Nadhim Zahawi and the Iraqi Civil Service: a benefit of empire we should teach our kids?

The Education secretary has now joined the Equalities Minister, arguing that the ‘positives’ of the British Empire should be taught to British schoolchildren. As if they haven’t been taught to us all for the last one hundred years.

Nadhim Zahawi’s choice of example is striking though. He suggests that children could be taught about the benefits that the British colonial civil service created to govern Iraq brought to the country’s people. That civil service was set up after the former Ottoman territory was mandated to British rule, without local people having any say in the matter, following the First World War.

In the light of our own government’s attempts to continue justifying invasion, suppression, occupation and the denial of sovereignty to others, perhaps we also should be more forgiving of President Putin’s attempts to brainwash the Russian people in favour of the invasion of Ukraine? After all, who knows, future generations of Ukrainians might be just as grateful for a Russian administration imposed upon their country as modern Iraqis are for the British civil service?

One hundred years ago an Iraqi rebellion against British rule was finally ended with the aid of the world’s first major aerial bombing campaign. It was led by ‘Bomber Harries’ twenty years before his more famous campaign against Germany. Few Britons know about it, but it played a significant role in creating the Middle East as we know it today, and helped set the scene for the rise of ISIS.

The rebellion in Mesopotamia (Iraq) resulted in a pattern of Western-backed, authoritarian governments suppressing Arab nationalist movements. The prospects for democratic, liberal states have since been squeezed between the extremes of such client states on the one hand, and enraged Islamic fundamentalist opposition on the other.

The seeds were sown during the First World War. Britain occupied the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre and Basra in the south. When British and Indian forces marched into Baghdad in 1917, they proclaimed themselves liberators rather than conquerors. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) suggested a form of governance on the model of the princely states in British India, where the local nobility was cajoled, bullied and bribed into governing largely on Britain’s behalf, but the first British High Commissioner, Percy Cox disagreed.

Cox felt that ‘the people of Mesopotamia had come to accept the fact of our occupation and were resigned to the prospect of a permanent British administration’. His successor, Col. Arnold Wilson, abolished what representative institutions the Ottoman Empire had installed and replaced Arab with British officials, refusing permission for an Arab delegation to seek independence at the Paris peace conference. The calculations of a dependence on oil and knowledge of the resources that lay under the ground played a vital role in the British strategy to hold on to the region, as Zahawi’s colleague, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng recognised in his well-researched history of the empire.

With the League of Nations granting Britain the region as a mandate, the three provinces were merged to create the modern nation state of Iraq. British forces suppressed the protests and demonstrations that ensued. Britain had seized upon the opportunity provided by the League of Nations mandate to extend its influence across the oil rich Middle East, along a strategic belt between Suez and the Persian Gulf – a belt already surrounded by existing British possessions. Despite the League of Nations’ insistence on the right of national self-determination, the interests of the local population were very much a secondary consideration. The British helped establish a tradition where its strategic location and resources made the Middle East too attractive to Western powers for them to allow for self-determination.

The mandated government, with its newly established civil service, was effectively a military occupation. As Lawrence tried to explain to the British public, ‘Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows’. In 1919, the Kurds were the first to rebel, with British forces crushing their resistance. By June 1920, the occupying British forces were facing a much larger insurrection as disbanded ex-Ottoman soldiers, Islamists objecting to heathen governance and pro-independence Arab forces, both Sunni and Shia, combined to eject the ‘liberators’. A particular issue was the insensitivity of demanding a burial tax for Shias in the Wadi-us-Salaam Cemetery in Najaf.

Facing 130,000 rebels the British found themselves embroiled in the largest British-led military campaign of the inter-war period. The commander in chief, General Haldane, cabled London that the ‘rebellion has spread almost to Baghdad, where my position is by no means secure’.

The rebellion was gradually brought under control using similar tactics to those of the Boer War, with mobile columns trapping rebels between blockhouses along railways and using scorched earth tactics, burning villages, destroying food supplies and killing livestock, regardless of the impact on non-combatants.

British Royal Air Force (RAF) in Iraq in 1920s
British Bomber in Iraq in the 1920s

A new tactic was added, however, once War Secretary Winston Churchill authorised it. Rebel clusters were bombed from the air, with the British at least planning to use ‘gas shells in quantity … with excellent moral effect’ among 100 tonnes of bombs. Churchill admitted, ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes … [to] spread a lively terror’. By 1922, as the rebellion fizzled out, over four hundred British and Indian soldiers had been killed with rebel fatalities officially 8,450 but likely closer to 10,000 given the inability to count casualties of the bombs.

Bomber Harris proclaimed that the Arabs and Kurds ‘now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured’.

