From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Don’t believe what you were taught in school or hear from the media about benevolent Britain. We look at some books that give the other side of the story.
For those caught in their long-held conviction of the benevolence of British history, of the goodwill and generosity extended by successive governments to subjects of colonial conquest around the world; for those whose history books told stories of great white men’s great adventures into darkest Africa, of fantastic voyages to unknown shores lasting years and necessitating the loss of many lives, of returning heroes laden with treasure and tales of faraway cornucopias; for those who retain romantic visions of countries conquered and occupied for reasons of honest trade and incidentally to improve the lot of indigenous populations, to bring them civilisation and democracy; for those who considered the invasion of Iraq an aberration, an atypical intervention, something outside the realms of normal government procedure, blatant lies deliberately told to the populace as a cover-up for an illegal act; for those who cling to the fallacy of their leaders being beyond reproach because it’s not “British” to collude behind the scenes or to manipulate events. They always play the game by the rules and British justice is known to be above reproach. After all, didn’t we invent cricket?
For all those – it’s time to re-learn history, this time the real history, to have the scales removed from the eyes, to be confronted with the hard evidence, undeniable facts revealed from previously secret documents painstakingly investigated and compiled by those who seek the truth for humanity’s sake. This time to have the courage to question one’s enduring beliefs in the light of authentic revelations. This time to see through the obfuscation and downright lies that have been the staple diet fed to us by our elected representatives, generation after generation, with the purpose of pursuing their own secret agenda, extending personal interests and cementing alliances with powerful allies often with complete disregard for international law, agreements and that detail of small importance, public opinion.
The following are a sample from investigative journalists and historians known as tenacious and imperturbable individuals resolutely determined to get the truth out into the public domain.
Birth of the corporation
The history of the East India Company, a forerunner of the modern shareholder/corporate set-up is a story of ‘executive malpractice, stock market excess and human oppression.’ Nick Robins says in The Corporation that Changed the World that he set out to address the issue of the company’s social record as a corporation, something which he believes no other history of The Company does. Compared with today’s “corporate leviathans” the East India Company “outstripped Walmart in terms of market power, Enron for corruption and Union Carbide for human devastation.” From its origin in 1600 as an aggressive spice trader, using guile, bribery, mercenary armies, piracy and plunder it moved on to take control of Bengal and Bengal’s cotton fabric industry. Robert Clive (of India) decimated the weaving industry and, as an eerie precursor to current day India’s farmers’ suicides as a result of impoverishment by transnationals, weavers amputated their own thumbs rather than be forced to spin thread for less than starvation wages.
Later came Warren Hastings, responsible for pushing opium into China (illegally), causing the later “Opium Wars” and eventually forcing Chinese ports to open to trade. Despite the British government’s initial protests at the opium trade they were soon persuaded by the company’s Governor General in India that the revenue was growing too quickly to be abandoned. Nick Robins shows only too well that “a peculiar amnesia continues to hang over the role that corporations such as the East India Company had in the creation of the modern world.”
Public statements; Private record
Covert military action, support of military dictators, direct and indirect responsibility for millions of deaths around the world since the end of World War Two, support for various regimes that would surprise a lot of the British public. From previously secret files, now released into the public domain (even if still partially censored) Mark Curtis, in Unpeople. Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, reveals that “British ministers’ lying to the public is systematic and normal”, that “the culture of lying to and misleading the electorate is deeply embedded in British policy making”, that “the policy makers are usually frank about their real goals in the secret record” and that “humanitarian concerns do not figure at all in the rationale behind British foreign policy.”
A strategy beyond propaganda, ‘perception control’ (thought control to you and me) “is designed to counter the major threat to British foreign policy: the public.” How many in Britain know – that British forces fought in Vietnam? And that in breach of the Geneva Accords also supplied arms to the US for use in Vietnam? About Britain’s support for Idi Amin? Support for Pinochet? About the “dirty war” in North Yemen in the 1960s where the British engaged with the wrong side for purely political reasons?
With enormous discrepancies between public statements and private files in both Labour and Conservative terms of office it is shown quite clearly that successive governments have nothing but contempt for their electorate. Curtis recommends the reader to undergo “a personal transformation, decolonising the mind of accepted truths and received wisdom.”
