Torturers, assassins and character assasssins

From 21st Century Vision

One theory of the peculiarity of the British state has it that its threefold origin created a democratically dysfunctional structure which is in urgent need of reform. This is nothing to do with its multi-national past as the fusion of Scottish, Irish and English/Welsh states, but instead the result of its colonial history. The triune British state grew up on the basis of the colonial states, each with its relative independence in the dominions and possessions, the island British state, with its slow advance to universal suffrage if not democracy, and – linking them all together – the imperial state. The problem was, and to some extent still is, that while the colonial states have withered away, and the British state is at least to some extent publicly accountable, the imperial state marches on unchecked and unchallenged. Exercising those “prerogative powers” which the monarchic fiction preserves from normal scrutiny, it comprises military, intelligence, diplomatic and other functions which are not normally discussed before the servants, i.e. ourselves.

Of course we like to think of the assorted officers, spooks, uniformed ambassadors and other inhabitants of this self-governing demi-monde as motivated only by patriotic concern for the good of the country, tempered these days by a sense of European values and a regard for the rule of law in general and human rights in particular. OK, they get it wrong, but Suez was a terrible lesson and the mandarins and generals saw through WMD in Iraq and were extremely unenthusiastic about following the US in its rampage through the Muslim world. Like more or less everyone else they are waiting for better political times and an end to the increasingly bizarre leadership they get from Downing Street. Our recent post of an article by Oliver Miles (see below, 3rd August ) makes the point.

It is this unthinking assumption of the basic decency of the people who run the shadowy institutions of the imperial state which takes such a body blow from Craig Murray’s Murder in Samarkand (published last month by Mainstream). No need to rehearse the whole story here of how as ambassador to Uzbekistan Murray took the UK’s human rights agenda seriously and – with great persistence and courage – drove it forward in a country where legal, political and civil freedoms were and are almost non-existent and where extreme forms of torture are normal instruments of government (see our photograph). In 2003, however, Uzbekistan was being built up by the US as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and an ally in the “war on terror”, and Murray’s very public pronouncements were not welcome. Nor was his forthright rejection of the policy of using information obtained under torture.

It is by now unsurprising that Downing Street moved immediately to rid itself of the embarrassment, but what does come as an unpleasant revelation is the extent to which senior figures in the Foreign and Colonial Office engaged willingly in every form of pressure, falsehood and character assassination to give the appearance of due process. Their methods might be described as Stalinism without the Lubyanka, but when one considers that in stifling Murray they were in fact buttressing US cover for Uzbek and other torture chambers, the phrase is too kind.

The book is valuable in a number of ways. First it shows the extent to which when the Bush administration says so the UK’s human rights rhetoric is just that, rhetoric. Second, it provides material of relevance to that eternally unanswerable question of how far, like Vichy France, the British would have collaborated with a Nazi occupation in the 1940s.

Finally, it shows the need for reform in the structures of the British state, with no more reserved areas beyond the reach of open parliamentary scrutiny.