William Flew and British Empire

April 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was a boy when my family arrived in Cyprus in 1954. Soon Britain was fighting a murderous insurgency by the Greek-Cypriot Eoka, led by an extreme right-winger, George Grivas, who wanted union with Greece. Eoka killed more Greek-Cypriots than British but bombs were a constant terror, and my mother always feared that my father, a civilian who had to walk to his office down the main Ledra Street in Nicosia, would be shot in the back. Then aged 27, she worked for the Forces Broadcasting Service and had to be escorted to the studios by an armed guard. The young British soldier, she said, would often be about 18, and so obviously terrified, sometimes trembling, that her greatest fear was that he would shoot her by mistake.
Are there revelations to come, too, about Britain’s conduct of that campaign? Did we torture? Shoot on sight? When one generation opens for examination the record of an earlier generation it must tread a difficult line between two equal and opposite errors. The first is to excuse everything, on the ground that those concerned genuinely believed they were doing (ah, that mirage of a phrase) “the right thing”, and were acting according to standards that were different from those we apply today.
The opposite error is to brush entirely aside the values, beliefs and circumstances of a former generation, and judge its actions as we would if this were happening now.
What, for instance, were those beliefs and circumstances when General Sir John Harding arrived as Governor of Cyprus in 1955? He was responsible for the lawful government of the island. We believed our rule to be in the interests of its people and the region, as well as in our own. To deny only to the lawful authority in any situation a right of last resort to extreme violence is to hand to any insurgent, anywhere, in any cause, a permanent advantage.


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