Imperial Endgame

Seán Lang considers a new history of Britain's bloody imperial decline

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Reviewed by: Seán Lang
Author: Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Price (RRP): £16.99

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At a time when Britain’s conduct during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya has come back to haunt us in the courts, this detailed and readable narrative of the ‘dirty wars’ British troops fought against insurgents in the dying days of empire is timely and welcome. 

The author has gone resolutely against current historical fashion in presenting events from the British viewpoint, as a succession of colonial secretaries and military governors considered their options in the face of a type of war with which many of them were totally unfamiliar. The initial military response was typified by Montgomery, who thought Palestine just needed more troops with fewer restraints on their actions.

Grob-Fitzgibbon’s argument is that British policy quickly developed a more subtle and highly successful combination of military force and politic concession, best illustrated by General Templer’s anti-insurgency campaign in Malaya but visible also in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus.

Grob-Fitzgibbon reminds us that Britain was dealing with a series of crises happening at once, though showing this by hopping from one area to another and back again makes for disjointed reading.

Murder and torture are treated simply as part of Britain’s very difficult task, leading to occasional echoes of 1066 and All That: “At these negotiations a British army officer shot dead their tribal leader, following which the Nandi agreed to be confined to a reservation.” Who can blame them?

Grob-Fitzgibbon recognises that these ‘dirty wars’, defined essentially by their use of torture and of coercion of the civilian population, went flat against the liberal principles Britain was supposed to be upholding. He’s curiously unconcerned by this: liberal regimes sometimes need to defend themselves by illiberal means, he says, and Britain was actually rather good at it.

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The morality of it is “best left to philosophers and kings”. And, others might add, to the courts.
 
Dr Seán Lang is senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University