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Nick
Pickles is Director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother
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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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