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Nick Pickles: Cruel Britannia – harrowing lessons from distant, and recent, history

Nick Pickles is Director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, and a music photographer whose work can be viewed here. Follow Nick on Twitter.

Pickles Nick“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” wrote Eric Griffith-Jones. This was not an idle thought – Griffith-Jones was the attorney general of Kenya as torture was sanctioned as part of the British response to the Mau Mau insurgency.

Ian Cobain’s book Cruel Britannia is perhaps the most comprehensive investigation into the British Government’s methods in dealing with protest, insurrection and, in some cases, its allies ever published in a single text. A frank and compelling read, it shines a light in the darkest corners of Britain’s actions in the last century, combining first-hand testimony with documents only begrudgingly released by the Ministry of Defence as the book was being written.

One such document, declassified in 2005, was a memo from General Sir George Erskine regarding the British response to the Mau Mau insurgency. Written eight months into the conflict, his note to the Secretary of State for War was clear: “I am quite certain prisoners were beaten to extract information. It's a short step from beating to torture and I am now sure … that torture was a feature of many police posts.”

He also said that the treatment was “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or communist Russia” – however, went on to draft new legislation sanctioning the abuse, as long as it was kept secret. It was only last month when the British Government agreed to pay compensation to more than 5,000 Kenyans who suffered torture and abuse at the hands of the colonial administration.

Such revelations might be greeted with shock, that a nation like Britain would ever contemplate such behaviour. But a more salient conclusion from reading this book is to ask whether the oversight mechanisms we have in place could prevent them from happening again.

I wouldn’t be confident about that. The book details many instances of both executive oversight and operational enthusiasm for the use of techniques that can only be described as torture, beyond international and domestic law. However it also offers important reminders of the operational dangers torture poses. In one striking example, B Squadron of the Special Air Service declined to hand over any prisoners to military intelligence, so concerned were they by the methods being deployed. In one incident a witness details how “some members of B Squadron were restrained only with the greatest difficulty from shooting the interrogator.”

As the book notes, it is not uncommon to train your own soldiers to resist physical abuse, and then to break by offering plausible but incorrect information. The soldiers of B Squadron were in no doubt that their own safety and the quality of intelligence they were acting upon were both undermined by the methods being employed.

Those concerns were not new. In one 1946 memo Hector McNeill, foreign minister, wrote to Ernest Bevin, then foreign secretary, about what he had seen of the Bad Nenndorf interrogation camp.

“I doubt if I can put too strongly the parliamentary consequences of publicity. Whenever we have any allegations to make about the political police methods in Eastern European states it will be enough to call out in the House ‘Bad Nenndorf’, and no reply is left to us.”

Fast forward to 2005 and Jack Straw’s testimony to the foreign affairs select committee:

“Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying ... that Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop, because we have not been.”

History will cast a verdict on this statement, as it has the actions of previous Governments and those who have sanctioned the activity outlined in this book.

From Northern Ireland to Cyprus, Libya to the streets of Aden, the town of Bad Nenndorf to the South London’s Camp 020, Cruel Britannia is a forensic expose of Britain’s hypocrisy in espousing to the world the values of due process, the rule of law and humane treatment of prisoners, while at the same time allowing officers to act in a way that, as one detainee put it, “I had never in all those years [in the hands of the Gestapo] undergone such treatment.” It is an important reminder that lawmakers can stretch the law to breaking point, and, at times, act beyond it.

The fact that such activity has continued for almost the entirety of the last century should highlight how the oversight mechanisms today are more important than ever – and that if we seek to spread democracy, it cannot be at the expense of the values that make us a free nation.

> Ian Cobain’s Cruel Britannia: A secret history of torture was published in paperback on 4 July and is available now.


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