it wanted outside the house, but was expected to behave as soon as it returned home. Now, in the twenty-first century, Britain finds that these companies are no longer obedient pets but wild animals, leaving everyone, even those at home, terrified of what actions they may take next.
We are often told that the whole decolonisation debate is just another attack on the British people. But as people across the country are preparing for further economic pain whilst corporate profits soar, if given the choice again, would we still side with BP against the Mossadeghs of this world?