Civilised Behaviour?

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Review of 'British Counter-Insurgency', John Newsinger, Palgrave £45

The major impression one is left with after reading this book is the utter brutality of British imperial government policy towards subjugated people who threaten its interests anywhere in the world--and that applies equally to Tory or Labour governments.

The book deals with counter-insurgency in 'Zion', Malaya, the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, Cyprus and Eoka, Yemen (and Aden), Omar and Dhofar, and Northern Ireland, and spans the latter three quarters of the last century. Over that period the military and diplomatic representatives of the imperial power gained much experience in quelling revolts of subjugated colonial people, and then transferred the most effective (ie the most brutal) methods to later uprisings in other colonial countries, often deploying the same personnel.

One instance is Malaya in the 1950s, where British troops and police devised a 'coercion and enforcement' policy against the insurgent Communists (or 'f-Reds', as their assailants called them) who were nearly all Chinese, and were fighting, and winning, a guerrilla war against the government in the jungle. The imperial power inevitably suffered from poor intelligence because of the overwhelming support of the population for the insurgents. So after failing to defeat the Communist offensive through curfews, bans, collective punishment, vigorous food controls and, general racist brutality, they resorted, in 1950, to forced resettlement of whole village populations. This meant using overwhelming force to surround villages before first light, occupying them without warning, rounding up the villagers and preventing escapes, then burning their homes and crops, smashing their agricultural implements and killing or turning loose their livestock. They were then transported by lorry to the site of their 'new village', which was little more than a prison camp surrounded by a barbed wire fence, illuminated by searchlights, heavily policed, and the inhabitants were deprived of all civil rights. Half a million people were thus forcibly relocated. The scale of this 'coercion and enforcement' was what eventually broke the back of the Communist revolt, giving victory to the government forces.

Having succeeded in this way in Malaya, the British soon after, in 1954, deployed this method against the Mau Mau in Kenya who were revolting against the wholesale theft of the tribal land of the Kikuyu by white settlers. Some 12,000 square miles were occupied by 30,000 whites, while a quarter of a million Kikuyu were penned into just 2,000 square miles of the worst land.

The brutal aspect of counter-insurgency is strongly portrayed and the author, John Newsinger, is clearly sympathetic to the struggling insurgents. But the British ruling class are far too experienced to rule by stick alone--they also dangle the carrot . A 'hearts and minds' campaign is usually conducted to win over a reliable pillar of support for the regime among a favoured section of the population. So in Kenya the British managed to contrive a land system similar to the clearances in Britain. In Kenya it brought about, and bought off, a class of black large landowners who supported the government. It also won over Jomo Kenyatta, who previously supported the revolt, to head a government. This would continue to safeguard British interests after independence was granted in 1963.

In Cyprus the British gave favours to the Turkish population in return for much-needed intelligence and assistance in the repression of Eoka, the Greek Cypriot insurgent movement fighting for enosis--unity with Greece. Without this the British would probably not have been victorious.

In Aden the struggle against the British had a strong trade union element organised in Atuc and a nationalist movement, the NLE. Despite enormous brutality towards the rebels, the British attempt to build a movement of support based on the sheikhs in the Yemeni hinterland failed completely and the British had to make a humiliating withdrawal in 1