By the beginning of 1922, embarrassed by the costs of maintaining direct rule against such opposition, Britain had overseen the installation of their wartime Arab ally King Faisal, to govern Iraq with British interests in mind. Even after Iraqi independence in 1932, the British insisted on retaining RAF bases with which to threaten continued bombing in the region. It did so to help the new client Iraqi regime suppress ongoing Kurdish resistance.

British imperial authorities, the autocrats that they promoted to govern in their interests, and the Islamic radical movements that arose in response to their interference, have all played their part in stymying the development of liberal democracies in the Middle East. This is just one more facet of our Empire’s legacies that we choose to overlook when we celebrate our imperial past, and especially when we proclaim its legacy of liberal democracy and good governance around the world. If the current government really want to distance themselves from the kind of nationalistic propaganda that Putin is purveying to justify the bombing of innocent civilians and the denial of self-determination, perhaps they should cease urging that similar propaganda be taught to our children.

Tagged with:
Posted in Uncategorized
13 comments on “Nadhim Zahawi and the Iraqi Civil Service: a benefit of empire we should teach our kids?
  1. Walker Swindell says:

    Dear Professor Lester

    I hope this message finds you well. I was reading your blog this morning and enjoyed it very much, so I certainly don’t intend this comment in a rude or disrespectful manner. I noticed that in your blog post you quote Churchill, a quotation whereby he advocates the use of poison gas against the Iraqi rebels fighting against British rule. I am somewhat troubled that you do not complete the quotation. In Andrew Roberts very well researched biography of Churchill he provides that the full quotation which goes as follows. ”It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory [tear-causing gas].” Roberts then goes on to quote the rest of the minute, ”I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.” This full quotation can be found in Roberts, Andrew ‘Churchill: Walking With Destiny (2018), page 273. The quotation is cited as citation number 39. CV IV p.649.

    I am curious as to why you did not include the full quotation and gave the impression that the gas in question was not what it was, being tear gas? Now I must caveat this minor objection, I agree with your blog post and your stance on the British governments rather silly approach to British Imperial History. I also certainly do not mean this objection to come across as a means of justifying the British crushing of the Iraqi rebellion in question. I hope this comes across as constructive and I am of course open to being told that I am wrong.

    Your sincerely

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thank you for providing this further context Walker. I take it in the constructive spirit you intended. I have not read Roberts and was unaware of the full context of the quote, which I took already abridged from another source. However, I must admit that I do not find that context particularly exonerating. Churchill clearly says that the gas used need not * only * be the most the most lethal, and clearly intimates that it is legitimate to use chemical means against Iraqi people when such means by implication should not be used against Europeans. I would argue therefore that the provision of the full quote changes nothing by way of interpretation. I appreciate your comments in support of that interpretation overall.
      All the best

      • Walker Swindell says:

        Thank you for your response. I have to say that I personally think it does somewhat challenge your interpretation. What one would then need to look at is the actual application of airpower and gas in the conflict itself. Surely it does matter that he elaborates on it as an alternative. Which in my admittedly uneducated opinion does cast the issue in a somewhat different light. But I think we can agree to disagree.

        All the best

        • Alan Lester says:

          Thanks Wlker,

          The interpretation was that the civil service that the minister lauds was established on the basis of occupation, denial of sovereignty and the use of aerial bombardment to put down rebellion. None of that is challenged by quoting Churchill in full. There is some debate as to whether gas was actually used (which I acknowledge in the article); there is no doubt that bombing was deployed and that there were plans to use gas. Thanks for engaging anyway, even f I haven’t changed your mind.

  2. Rohan Fernando says:

    Professor Lester is right in saying that British actions in the early 1920s were reprehensible but he downplays Britain’s positive role later on. The following is a quotation from The Arab Awakening by George Antonius who was an Arab journalist and this book is probably one of the most impartial accounts of the period:

    ‘The British contribution to the building up of Iraq is one of the most remarkable instances of post-war reconstruction. Just as hard things may be legitimately said of the British Government’s piratical attempt to grab Iraq after the war, so it can without exaggeration be said that the modern state of Iraq owes its existence largely to the efforts and the devotion of its British officials. There were two reasons for this. One was that the British government, as they discovered that the country was more of a hornets nest than an imperial garden of Eden, became increasingly anxious to ensure that the regime of Arab independence which had sooner or later to come should possess real stability. The other was that, by a lucky accident of circumstance, Iraq was fortunate in getting the services of an unusually capable and conscientious band of British officials. Those two factors in combination helped to set up the Arab administration more rapidly and more securely on its feet. The achievement is all the more striking as Iraq, with its large tribal population, its sectarian divisions and the scarcity of its means of communication in proportion to its size, is a particularly difficult country to administer on the usual lines of bureaucratic routine’.

