Two tears for the empire and one for its corrupted guardians

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The Independent Online
"The tumult and the shouting dies - The captains and the kings depart..." Hong Kong is already fading over our horizon. But I cannot get those strange, tragi-comic ceremonies out of my head, nor - above all - Chris Patten's honourable tears.

Were they tears for his unfinished work, or for a city as fallen as Constantinople, or for an empire? Kipling went on to write that something must remain when an empire fades: "an humble and a contrite heart". Let's credit Chris Patten with that. Elsewhere, humility and contrition about the British Empire are pretty hard to find. An aggrieved, uncritical pride is in fashion.

I am old enough to have seen the British Empire, in the colonies and protectorates of Africa and Asia. I even fought to preserve it, as a National Service soldier. To say I shed blood for it is an exaggeration; I lost pints of the stuff, but to leeches and mosquitoes. My settled opinion of the British Empire was that it stank.

Later, I learnt respect for the engineering achievements with which the Empire had marked the world. I knew Sir Arthur Gaitskell, father of the mighty Gezira scheme which turned the desert into cotton farms for Sudanese peasants. From an aircraft in Pakistan, I saw the Punjab irrigation canals running straight as Roman roads from one horizon to the other. They had leaked, floating poisonous salts up to the surface so that once- green plains had turned white and dead. Even in failure, they filled me with awe.

But power does corrupt. What I disliked most about the Empire was what it did to the imperialists. There were wise and just proconsuls in some Government Houses, young District Officers fiercely protective of the naked men they ruled in landscapes as forbidding as the moon's. But there were also jumped-up little men swollen with authority, who had absorbed the venom of racial arrogance and the taste for cruelty.

In Cyprus, during the EOKA campaign against British rule, I knew a chinless public schoolboy whom I will call "Tavy". He was named after a West Country trout stream which ran past the cottage of his father, an impoverished Boer War veteran obsessed with the shame of having been too old to fight in the First World War. The children were raised on tales of Empire, lectured about military valour and constantly beaten.

Tavy spent his boyhood collecting British medals. He knew every ribbon and campaign clasp. When he was old enough, he ran away from home and joined the Rhodesian police. Discharged for torturing an African suspect, he looked for "something which was good fun and sort of helped hold the Empire up". So he joined the Kenya Police Reserve, in the years of the Mau Mau rebellion, and developed a habit of spearing Africans to death on capture. "Well, it's not really killing prisoners, is it? I mean, I'd feel an awful shit if I thought I'd been killing prisoners."

But Mau Mau petered out, and Tavy grew bored. Cyprus seemed the obvious next place to do his bit for the Empire. He was already sussing out vacancies for an interrogator in the CID or Special Branch, with particular regard to the campaign medal and the type of gun he would be issued with. "It does feel absolutely marvellous to have a gun," he confided. "I mean you really feel you're all right, you're sort of somebody".

I did not forget Tavy. Some years later, a British paper recorded the trial for murder in Nairobi of Cecil Tavy Smithson, "a British-born bachelor aged 33". He had caught an African burglar, tied him up, rammed him into a chest less than three feet long and blocked the air holes.

People like Tavy did not run the Empire. But the contagion of their methods spread. One source was the old Palestine Police. When Israel became independent in 1948, the force was disbanded and its veterans sought work in crisis spots of the Empire across the world. Some of them brought evil practices with them.

Officially, the Palestine Police had been much respected, and its morale was high. But somewhere during the struggle against Jewish terrorism in Palestine, a moral barrier had collapsed. I remember the late Sir Maurice Oldfield, who became head of MI6, ending a good lunch with a description of his techniques for torturing Jewish suspects into confession. In Malaya, East Africa and Rhodesia, I came across police intelligence officers who had served in Palestine and were feared even by their colleagues for their cruelty during interrogations.

In France, the virus of colonial atrocities attacked the mother-country itself. The Algerian war led to the routine use of torture by the French security forces, heightening a climate of hysterical fear and hatred which crossed the Mediterranean and for a time disfigured public life. Even today, the callousness of the French police towards immigrants and the racialist abuse cultivated by Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front owe something to the sinister influence of what happened in Algeria over 30 years ago. But Britain, in comparison, was immune. The Empire vanished, but the Tavys and their like came home and dissolved - almost without trace - in the mild pond of British indifference.

Why was this? Perhaps because, unlike the French, the British public found it hard to identify with their Empire. They were proud of it, they earned well from its markets, they often found themselves fighting to defend or extend it. But their nationalist emotions - English, Scottish or "British" - seldom reached out to include these vast territories overseas, which once covered nearly a quarter of the globe and included over a quarter of its population. Although those territories were sometimes called "possessions", the British were not convinced that they really possessed them. So when they were lost, the British did not suffer agonies about being diminished.

This is linked to the riddle of whether the Empire made money for Britain. It certainly made many British people rich, as territory after territory was opened to free trade - which meant to British exports. But for the state, Empire was mostly a financial burden. The great exception was India, run in a quite different way: no laissez-faire there, but a huge system of bureaucratic planning designed to cream wealth off India's export trade and tax revenue. By 1914, cash siphoned from India was keeping Britain's whole balance of payments out of the red.

The Indian Empire was a true "possession", the sort of imperial province a Roman emperor would have understood. Compared to it, the rest of the structure seems almost flimsy; a world-wide market kept open by the Royal Navy, a spread of British settlements in North America and Australasia, then a short-lived lion's share in the scramble for Africa. The blaring rhetoric about "Imperial Destiny" and "Make Thee Mightier Yet" was short- lived too.

Destiny to what destination? Mightier than whom? The will to Empire was dying by 1914. Only a few years later, an Atlas of the British Empire answered the destiny question like this: "A uniform movement towards that goal of self-government already attained by the United Kingdom and its Dominions". In 1930, the leased port of Weihaiwei was returned to China - the first Union Jack to be hauled down.

There has been no real post-imperial backlash. And yet uncritical pride in that vanished Empire remains wrong. It was at times the best of empires but at moments the worst of empires. It was a thick potion which turned the strong into visionaries but could turn the weak and inadequate into sadists and tyrants. If I must shed a post-imperial tear, I think it would be for Tavy and his victims alike.