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Keith Hart on Tue, 6 Dec 2005 15:00:08 +0100 (CET)


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The row about secret prisons in Europe has reminded me of the subject 
for a book that I will never write, but would like to. The liberal press 
has been complaining about The West losing its moral superiority since 
Bush and Blair began their imperial adventures after September 11th. I 
have long wanted to write about how the British government, notably in 
the first decade of the twentieth century the Liberals starring 
Lloyd-George and Churchill, pioneered the weapons of dirty warfare that 
subsequently became normal. They were much more successful at the time 
in keeping the news out of the media (which says something about our own 
degenerate times) and managed to maintain the global image of rectitude 
that some talented Victorians invented and passed off on a gullible world.

The West Indian writer and revolutionary, CLR James, used to talk of a 
taxi ride he took in London soon after arriving from Trinidad in 1932. 
He was with two activists, an Irishman and an Indian, when they passed 
the House of Commons. The Irishman  said how he wanted to blow the place 
up, much to James's  surprise as a more verbal opponent of the British, 
while the Indian displayed enormous erudition on the history of 
rebellion against the empire. This event impressed on James the need to 
get serious with his politics.

The point is that, in the decades leading up to the First World War, 
Britain lost its commercial leadership to Germany and the USA, much as 
Amewrica and Europe are now watching Brazil, China, India take over as 
the cheapest producers of agriculture, manufactures and information 
services. At the same time, the British empire faced formidable 
opposition in Ireland, South Africa and India. It was in response to 
this dire situation that they resorted to dirty tricks in an impressive 
and innovative way. They invented concentration camps in the Boer War 
and death squads, disinformation campaigns and much else in the fight 
against Irish independence.

One story captures this period for me and I got it from Tim Pat Coogan's 
biography of Michael Collins (Arrow, 1991). In 1913 or thereabouts, Jan 
Christian Smuts, South Africa's prime minister, wrote to Lloyd George 
with some military advice on how to keep the Irish down. A senior civil 
servant wrote a memo: 'Who does this man think he is to advise US on 
counter-terrorism? We've been putting down revolutions in India for 
fifty years!'

A footnote on this hidden history of early collaboration in the 
anti-colonial revolution. Between the wars, the British regularly tried 
to get their imperial subjects to sign up for the League of Nations 
enterprise. This effort was often sabotaged by an alliance of the Irish 
Free State (de Valeira), South Africa (Malan) and Canada (Mackenzie 
King), all of whom wanted to get out, but found it practical to stay in 
and make trouble. Imagine the Canadians in such company, but they wanted 
their independence too -- and got it.

Keith Hart


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