    This is what Mr Nadhim Zahawi was talking about. It is disappointing that most modern academics in the UK cannot give this sort of balanced assessment.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thanks for engaging. Yes the creation of the civil service took place in the wake of the suppression of the rebellion, but I would suggest that the British became increasingly anxious to ensure that Faisal’s imposed regime should continue to serve British interests rather than ‘possess real stability’ for its own sake or for that of the population. Even the current Business Secretary’s Ghosts of Empire, which I presume you would see as more balanced than professional historians’ work admits to this and the lasting legacy of instability that the British grab created. For example the treaties signed with the Arab government in 1922 and 1930, before the mandate ended in 1932 ‘had provided Britain with necessary safeguards, ensuring that it remained the dominant power in Iraqi affairs’ (Kwarteng, 50). Despite the oil revenues, illiteracy 90 per cent by 1950. British officials’ ‘services’ extended no further than ensuring British interests paramount.

      • Alan Lester says:

        Just to add a further quote from Kwasi Kwarteng: ‘the British connection with Iraq’ was ‘a connection based on money-making and chronic disengagement with the actual lives led by the ordinary people of Iraq’ (55). Surely he must disagree with his colleague in government that teaching this as a ‘positive’ is a good idea?

      • Rohan Fernando says:

        Prof Lester should not be so dismissive of the views of George Antonius. He worked with King Faisal’s delegation between 1919 and 1921 to help the Arab cause and he also worked in other Arab countries. I suspect he was far more knowledgeable on these matters than any modern academic or Kwasi Kwarteng.

        In the book quoted above he goes onto say:’It was fortunate for Iraq that, in many important respects, Great Britain’s interests matched with her own, and that this community of interests embraced foreign as well as domestic questions… In almost every department of public service, the Arab government had the benefit of sympathetic British guidance and the British officials taking their cue from their own government, gave invaluable help in the laying of good foundations. Their work in Iraq was in marked contrast with the vagaries of the French administrations in Syria and the Lebanon, and with the sterility and wastefulness of the British bureaucracy in Palestine. And the progress achieved in Iraq between 1921 and 1932, for all its imperfections, is a credit to both countries and an example of Anglo-Arab co-operation can do when it rests on the right foundations.

        Regarding education in Iraq, the following figures were published by the government of Iraq in 1953:

        number of schools 1920/1 1930/1 1940/1 1950/1
        number of pupils 8001 34513 90794 180779

        These figures seem to indicate good progress.

  3. Alan Lester says:

    We need to evaluate our sources as well as what they say. The fact that ‘he worked with King Faisal’ and the British renders him a rather biased source in my view.

  4. Rohan Fernando says:

    I am surprised that Prof Lester thinks that George Antonius is biased in favour of the British given that Antonius says the following about the Sykes Picot Agreement:’The Sykes Picot Agreement is a shocking document. It is not only a product of greed at its worst, that is to say, of greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity: it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing’. I have already mentioned that he considered British behaviour after WW1 as piratical. Antonius condemns the British when they deserve condemnation and praises them when they deserve praise. Most right thinking people will consider this approach as the way of being fair minded. This is what ministers Zahawi and Badenoch are saying and it is sad that so many historians do not agree with this approach.

  5. Alan Lester says:

    The point is that he was then involved in the administration that he praises.

  6. Tom Bliss says:

    I am rather surprised your account of the British mission to create Iraq out of 3 Ottoman provinces, broadly consisting of different religious and national groupings, makes no reference to the contribution and opinions of the archaeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell. She assisted Percy Cox as his Oriental Secretary during the early post-Ottoman period and wrote a report “Self Determination in Mesopotamia”. After 1921 she was retained as an advisor by King Faisal, who was trying to establish his rule over the disparate groups put together by the British as the new country of Iraq. Bell understood the problems of trying to impose a unitary state on those people, but the British government decided that small states based on Baghdad, Basra and Mosul would probably not survive local rivalries. They would certainly stand little chance against the ambitions of neighbouring states, Turkey and Iran. In addition, Iraq’s oil riches were decisive in persuading British policymakers to unite a disunited country and use air power to quell opposition from different factions. Real Politik is never pleasant, but in this case it was probably preferable to the regional turmoil which might have accompanied any more democratic settlement of the Mesopotamian situation.

    • Alan Lester says:

      Thanks Tom,

      It was a short piece with little room for the relationship between Bell and Faisal (on which Kwarteng is quite good), but thanks for drawing attention to it. Counterfactuals (what would have happened in the region if the British had not combined the provinces and created Iraq with en externally imposed king) are always interesting but as an historian relying on historical evidence I prefer to stick with what actually happened rather than what might have happened in a hypothetical alternate universe. It’s certainly relevant that realpolitik is conducted trough contemporaries’ beliefs about the range of alternatives conceivable at the time, but in this instance there is little evidence that the British acted as they did for fear of the local population being affected by turmoil. The evidence suggests, rather, that their main fear was the loss of control of oil resources to rival powers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *