Cruel Britannia

October 29, 2013

by Ian Cobain

It used to be that there was a tiny splinter of a fragment of me that was proud to be British. Tolerance, fair play, all that nonsense. Glossing over Blighty’s imperial adventures, surely we could be just a little proud of the legacy of our great nation? Nothing jingoistic, of course, just a low-key sort of inoffensive smugness.

That splinter of a fragment had been feeling a bit dull and lustreless for a while now. We had Afghanistan, Iraq and associated war crimes, the “War on Terror” (a.k.a. Bash A Brown Person For Britain), all the NSA/GCHQ spying revelations, and on and on it went. And of course Tony Blair isn’t rotting in a cell in The Hague which, if you ever needed another one, is a glaring signal that whatever justice there is in the world, it never intrudes into the worlds of the “great” and the “good”.

And then I read Cruel Britannia. Oh jolly day.

Britain has been playing the torture game for a long time, but in the British psyche, there’s something of a division between the “old days” (the Tower of London, Tyburn, everyday bloodletting and oppression of the poor, etc.) and the progressive Britain that grew out of the social changes triggered by the World Wars. That myth-making really began with the Second World War, which was billed as a real war against real evil (and in many ways so it was), with Britain unambiguously on the side of the angels. Not part of the Great Game, not a war for shallow territorial advantage, but a war for our very survival. So damn noble. Almost brings a tear to the eye1.

Some people who got more than a tear in the eye were the German POWs tortured by the British, both in prison camps in a wrecked and defeated post-war Germany and right in the centre of London. The luckiest of these fellows got to experience some Gestapo torture methods the British adopted, even using genuine Gestapo equipment collected as souvenirs. (“Shin screws” is such an evocative phrase, don’t you think? Sounds like we’re heading back to the days of the Tower.)

Perhaps you could excuse some of this as the natural outcome of a desire for vengeance against the Nazi war machine, but the sheer bureaucratic horror of it speaks against that. One British minister commented that the treatment meted out to German POWs was “reminiscent of the German concentration camps”.

And the general public didn’t know about this for sixty or seventy years. The British government made huge efforts to ensure that knowledge of their torture programme didn’t leak out. There was a lot of talk at the time of detaining some prisoners who had been tortured, although they weren’t guilty of any crime, simply because their first-hand knowledge of the British treatment of detainees would make them a threat to British national security. The same argument has been deployed by some US commentators concerning detainees at Guantanamo in recent years. You just couldn’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, after thoroughly rubbishing Britain’s wartime record, Cobain goes on to write about the grubby aftermath of our colonial adventures: Kenya, Aden, Palestine. We distinguished ourselves all over, torturing and killing in the name of the national interest. And then there was Northern Ireland in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, followed after a little rest by our gleeful descent even deeper into the mud following the New York terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Secret rendition, MI5 and MI6 knowingly and willingly colluding with the secret police in various Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African countries to do the kind of really high-class torture it’s hard to hide, and then the British Army off the leash and roaming free in Iraq. (I wonder if British schoolchildren learn the name of Baba Mousa in lessons? I wonder what they learn about Iraq at all.)

After all that, my splinter of a fragment was quite worn away. I am no longer even a little tiny smidgeon proud to be British. And the most distressing thing of all? This wasn’t just done by one government afflicted by some particularly virulent right-wing rage virus. This was done by government after government, minister after minister, Tories and Labour both.

I was left with the final resort of the disappointed child of a past colonial power. At least we were better than the Belgians. A low bar indeed (read King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild to see just how low a bar).


  1. Historical blinkers firmly in place: let’s not talk about war reparations, the Treaty of Versailles and other inconvenient facts.