Peace on Earth? Not if Britain has anything to do with it.
Review of Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis
by Cornelius Conwell


Mark Curtis is a journalist, campaigner and former Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs who is currently director of the World Development Movement. His major writings on global issues, which include a promotion of the Fair Trade cause published by Christian Aid, began appearing in the mid-1990's with The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945. Curtis' treatment of the subject-matter and his style of writing have led to comparisons with Noam Chomsky; certainly his combination of voluminous research with an often terse, sarcastic commentary mirrors the veteran critic's approach. Given Curtis' relative youth perhaps he should be seen as an Elisha assuming the mantle of Chomsky's Elijah.
In the four hundred-plus pages of Web of Deceit, first published in 2003, he analyses "Britain's real role in the world" (the book's subtitle), demythologising the propaganda which has shaped the public's perception of Britain's involvement in world affairs, never more misleadingly than at present.
He dissects the ruling mythology of a benign, freedom-loving West striving to establish liberty, democracy, the rule of law etc. across the globe, either through diplomacy or, when necessary, by force. In particular he concentrates on the actions of successive British governments in their own post-colonial sphere of influence and throughout the world, usually as keen second fiddle to the U.S.
Curtis' arguments do not consist of left-wing agit-prop. He presents a mountain of evidence drawn from the Public Record Office and other declassified sources and contrasts the statements of politicians and diplomats, past and present, with the known facts about what really happened or is happening. Scrutiny of British foreign policy trends over the last fifty or sixty years is important if only because Britain was until recently the leading imperial power in so many of the world's current trouble spots - Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Sudan, and others. The continuity between past British involvement and today's problems, and the methods employed to cope with them, is noteworthy.
The Past: Consistent Policy from Attlee to Major
Between the end of World War II and the 1960's and -70's British policy towards former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East was to withdraw direct rule only when local elites, favourably disposed towards British business interests, could be trusted to take over. Genuine broad-based or nationalist democratic movements were consistently countered with negative propaganda, behind-the-scenes sabotage and violent repression.
For example, in an echo of recent rhetoric about superior western "values" the Governor of Kenya defended the continued dominance of the white minority in 1946 on the grounds that they had made Kenya "their land by right - right of achievement". Native Africans simply had to accept that they now lived in a world "which we have made under the humanitarian impulses of the late nineteenth and twentieth century" (pp. 320-321).
The nationalist Kenya African Union complained of low wages, land-deprivation, the persistence of squalid living conditions and ill-health. Colonial authorities wrote of the need to maintain control of land and mineral resources.
Exploitation and administrative repression continued, eventually giving birth to the violent Mau Mau resistance movement. During the 1950's the Mau Mau killed fewer than 3,000 people, as opposed to an estimated 150,000 Africans who died as a result of British policy. But it was the character and not only the scale of the authorities' behaviour which showed the brutality behind the claims of superior enlightenment and civilization. The campaign to suppress the native insurgency has a contemporary ring.
Many years later former district officers revealed that during the conflict Africans could be shot on sight. Thousands were imprisoned in labour camps in which they were underfed, overworked and flogged. The Church Missionary Society described the British police tactics as including "slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes" (p.324).
News of the torture and killing of detainees in the labour camps triggered a political scandal in Britain and Kenyan independence became unavoidable. British strategy then shifted: "moderate" African leaders were cultivated and the Kenyan African Democratic Union was set up with covert financing from British business interests and the secret support of the colonial authorities. Numerous pressures were applied to ensure that Kenya's colonial economy remained essentially unaltered under the control of a reliable indigenous political class.
Curtis shows in detail how similar patterns emerged in Malaya, Indonesia, British Guiana, the Gulf States and elsewhere. Every British government since the War has been willing to breach international law, ignore human rights issues, and lend financial and military support to regimes which were corrupt but co-operative (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Indonesia). By the same token they have always been ready to destabilise governments which may or may not be legitimate but which failed to collaborate with western designs (e.g. Iran, British Guiana, and of course, Iraq).
The real goals, behind the high moral rationales offered by British politicians, have centred on accessing resources, protecting markets, stifling popular movements if they espouse independent democratic aspirations and locking poor countries into a global economy controlled by western capital. When the microphones are switched off this is admitted frankly by politicians, civil servants, intelligence operatives, whom Curtis amply cites.
