Britain's Foreign Office Activities Explored

Roundup: Talking About History

Brian Cathcart, The Independent (London), 03 Nov. 2004

One June day almost 40 years ago, the United States privately informed the British government that it was about to push the war in Vietnam into a new phase by bombing Hanoi, the northern capital. This news caused anguish in London.

Downing Street's distress, as documents quoted in Unpeople - a new book on dubious British foreign policy by the historian Mark Curtis - make depressingly clear, was not prompted by any concern for the Vietnamese who would be killed, nor by the deliberate intensification of the conflict. It was because of its inability to give the Americans the wholehearted public endorsement it felt they deserved.

Harold Wilson, the prime minister, wrote apologetically to President Lyndon Johnson to say that his problem was the British public, who could not see the US point of view because they were"not suffering the tragedy of the losses which your people are suffering". Britain would only make a token expression of regret at the bombing, he said, because"this is the price I have to pay for being able to hold the line in our own country".

This squalid little episode from 1966 is richly resonant today, when British opinion is once again proving insufficiently pro-American for a Labour prime minister. For Curtis it is also evidence of another problem. The documents that tell the story, and many other similar stories in his new book, have been open to public inspection at the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) for years, but according to Curtis, almost no one has been interested.

"I find it absolutely astonishing," says Curtis."There has been a colossal failure to document and analyse the history of British foreign policy. These stories are not hidden; they are not lost or hard to find, and the subjects are relevant and well-known, but the academics have simply failed to tell them. The only explanation I can give is that they are not a critical enough community."

Curtis is certainly critical enough to make up for their perceived failure. His title, Unpeople, may refer in part to a British public routinely treated with contempt by its own policy-makers, but it has much more to do with the populations around the world, from Vietnam to Nigeria, Guyana to Indonesia, who appear to be completely expendable in the eyes of the Foreign Office and Downing Street.

A chronicle of the relentless historical link between British opportunism and other people's suffering, the book is primarily designed, Curtis acknowledges, to demonstrate the hollowness of any claim to high-mindedness when it comes to modern Iraq."The idea that UK policy in Iraq has anything to do with human rights, democracy, or the interests of the Iraqi people is simply laughable," he says."Ministers should be ridiculed when they say that. The last thing they want in Iraq, or anywhere else in the Middle East, is democracy."

Month upon month of sifting files at the National Archives has armed him with an arsenal of documentary evidence of Britain saying one thing in public and doing quite another in private, usually at the expense of"unpeople", who may be abused, starved or massacred. The language, at times, makes the flesh creep, as with Wilson's toadying to Washington or with the delight that greets the military coup that brought the monstrous Idi Amin to power in 1971.

"Our prospects in Uganda have no doubt been considerably enhanced," wrote Eric le Tocq of the Foreign Office about events in Kampala, adding that even better results might follow if other African military chiefs would only follow Amin's lead - for example, in Kenya."This could conceivably produce a government better disposed to Britain than Kenyatta's political heirs."

Wishing for coups and causing them, propping up despots, protecting the profits of oil companies, selling arms to governments at war with their peoples, playing fast and loose with the law: this, says Curtis, is the pattern of British policy in the developing world over the past half- century.

"What the record shows is that, more than anything, we don't like independent, popular governments, nationalist governments who want to do things their own way, using their own resources - look at Nasser in Egypt, look at Mossadeq in Iran, look at Jagan in Guyana." An Iraq that might know its own mind, by implication, is not on the agenda in Whitehall.

But don't we all know in our hearts that foreign policy is really about national self-interest? After all, it is an old saying that diplomacy is war by other means. Should we be surprised that, in the privacy of official memos, diplomats and politicians say outrageous things?

"In a way, it is no surprise," Curtis admits."But what is surprising is that large sections of the media still seem to accept the public face, the false face.

"There is a continuity here. The political and military planners are learning from the past, even from events as far back as Suez. They knew from the past that Iraq required a public-deception strategy, a deliberate strategy to mislead us into accepting war."

What is missing, he suggests, is a corresponding cynicism, an ability to recognise this deception from past experience, in the media and the public (he has some kind words, though, for The Independent, among others).

And where there is cynicism, Curtis believes it is often misinformed."This poodle theory, the idea that the British will do bad things just to stay on good terms with the Americans, I don't really accept it. It's worse than that, because we think like them. If you look at the history, before the US came along, Britain behaved just like the US does now. All these things the Americans do around the world, we would be doing if only we could."

Though the picture he paints is often shocking, in person, at least, Curtis is not so much angry as baffled. He doesn't know why, given British governments' questionable record abroad, the media do not give ministers a much tougher ride on foreign policy than they do, and he accepts that there is no overt conspiracy of editors to protect the Establishment. Nor can he understand why academic historians have not put more of the past trangressions before the public.

A mild-mannered 41-year-old originally from Dorset, Curtis cut his historical teeth at the LSE and the Royal Institute for International Affairs before moving into the NGO sector, working as a researcher and lobbyist for Action Aid and then Christian Aid. He is now the director of the World Development Movement, a smaller campaigning organisation. Unpeople, which is strongly concerned with the Iraq war, is his second book about foreign policy, after Web of Deceit: Britain's real role in the world, and may not be his last. There is much, much more material out there, he insists.

In the meantime, just in case Unpeople is not provocative enough, he is writing an article for a learned journal under the title"The Failure of British Academia", challenging historians about what he sees as the untapped resources in the National Archives.

How do the academics react to his work?"Total silence, that is the way they deal with it," he says."They don't hear what they don't want to hear." They may have trouble ignoring him for much longer.

[Editor's Note: This is only a short excerpt from a much longer article.]

comments powered by Disqus