Senior Labour MPs reacted with fury last night after Tony Blair's key foreign policy adviser called for "a new kind of imperialism" to enable the UK to intervene abroad to combat global terror threats.
In a move that will further unnerve backbenchers worried about possible military action against Iraq, Robert Cooper said that it was the task of liberal democracies to "bring order" to the rest of the world.
Writing in a new pamphlet on the long-term implications of 11 September, Mr Cooper, a senior Foreign Office diplomat attached to Downing Street, said: "The need for colonisation is as great as it ever was in the 19th century".
A diplomat appointed personally by Mr Blair to represent the UK at the Bonn conference on Afghanistan's future last year, Mr Cooper's views on global threats have heavily influenced the Prime Minister since the terror attacks.
The mandarin has long argued that indifference to international crime and terrorism is no longer an option for the West and is a firm believer that the European Union should do more to effect change overseas. However, Mr Cooper's provocative comments, made in a new pamphlet published by the Foreign Policy Centre, triggered outrage among Labour MPs last night.
Mr Blair faced further warnings against action on Iraq when Romano Prodi, the European Commission President, said that "escalation of conflict would have terrible consequences everywhere".
In Reordering the World, a pamphlet which has a foreword by Mr Blair, Mr Cooper said that Osama bin Laden had proved the dangers of allowing rogue states to continue unchecked.
"All the conditions for imperialism are there ... the weak still need the strong and the strong still need an orderly world. A world in which the efficient and well-governed export stability and liberty.
"Empire and imperialism are words that have become terms of abuse in the post-modern world. Today, there are no colonial powers willing to take on the job, though the opportunities, perhaps even the need, for colonisation is as great as it ever was in the 19th century.
"What is needed is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle."
Mr Cooper said that if terrorists or criminals based in undemocratic states posed a threat, the West had to act. "If they become too dangerous for established states to tolerate, it is possible to imagine a defensive imperialism," he said. He added that the EU could offer the best form of the new imperialism. "The post-modern EU offers a vision of co-operative empire. Like Rome, this commonwealth would provide its citizens with some of its laws, some coins and the occasional road. That perhaps is the vision," he said.
Tam Dalyell, the MP for Linlithgow who is leading the backbench opposition on Iraq, said Mr Cooper's comments ran against the Labour Party's long history of anti-colonialism.
"The Tsarina of Russia was better advised by Rasputin than the Prime Minister is by this maniac. To claim that the need for colonialism may be as great as in Victorian times is extraordinary," he said.
Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, said that it was clear that Mr Cooper was attempting to offer some intellectual justification for the US and UK bypassing the United Nations.
"The very idea of a 'liberal imperialism' is like an 'enlightened slavery' – it just doesn't make any sense. The great tragedy of this analysis is that it totally ignores the UN. It is thinking down the barrel of a gun," Mr Simpson said.
The number of Labour MPs who have signed up to a Commons motion objecting to an attack on Iraq rose yesterday to 121 after the suggestion by the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, that Britain would not need a special UN resolution for such an assault on the country.Reuse content