He shows how, since then end of the War, the Labour party has been committed to the same foreign policy goals as the Conservatives. In 1968, for example, the Wilson government authorised the removal of 1,500 inhabitants from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to make way for an American military base. The operation was conducted secretly because the government knew they were violating international law.
Justifications were prepared in advance, with the governor of the Seychelles describing the Chagossian islanders (completely inaccurately) as "extremely unsophisticated, illiterate, untrainable and unsuitable for any work other than the simplest labour tasks of a copra plantation". A secret Foreign Office memo advised that it would be "best to avoid all references to permanent inhabitants [of Diego Garcia]" and to rely on the proposition that "the inhabitants...are merely a floating population". The Chagossians are still pursuing their legal case against the British government.
The Present: Foreign and Development Policy under Blair
Despite the early promises of a new "ethical dimension" to foreign policy under Labour, commitment to these priorities has been strengthened rather than overturned during the period of New Labour rule. Curtis examines the unprecedented corporate influence on Labour's policies, the intensity of modern state propaganda and the role of the mainstream media in helping to spin the "web of deceit" about Britain's role in world affairs.
Having been in power since 1997 New Labour can at least be said to have succeeded in carrying out half of its promise to combine market economics with social justice: the first half. Beer and sandwiches with union leaders at Number 10 is an unlikely prospect under the present Prime Minister. But as Curtis reveals, the doors of government departments have never been opened more widely to big business:
"In March 2000, the Observer reported that BAE Systems, which is winning multi-billion military contracts from the MoD, had eight staff working for free inside the MoD; construction giants Kvaerner, Ove Arup and Bovis, which stood to make millions from roadbuilding programmes after a change in government transport policy, all had key staff working in the Department of Transport; BP had paid for British employees to work in the British embassy in Washington and on the Foreign Office's Middle East desk; and British Telecom, which successfully lobbied to be removed from tighter regulation under the Utilities Bill, had two staff inside the DTI." (p.218).
Two years previously the Foreign Office revealed in an answer to a parliamentary question that it had seconded staff from a number of the biggest companies, including BP, British Nuclear Fuels, Standard Chartered Bank, Taylor Woodrow, Brown and Root, Barclays, BT, Nat West, Ernst and Young, HSBC and Rolls Royce, and others (p. 218). Not bad for the longest-serving government formed by the People's Party.
On the international front Blair regularly emotes about the plight of the world's poor. More relevantly he never fails to add that Third World countries who want to improve their situation have no options other than greater trade 'liberalisation', removing import tariffs, subsidies and barriers to foreign investment.
In recent years, with the United States, Britain has led efforts in the IMF and WTO etc. to force developing nations to open their domestic markets to outside companies. One DTI minister even declared in 2001, "...looking at our own export interests, we would hope that countries could be persuaded to liberalise their services markets", i.e. hand over control of their health, education, tourism and financial services to foreign companies.
Curtis notes various instances of the British government's real strategies in helping developing countries eradicate poverty. The Department for International Development, for example, which was created by New Labour to oversee aid projects while also conveniently advancing the interests of British corporations overseas, tried to withhold 10 billion in aid to Ghana in an effort to pressure the country into privatising its water services, while British water and construction companies stood poised to take advantage (p.227).
Speeches about eradicating global poverty, Curtis argues, are a sop to the UK public. The reality is that under New Labour "Britain is helping to organise the global economy to benefit a transnational business elite while pursuing policies that are often deepening poverty and inequality" in the Third World (p.207).
From 1998 onwards Blair revealed himself as an enthusiastic deployer of coercive measures and military force overseas, in Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan. After the terrorist attack on the Word Trade Centre in 2001, Blair, Straw, Blunkett et al. hastily clambered aboard the American anti-terror bandwagon. The new "war on terror" provided the political class with a helpful all-inclusive justification for armed interventions abroad and for authoritarian measures and constitutional changes at home - as we saw in the Queen's speech in November.
Curtis shows how in actual fact the plans for pre-emptive military operations and "power projection" overseas, with occupation of foreign territory by the US and its allies, were well under way before the Trade Centre attack.
