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  Book review

British Policy in Aden and the Protectorates 1955–67 

by Spencer Mawby

Routledge, London and New York, 2005. Pp.210. Notes. Bibliog. Refs. Index. Map. One plate. Hb. £75. ISBN 0-714-65459-0.

This is an important work for the Middle Eastern specialist and comes at a time of apparent re-awakened interest in Aden as the 40th anniversary of the British withdrawal in 1967 approaches. It is painstakingly researched and draws on much previously unpublished material including interviews with former British Political Officers, amongst them, the reviewer. Spencer Mawby rather endearingly, while warmly acknowledging the ‘generous help’ of seven of my former colleagues, comments that many of us ‘will disagree with some of the conclusions reached in this study’. I do not share all his points of interpretation but I am sure that many of us would not quarrel with the main thrust of his findings. The indecently hasty relinquishment, under extreme nationalist pressure, of our base in Aden together with abandoning without any prospect of protection, our allies, the traditional Rulers, forming the leadership of the South Arabian Federation whom we had pressurised to throw in their lot with ours, and with no measured hand-over to a successor regime was hardly Britain’s finest moment in its otherwise impressive history of decolonisation. But that in no way detracts from the tireless efforts of many British officials on the ground, whatever their personal misgivings, faithfully striving to implement a policy which from its outset was seriously flawed and in the end proved totally unworkable. And apart from expressing serious misgivings at the practice of ‘keeni meeni’ – counter subversion methods of a highly unorthodox nature in which some of us at the sharp end were involved, Mawby is not critical of how we in the field tried to do our best in unpromising circumstances.

What the British did, why we did it and why he believes it didn’t work is clearly recorded by the author. He describes the origins of the British involvement in South West Arabia, the development of Aden Colony and its two Protectorates, the subsequent ‘forward policy’ of constitutional (but, sadly, hardly any social) development, which culminated in the formation of the ill fated Federation of South Arabia and the eventual derailing of the colonial project before it had any chance of coming to a successful conclusion.

The received wisdom is that the Labour government which came to power in 1964 under Harold Wilson, very much under the influence of its left wing, embarrassed by being doctrinally ‘uncool’ with its continued possession of colonies and overseas bases took an early opportunity to ‘scuttle’ from Aden. Mawby challenges this assessment: the shifts in Labour’s policy were, he feels, subtler and a displayed a greater degree of flexibility than such a black and white interpretation implies. Labour, even Wilson himself, shared ‘the romantic attachment to notions of imperial responsibility that had marked Conservative policy’ In other words a continuing commitment to a world role.

The problem, was that senior Labour ministers (and Denis Healey, then Defence Secretary was a case in point as revealed in his autobiography ‘The Time of my Life’) never, from the outset, had any confidence in a Federal project dominated by the ‘backward sheikhs’. Thus the relatively sophisticated nationalist politicians of Aden colony with whom especially left wingers within Labour could instinctively empathise should not have been forced into a shotgun wedding with these reactionary backwoodsmen. Greenwood, the Colonial Secretary was of the same mind and believed that the solution to be a unitary government weighted more in favour of the Adenis than was ever practical given the circumstances of a rapidly deteriorating security situation, feeding on Egyptian support for ruthless and very successful anti-Federal insurgents. The trouble was, as Mawby points out, that the nationalists wanted much more from Britain than the Labour government was prepared to offer and by the time that HMG was prepared to concede the dismantling of the base and an earlier than expected withdrawal in order to facilitate a smooth hand-over to local nationalists – it was much too late. Aden politicians with whom Labour had enjoyed a good relationship had been swept away by the hard men of the two main radical nationalist movements. And the tougher of the two, the Marxist leaning National Liberation Front (NLF) carrying all before them through their own efforts, declined to be seen to be negotiating with the obviously on-the-run-soon-to-be-leaving Colonial establishment so as to preserve the purity of their Revolution from collaboration with the enemy. 

An excellent, thought provoking study and a ‘must’ for the serious student of the period. It is also accessible enough for the more general reader and I highly recommend it despite the ridiculously high price. 

Peter Hinchcliffe