Conservative MP Liam Fox is the disgraced former Defence Secretary who is likely to play a significant role in the Brexit campaign. But he seems to be woefully ill-informed about British history. So that his activism is better informed, The Canary is offering him a crash course.
Fox has largely avoided the limelight since being forced to resign his cabinet post in 2011, after allowing a close friend to attend Ministry of Defence meetings without security clearance. Now set to become a prominent Brexit campaigner, he has insisted:
the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history
Here’s why that’s wrong.
In 2012, an official review concluded that thousands of documents showing the horrific crimes committed in the dying days of the British empire had either been “systematically destroyed” or hidden away for 50 years in a secret archive. This illegal burial of information sought to hide the fact that British imperialism had in some cases behaved much worse than other colonial powers.
In other words, the idea of Britain’s “benign imperialism” is simply a myth, says the Guardian’s George Monbiot. And this lie has been “carefully propagated by the rightwing press”. Aided by the general absence of colonial history from British schools, this myth has influenced public opinion significantly. In January 2016, for example, a YouGov poll revealed that 44% of Brits are still proud of the country’s history of colonialism, while only 21% regret it.
And with prominent political figures like Liam Fox boasting about Britain’s supposedly clean historical record, it’s about time we introduced some perspective to the debate about our colonial history.
Churchill isn’t the hero we’re told he was
As Prime Minister during the second world war, Winston Churchill helped to guide Britain to victory over the Nazi regime in Germany. But then so did Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. And we don’t hear too many people calling him a hero today.
While numerous left-wing sources have condemned Stalin for his “bloody rule” and use of state terror to consolidate power, others have stressed that western leaders like Churchill were no better. Patrice Greanville at The Greanville Post, for example, has insisted that few powerful leaders of the past could emerge unscathed after intense scrutiny. In particular, he mentions Churchill’s endorsement of the RAF gassing of Iraqi villages in the 1920s; the American use of nuclear weapons against civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; US war crimes in Vietnam; and all the horrifically violent western-backed coups during the Cold War.
Counterpunch has also insisted that Churchill left a “legacy of global conflict and crimes against humanity” behind him. Here are just a few facts to back up this assertion:
- In 1919, he “planned and executed a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia”, according to Giles Milton at the Guardian. He even declared in one memorandum that he was “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas” against what he called “uncivilised tribes”.
- Under the British empire, up to 29 million Indian people died of starvation as wheat was sent over to Britain in the midst of famine. In 1943, Churchill diverted medical aid and food away from starving citizens in British-controlled Bengal, sentencing around four million Bengalis to death in the process. He soon showed the callous racism behind his decision, saying “famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits”.
- And in 1944, the British army allegedly joined former Nazi collaborators in Greece in opening fire on Greek civilians. These citizens had been showing their support for the anti-fascist left-wingers with whom Britain had fought in previous years. Twenty-eight civilians were killed and hundreds more injured in this attack. Churchill’s justification was that the presence of communists in the resistance movement could jeopardise his hopes of returning the Greek king to power after the war.
British colonialism in general wasn’t much better
Here are some examples of why Churchill was not the only one responsible for colonial crimes:
- During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), British forces detained tens of thousands of Boers in concentration camps. Almost 28 thousand of them died.
- In India in 1919, peaceful protesters were blocked inside a walled complex and fired upon by the British army, in what is known as the Amritsar massacre. A thousand of these dissidents are thought to have been killed within 10 minutes during this mass execution.
- In 1947, the carelessness of one colonial official resulted in the deaths of up to a million people in sectarian violence. Cyril Radcliffe was in charge of drawing up a border between India and Pakistan, a complex and delicate task which he undertook “over the course of a single lunch”.
- In Kenya, British colonial forces allegedly raped and tortured thousands of members of the Kikuyu tribe during the Mau Mau Uprising (1951-1960). They were detained in camps described by some as “Britain’s gulags”, in which up to 100,000 may have died.
In short, the British empire committed numerous shameful acts in the twentieth century. And there is evidence to prove it. So when figures like Liam Fox claim that we do “not need to bury” this history, we should either be very worried or very angry.
There is nothing today that Britain can do to change its past, but the very least we can do is to ensure that past events are never repeated again. And for that to happen, we need to come to terms with the truth.
– Write to your MP to ask them how they feel about the crimes committed by the British empire.
– Support The Canary so we can keep holding the powerful to account.
Featured image via Tech. Sgt. Michele A. Desrochers/Wikimedia Commons