The British government's Strategic Defence Review, concluded in 1998, already foresaw a shift in the armed forces' primary role - defending the homeland - to that of engagement on foreign territory and described the new hardware which would be required to facilitate such operations with the least danger to British forces. The new amorphous war on terror has simply enables politicians to pursue pre-existent goals more openly - heading off "threats to global order" (Jack Straw, p. 84), reinforcing a coercive foreign policy with the threat of military intervention, and, domestically, introducing elements of the national security state.
"It is clear," Curtis sums up, "that the 'war against terrorism' is a key part of promoting traditional US foreign policy aims. Its goal is to achieve through military and political intervention what global economic 'liberalisation'...aims to achieve through economic policy - continued US supremacy in the global system, intended to benefit US elites, transnational businesses and allies closest to the US" (p.91).
The mass production of ignorance
Arguably the most important chapters of Web of Deceit are those covering the "systematically distorted views" presented by the mass media in modern society.
Among his concrete examples Curtis relates how the British news media failed to scrutinise the role of British politicians in obstructing United Nations attempts to halt the 1994 Rwanda massacre, even defeating efforts to label the mass killings as "genocide" which would have necessitated action.
Having puffed up the trivial pledges promised by Robin Cook as constituting a new "ethical dimension" to foreign policy, they ignored the many breaches in practice, the heavy government involvement in arms sales, and the final abandonment of the policy. While happy to present Tony Blair as a "high minded champion of human rights" (p.380), passionately concerned about Third World poverty, violence and Aids, mainstream journalism provides only cursory accounts of the actual history of poor countries and the impact of recent World Bank and IMF programmes. No connections are made between British promotion of the world trade system, sales of arms to third world governments and deepening global poverty (pp. 357-366).
One important factor in shaping the character of the media is the economic one: the newspapers and television companies which provide news coverage are commercial concerns which aim to maximise profits competing against each other in a fierce market. According to The Guardian's investigative journalist, Nick Davies, one damaging consequence of the current climate is that "Marketing experts have rewritten news values so that it is now commonplace for news editors to demand a particular story in order to appeal to some new target group in the market place" (p.376).
Mainstream press and broadcast reporting in Britain fastens on the issues it chooses to treat as important and omits those it wishes to ignore. Government explanations are frequently presented as fact, without analysis or questioning. Debate is mostly staged within the parameters of a relatively narrow ruling consensus. Official viewpoints are countered by safe, middle-of-the-road criticism, giving a false appearance of objectivity and marginalising more radical critiques which might expose the non-existence of the emperor's new clothes.
When John Birt, the erstwhile Director General of the BBC, cited a journalistic "collapse of deference" towards those in power (p.379) it would perhaps have been more accurate to talk about a collapse of critical distance on the part of journalists and a new, more profound identity of purpose between politicians and the media. Many journalists have become political insiders, abandoning their duty as independent commentators. The result is that friendly banter, shallow personal commentary and bogus jousting matches take the place of genuine critical scrutiny.
Conclusion: what is to be done?
Curtis provided valuable information and ammunition for anyone concerned about the future of global democracy and the welfare of the world's poor. What to do with the ammunition is another matter.
The violence presently being directed by America, Britain and others is part of an increasingly desperate attempt to impose a neoliberal economic model across the globe and order the world in their own interests - a programme with strong historical precendents. But history also shows that a by-product of such tactics is increased instability, greater national rivalry for physical resources and angry resistance by the victims.
These developments, presented as a threat to civilization by the enemies of "freedom", have already been seized upon by the Bushes, Blairs and Howards of the world as a pretext for dismantling even the limited rights and liberties gained during the last three hundred years of evolving liberal democracy. At the same time the main opposition to these trends, the thousands of separate pressure groups which make up the anti-capitalist movement, are divided as to their ultimate aims and fail to exercise any significant influence on global economic planning. To an extent they are acknowledged in ruling circles as part of the planning process and pose little threat to basic goals.
All things considered it is difficult to see how a deepening spiral of exploitation and military aggression can be avoided without retrieving traditional egalitarian ideals and the vision of a socialised economy (production for need rather than profit) in a single international movement. Hopefully Mark Curtis' book will raise awareness among humane men and women as to the reality of the situation and encourage them to give active political expression to their dissent.
(Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis, published by Vintage, ISBN 0099448394. Curtis' website address is www.markcurtis.info, and the World Development Movement website is http://www.wdm.org.uk/. AfP will review Curtis' book, Unpeople, Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses, published in November 2004, shortly after the New Year.)