BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
12 October 2020
In the introduction to his first book, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, historian Mark Curtis notes two broad approaches are available to those attempting to understand British foreign affairs. “In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia”, he explains. This approach frames British foreign policy as “fundamentally benevolent”, promoting grand principles such as peace, democracy and human rights.
No doubt this narrative informed the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll, which found 34 per cent of Brits believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, with just 16 per cent saying it is something to be ashamed of (around 40 per cent think it is something neither to be proud nor ashamed of).
For those interested in discovering the reality of British foreign policy Curtis recommends a second method – studying formerly secret government documents and a variety of alternative sources.
A good illustration of this thesis is the BBC Radio 4 programme Document. Broadcasting at least 57 episodes between 2005 and 2017, Document was an historical investigation programme that used previously secret government records to illuminate Britain’s past. Two episodes on forgotten chapters in British history are particularly pertinent to understanding post-war UK foreign policy – the first from 2009 on the 1970 coup in Oman, and the second from a year later looking at the 1963 “constitutional coup” in British Guiana.
Though it has never been a formal colony, the British had an extraordinary level of influence in Oman, with Sultan Said bin Taimur, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1932, one of the UK’s most reliable clients in the Gulf. The Sultan’s armed forces were headed by British officers, while “his defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain explained in 2016.
Studying secret UK government documents and interviewing academics and British officials involved in the coup, Document undercovers a fascinating, if shocking, story of deceitful British interference.
With a rebellion gaining ground in the Omani province of Dhofur, in 1970 the British elite in Oman and the British government itself came to the conclusion Taimur had become a liability.
The Sultan’s son, Sandhurst graduate Qaboos bin Said, was supported in his bid to take power. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, then a soldier in the Sultan’s army, tells Document “[UK intelligence officer] Tim Landon, with Harold Wilson’s government and with PDO – Petroleum Development Oman” and others “plotted to get rid of Said bin Taimur”.
In a July 1970 “secret” document, Anthony Acland, the Head of the Arabian Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reports Colonel Hugh Oldman, Taimur’s Secretary for Defence, “has now instructed Brigadier Graham, the Commander of the Sultan’s armed forces… to prepare detailed plans for two contingencies.” If the coup is successful the armed forces were to “align themselves with Qaboos and facilitate his constitutional succession to the Sultancy as fast as possible.” In the event the coup failed, the armed forces “would assist Qaboos in gaining control” and “in deposing his father.”
Acland explained Qaboos “is likely to be a much better bet” than Taimur. And as the newly installed Sultan would rely heavily on British support this would likely better protect Britain’s “specific interests in the Sultanate – i.e. [the RAF base] Masirah and oil”, he notes.
“We would of course maintain the public position that we had no foreknowledge”, Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior British official in the Gulf, states in a secret 13 July telegram to the FCO, about the plan. “The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed, or at least deniable.”
Just ten days later, on 23 July, Taimur was deposed and replaced by Qaboos. The operation involved the seizure of the Sultan’s palace and the Sultan himself “by a small body of troops loyal to Qaboos, with the assistance of some British officers”, notes Abdel Razzaq Takriti in his riveting 2013 history Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Taimur, injured in the coup, was quickly flown out of the country by the Royal Air Force and eventually installed in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death a couple of years later.
“Despite Britain’s deep involvement in the coup that toppled Oman’s head of state no questions seemed to have been asked about it in parliament”, Mike Thomson, the presenter of Document, notes.
The UK’s actions in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a similarly disturbing story of colonial arrogance and interference. A British colony since 1814, the popular politician Dr Cheddi Jagan became the country’s Chief Minister in 1953, after leading the socialist-leaning People’s Progressive Party to victory in a democratic election. With British commercial interests – sugar and bauxite, in particular – threatened, Winston Churchill’s government dispatched British forces who forcibly removed Jagan from power, briefly jailing him. Interviewed by Document, Dr Spencer Mawby, an historian at the University of Nottingham, notes “The pretext [for the British military action] itself was dramatic because the British said basically there was a plot to burn down [the capital] Georgetown”.
“Was there?”, asks Thomson. “There was no plot”, Mawby confirms.
Ten years later, with new elections and independence fast approaching, the British made a second major intervention.
It was understood that Jagan, the nation’s premier again after winning the 1961 election, was likely to win the next election and lead an independent British Guiana. This fact was intolerable to the US government, which was worried about Jagan’s politics and the possibility he would align the country with Cuba. Accordingly, the US government successfully pressured an initially reluctant Britain to act to stop Jagan winning the next election.
With communal violence intensifying and an 80-day general strike starting in April 1963 paralysing the nation, the UK organised an independence conference in London, inviting the main political actors in British Guiana to resolve the crisis. Point of interest: Thomson confirms the general strike was likely “orchestrated and financed by the CIA”.
A formerly “top secret” document, recording an October 1963 meeting in the Colonial Secretary’s office, sets out the British government’s plan for the conference, held two weeks later. “It was important to ensure both that the conference and in the meantime that Dr Jagan and [British Guianese opposition leader] Mr Burnham failed to agree”, it notes. The document continues: “It was agreed that when the conference ended in deadlock the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule.”
With elections in British Guiana previously held under the First Past The Post system, the British government proposed a system of Proportional Representation (PR) for the upcoming election. They did this knowing Jagan would find it difficult to win under PR, and that Jagan would refuse to accept this.
Thomson summarises the incredible deceit: “This document appears to show that the British government was setting out to deliberately scupper its own conference.”
The UK and US governments got what they wanted. After Jagan rejected the change to the voting method, Britain resumed direct rule and switched the voting system to PR. Jagan was then defeated in the 196 election, with Burham forming a coalition government that was in place when the country became independent Guyana in 1966.
These two historical episodes thoroughly undermine claims of UK benevolence in world affairs. In reality, commercial and geopolitical concerns, not self-serving notions of democracy and human rights, drive British foreign policy. And in the pursuit of this naked self-interest anything goes, including illegal coups, the undermining of democracy, covert action, and the most duplicitous, Machiavellian behaviour one could imagine.
“Are we the baddies?”, asks a German soldier, slowly beginning to realise the reality of his country’s role in the Second World War, in That Mitchell and Webb Look’s famous comedy sketch.
No doubt it will be news to the vast majority of mainstream media commentators and much of the British public, but the historical record clearly shows it is the British government which has been the bad guys in the post-war world.
BBC Document episodes are archived at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sk3k. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.