In "Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture", award winning journalist Ian Cobain has developed the themes he has aired in his writing for The Guardian into the definitive history of the lies, deceit and monumental hypocrisy practised by the British establishment from the Second World War onwards. Throughout that period government after government has denied that Britain has made use of torture, while government after government has presided over regimes that, with varying degrees of official sanction, have used torture against those whose information was deemed essential to the national interest.
We have seen this book described as shocking. It isn't: it would take a true innocent to be genuinely shocked by the contents. What it is, however, is superbly researched and written, and compellingly persuasive. Successive governments have denied that torture is used, and the British media has not as a whole gone to great lengths to challenge those denials. But enough information has emerged over the years, partly through the efforts of journalists like Ian Cobain himself, for most people to have some idea that unpleasant and illegal things have been done behind the scenes.
What Ian Cobain does in this book is reveal the full picture and true scale of what has been going on in our names over the past 70 years. By weaving the strands together chronologically, we are able to see how the use of widespread torture by Britain during the Second World War fed into our nation's stance during the Cold War; into the colonial conflicts between the 1940s and 1960s; into Northern Ireland; and into the more recent War on Terror. If this reviewer has one regret, it is that the timescale chosen leaves the reader wondering what went before. Did we suddenly become a nation of barbarians who abandoned all our dearly held beliefs and principles in the 1940s? Or is there an equally depressing but equally vital prequel about our treatment of prisoners in earlier conflicts still to be written?
We suspect the latter is true. As the author says in concluding: "On the isles of fair play, it is assumed that the use of torture cannot be possible, because it is unthinkable. But delve a little deeper, observe a little more clearly, and far from being alien, torture can be seen to be as British as suet pudding and red pillar-boxes."