Cruel Britannia

I’m nearing the end of Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, a book about the UK’s long and dismal record of engagement in torture. As the book’s blurb puts it, it “exposes the lie behind our reputation for fair play.” In that way it  is a companion piece to similarly brilliant books such as Dispatches From The Dark Side, The Enemy Within and Murder in Samarkand which all reveal the murky depths which our politics frequently operates in – depths where truly horrific and inexcusable acts take place. Such books are important because even though people might get angry about politics there is still a wide tendency to believe that politicians are just ‘doing their best’; we tend to view acts which we disagree with as at best mistakes and at worse careless. In actuality, they are often very deliberate and every bit as malicious as they seem.

Cruel Britannia covers Britain’s role in torture from the Second World War through to the middle east, North Ireland and culminating in the ‘War on Terror’ and actions in Iraq and Libya. Many politicians (and others) come out of it badly. The above excerpt, however, leapt out at me on my way home this evening because of Miliband’s recent departure from politics and the largely warm response which this elicited. The issue of Miliband’s complicity in torture is not a new one – it’s not, however, one which many people are very interested in. During the Labour leadership election I raised the matter with his supporters many times and invariably they had heard nothing about it. Once they were informed, they would insist that he (and indeed the government) had nothing to do with it. Present evidence linking him to it and they would simply flatly reject it and suggest that we ‘agree to disagree’. It was inconceivable to them that a politician they admired could have personally been involved in actions which they personally claimed to abhor. This is often the case – we pick our political ‘sides’ and we rationalise their actions to suit what we insist our own morality is, rather than applying our morality to their actions independently. I’d argue that Liberal Democrats have been doing this in spades since the 2010 election in order to justify the many cruel policies which their party has been complicit in. Then there are those, the majority, who simply take no interest in politics and never think about the actions of politicians (and certainly not the ‘unofficial’ actions which are deliberately kept from them).

Why do I mention this? Because it occurred to me that if, when Miliband died, people make reference to his complicity in torture and abuse him personally, others will spring up to wag their fingers at them and tell them off for ‘speaking ill of the dead’. This of course was inspired by Thatcher’s death this week and the reaction to it. Thatcher was clearly the most divisive Prime Minister of modern times (probably one of, if not the, most divisive ever). Reams have been written about her legacy focussing, of course, on the economic aspect. Entire industries and entire communities were devastated, bringing no end of social problems. This is emotive enough – not least her battle with the miners, one which was very deliberately pursued and which saw her using the full force of the state and endless dirty tricks (including infiltration and agent provocateurs – all outlined in The Enemy Within) in order to defeat the labour movement. I want to mention however just a few highly charged issues to illustrate why feelings run so high with regards to her. There was Clause 28, the anti-gay legislation which stigmatised so many and to this day remains emblematic of Tory homophobia. There was her role in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy where she is widely viewed to have played a leading role in the cover-up which defended the police and attempted to shift blame onto the fans themselves, a cover-up which to this day the families of those affected are still seeking answers for. There was her infamous treatment of Northern Ireland which inspired endless ire and bitterness, perfectly illustrated by the totemic figure of Bobby Sands. There was the Belgrano and questions which still continue over whether she had ordered the needless murder of 323 people. Then, of course, there was her strong support (and indeed involvement in the placing of) a myriad of murderous dictators which saw her defending the genocidal Pinochet as late as 1999.

These are but a few of many examples I could pick which illustrate that many people have strong reason to despise Thatcher. They legitimately feel that she ruined lives, communities, even societies in ways which endure even now. She is even implicated in many deaths. Yet this week we’ve had people tutting with disdain at others having an ‘inappropriate’ response to her death. People who were strangely silent when the media were plastering Gaddafi’s corpse everywhere or portraying Chavez as a demented thug suddenly decided that the dead demanded respect. People who seemed to find no ire for the celebration of the death of suitably indefensible bogeymen found it appalling that anyone could be pleased that she was dead. Many who spent much of November prostrating themselves at the throne of Barack Obama suddenly looked at young people drinking to Thatcher’s death and decided that it’s jolly well unacceptable to have strong political opinions about things which didn’t directly affect you (which in itself is an idiotic argument given that political policies clearly have implications long after their enacting). Think of the family and friends, we are told, as if they haven’t had over 4 decades to get used to Thatcher’s public life, very real influence over millions of people and the feelings she arouses (not to mention the fact that there’s no requirement that a massive funeral take place, an event which will clearly inflame feelings further).

To these people, it’s just not polite to ‘speak ill of the dead’, no matter what they’ve done. Yet if it’s not for teenagers to feel hatred for Thatcher, how can it possibly be for those who seem incapable of understanding the reasons for the ire she inspires to tell those who feel it to stop? Their finger-wagging speaks of a world where politics is a civilised business of polite disagreements rather than one of blood and guts. Politics changes peoples lives; it even causes people to be harmed or to lose their lives. Who, sitting at their laptop (and almost invariably unaware or unconcerned by most of the things mentioned) has the right to tell people what feelings politics should arouse in them? If someone who lost a loved one at Hillsborough takes some comfort in Thatcher’s death, it must surely be for them to make peace with the morality of that rather than for anyone else to condescendingly dictate that they are wrong. Just as, in years from now, it will not be for us to tell British torture victims that they shouldn’t ‘cross the line’ should they remain angry at Miliband (and Blair and Straw etc) after his death. Politics is real life – nothing more, nothing less – and things can happen which still hurt and still anger years afterwards. If you cannot understand that then you’re very lucky. In the meantime, instead of spending time worrying about whether people are saying unpleasant things about deceased politicians, it would be better to devote energies to whether politicians are showing any respect for the living.

