Why I believe that British academics have failed the general public

October 1, 2004

Britain's foreign policy often bears little resemblance to the image presented by academics. Indeed, I think British academics are generally responsible for keeping students and the public in ignorance about this country's role in the world. Explicit or implicit in much academic analysis is that Britain aims to promote the grand principles of democracy, peace, human rights and overseas development. Criticism of policy is common, but usually falls within narrow parameters, focusing on marginal issues. To this end, there has been a categoric failure to rigorously document the formerly secret planning records in the National Archives.

My research shows that Britain is a systematic violator of international law and the United Nations, a key ally of many repressive regimes and a consistent condoner of human-rights abuses. Its main aims are to maintain the British elites' political standing in the world and to ensure that the global economy benefits Western business. From these goals flow many policies consigning much of the world's population to the status of "unpeople" - victims of policies. Many key British policies are unknown to the public because academics have failed to reveal them.

The 1953 overthrow of the government in British Guyana has barely been touched on by academics. Britain's covert role in the Indonesian Generals' seizure of power in 1965 - a story I broke in 1996 - has yet to be analysed by academics. Almost nothing has been written on Britain's role in the Vietnam War or on Britain's support for brutal Nigerian policies in the Civil War over Biafra.

Britain's invasion of Egypt in 1956 is the only military intervention over the past 50 years that has been severely criticised in mainstream analysis.

The reason is obvious - Britain lost. A year after Suez, Britain intervened to defend a regime in Oman that was as repressive as any that has existed in the Middle East - the Sultan kept several thousand slaves and presided over a barbaric justice system. This intervention has been removed from history.

What about more recent events? Britain's complicity in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 has been exposed by journalist Linda Melvern in A People Betrayed , but this role has been analysed in only one academic article that I am aware of. The depopulation of the Chagos islands and Diego Garcia in the 1960s is the subject of no British academic analysis; neither is the Blair Government's continuing abuse of the Chagossians. Sanctions against Iraq contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but have barely been touched upon. The same goes for the Blair Government's support for repressive regimes in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Israel and Russia.

Some good critical research is taking place, but only by a small number of academics. Working outside British academia, I find it hard to explain this failure. Perhaps closeness to policy-makers, career concerns, funding pressures and administrative overload are all reasons - as well as the notion that British foreign policy is not worthy of separate academic study.

Yet my experience is also that many academics do not feel they need to make moral choices on which issues to focus on and how and do not see themselves as actors in progressive social change. The same often appears to be true of postgraduate students.

However, staff in the politics department at Bristol University recently established the network of scholars of politics and international relations, or Naspir. It seeks to share critical research on foreign policy to promote positive social change. This is badly needed. So too are more academics willing to challenge power rather than serve it.

Mark Curtis, Author and former research fellow Royal Institute of International Affairs

* Mark Curtis is the author of Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses (to be published by Vintage).

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