Media and government united in deceit
The role of the media, controlled by monopolies of multinational companies, requires ever more scrutiny; however, much of the public still tends to take their pronouncements at face value. Within the world of the media, integrity and the search for the truth is the main motivator of only a minority. It is interesting how mud tends to stick though, even when thrown at the innocent. People remember the breaking of a story but are often more unsure or forgetful about the outcome. The “no smoke without fire” syndrome. Take, for instance, the Scargill affair in 1990 when Maxwell’s Mirror launched an all-out attack on Arthur Scargill. According to Seumas Milne (at the time a journalist with the Guardian and author of a subsequent book The Secret War Against the Miners), Arthur Scargill and “Scargillism” were and had been “the enemy within” to Maxwell’s media empire, the “modernising” Labour Party leadership (Kinnock et al), the Conservative government and Thatcher in particular (she had voiced this comparison of the miners with the Argentinian junta that had invaded the Falklands two years earlier) and to British security and intelligence agencies. The two year smear campaign against Scargill came close to the end of two decades of determined effort by the Tory party “and Margaret Thatcher above all – to avenge absolutely and unequivocally their double humiliation at the hands of the miners in the historic strikes of 1972 and 1974.” A vendetta against the miners which was aimed at destroying the NUM and, as collateral damage if necessary, the British coal industry too. Maxwell’s Daily Mirror smear campaign, Milne asserts, would never have taken off had it not been for “the monopoly ownership grip of multinational companies on great swathes of the media” and too many compliant journalists happy to report what they knew to be fabrication as fact. It was the perfect distraction of public attention from Scargill’s warnings of the government’s intention to bring down the coal industry. The campaign worked as planned except that ultimately Scargill was acquitted of all and any crimes and the corrupt were only found to be amongst his accusers. Ironic, but another result for a government against its people.
The Chagos Islands (inc. Diego Garcia)
A tiny archipelago, home to some 2000 people living in “conditions most tranquil and benign” (1950s Colonial Office film), a group of islands so small as not to warrant a place on a page of the 2002 Peters World Atlas. It can only be found like fly droppings inside the back cover. But, starting with Harold Wilson’s, seven successive governments have clung together around a huge lie – a lie they fabricated and used against the islands’ inhabitants since they started removing them from those islands in 1968 – that they were merely transient workers. In fact they were first taken there as slaves by the French in the eighteenth century and became British in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat. Now the islands are home to around 4000 US troops plus all their support personnel and paraphernalia, swimming pools, golf course, two of the longest military runways in the world (used for bombing Afghanistan and Iraq) and suspicions that captives are being “rendered” there for “serious interrogation.” The US are seeking to extend their current lease, which expires in 2016, for another ten years at least, for islands which are deemed too risky (with spurious claims about climate, water shortages etc.) for the original British inhabitants to return to, even though there have been two High Court rulings allowing them to do so. (See Freedom Next Time by John Pilger).
To compare and contrast the forced removal of these British citizens (compensation of about £1,000 GBP per person) with Britain’s resistance to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands (also with a population of about 2,000) in 1982 at a cost of £2 billion pounds is poetic irony; an order-in-council agreed by the Queen in 2004 to ban the islanders from ever returning home for one population, for the other a Christmas broadcast by Tony Blair in 2006 telling them, “It is your right to determine your future.”
Why must these atrocities be kept secret from the public? Simply because if too many of us get too angry for a sustained period and decide collectively to get active it’s all over for them. Justice and morality are values we have been tricked into believing are at the core of the leadership of our society, propaganda of the most despicable kind used against the very people they are mandated to represent. They may be immoral and pervert justice but that doesn’t negate our individual humanity and desire for honesty. It may even strengthen our resolve in the search for the truth. It reveals the rottenness of the establishment, not of the people. We, the people, can decide to reject that establishment and work together towards a truly representative democracy.
What has to be remembered and given serious consideration is this; if we do nothing after being party to such a revelation in a book, credible newspaper account or reliable TV documentary the atrocity, injustice, inhumanity, chauvinism or deceit will still be there and will continue to affect those afflicted by it and the lie will still be a lie and we will still be the recipients of the lie. When these shameless lies are put firmly into the public domain it is the public’s responsibility to guard against collective amnesia, to constantly remind ourselves and each other of the accumulation of crimes committed in our name.
More Socialist Standard articles by Janet Surman can be accessed here.