(Glenn Greenwald had a good piece on death etiquette yesterday. Myself, I wrote this brief response to Thatcher’s death.)

I finally got around to listening to the LSE lecture given by Gareth Peirce last Thursday. Peirce is a woman I have enormous respect for, having devoted much of her life to fighting for the sanctity of human rights and frequently representing tabloid demon figures. The lecture looks at what has happened to ‘justice’ in Britain since 9/11, doing so by focusing on the story of Shaker Amer, a former British resident who has been held in Guantanamo Bay for 10 years despite never facing any charges.

It is, as the Chair of the lecture notes, “quiet but powerful”. Peirce describes the Blair government’s collusion in rendition and torture, stemming from Blair’s arrogant and messianic belief that the West could ‘reshape the world’ in the wake of 9/11. She reads notes from Jack Straw, David Blunkett and senior civil servants showing that they were not only obstructing the release of the British citizens held by the USA, but actively encouraging their movement to Guantanamo and urging that they never be repatriated – all the while telling the families of these men that they were doing their best to have them returned. She speaks of a collective collusion at a cabinet level – a collusion which led figures like David Miliband to try and prevent the truth ever becoming known and which has continued with Harriet Harman showing breathtaking hypocrisy in berating the coalition for not securing the release of Aamer. Peirce also speaks about the initial change in rhetoric ushered in by the coalition government and how this promise was short-lived, as they too have sought to maintain secrecy and suppress evidence of further torture, including recent activities in Libya.

It is bleak listening and it’s impossible not to feel greatly moved and greatly angry. I felt disgust that figures like Blair and Straw are still feted by many in the Labour party. I felt foolish for my initial optimism that the coalition would be different. I felt sadness that as a human race we seem condemned to be party to these atrocities again and again.

I’ve wondered before why British complicity in torture has never gained traction as ‘an issue’. It is definitely perceived as ‘difficult’, as murky and perhaps as too complicated to engage in. One phrase Peirce uses struck me, however. She speaks about the ten years since 9/11 as being characterised by an ‘avoidance of morality’. It resonated with me as soon as she said it and I’ve been thinking about it since. It is of course spoken in specific relation to this issue, and rightly so. Yet it’s difficult not to argue that it’s a phrase which increasingly sums up our society.

I think we do tend to shy away from moral judgements and the complex consideration of moral issues which this involves. On one level it’s very easy to understand why – none of us are perfect. Start discussing morality and very quickly you’re going to hit the fact that you are as hypocritical as everyone else – indeed, it’s not long before other people will throw this back at you. With that in mind, speaking of morality and of things being unquestionably wrong (as with torture) can see you painted as smug, superior, even judgemental – and we are absolutely terrified of that. It seems to inform so many responses to so many things – we are scared of being seen as judgemental about sex; we are scared of being seen as taking pop culture too seriously; we are scared of being seen as ‘over-thinking’ things. So we don’t even engage with them beyond a superficial level – what would be the point?

I’ve written before (and it wasn’t an original thought, of course) about the rise of irony and insincerity, how they have become so pervasive that they warp how we relate to each other and to the world around us. It never really struck me before how central to this the ‘avoidance of morality’ is (which is silly, because there is little as serious and sincere as morality). Moral issues, it could be said, largely only pierce this bubble when there is an overwhelming consensus and the issue is seen as a very simple one with identified ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, e.g. phone hacking/Murdoch or the latest wheeze from the Tories (and make no mistake – if the initial collusion and cover-ups of torture and rendition had taken place under a Tory government, I think many would be a lot louder about it). In short, morality is allowable when it’s not making any statement beyond ‘I agree with you’. If you consider the wider implications of that, especially in relation to this subject and (for example) the government’s desire for ‘secret courts’, they are absolutely terrifying.

Here is the petition asking for Shaker’s release – please take a moment to sign it and share:

Dispatches from the Dark Side

If we look carefully there is sufficient evidence that British foreign policy, and indeed its domestic policy, have for many years been conducted in a way that is in violation not only of our own law and of international law, but which, far worse, has led us to be complicit in torture and in the commission of internationally prohibited crimes against humanity. No more serious circumstance could come to pass.

This is lengthy but worth reading in full. I recommend Peirce’s book ‘Dispatches from the Dark Side’ which, as well as Britain’s complicity in torture, looks at the framing of al-Megrahi for Lockerbie, the British state’s treatment of Irish republicans and US atrocities like Guantanamo.

In a just world our media would have been doggedly pursuing British complicity in torture for years. Instead almost no-one is interested. During the Labour leadership election I had an argument with a David Miliband supporter who refused to conceive that the Labour government could have been even aware of torture. Her reason? Because David had said so.

Gareth Peirce writes about Torture, Secrecy and the British State

Tony Blair evaded a series of questions over the role he played in authorising changes to the instructions in 2004, while the former home secretary David Blunkett maintained it was potentially libellous even to ask him questions about the matter.

As foreign secretary, David Miliband told MPs the secret policy could never be made public as “nothing we publish must give succour to our enemies”.

Blair, Blunkett and the former foreign secretary Jack Straw also declined to say whether or not they were aware that the instructions had led to a number of people being tortured.

But DON’T WORRY folks, there’s going to be an inquiry which will blow this whole shebang wide open and put these folks in prison.

Or not.

UK’s secret policy on torture revealed