Mary Southcott provides a personal testimony on extending democracy and anti-colonialism
I was born, when Britain was global and most of my atlas was pink, into an anti-imperialist family in Leeds. My Canadian father hated the idea that their governor general, at one time John Buchan, made all their decisions. His mother was Scottish. He supported any team playing against England, whether this was Gandhi or Archbishop Makarios.
My mother was also a first generation history graduate. Her father was at the Relief of Peking (Beijing) and the Boxer Rebellion. It was only when I arrived back from Cyprus in 1975 that she told me he hated Turks and Winston Churchill, whom he held equally responsible for many friends dying at Gallipoli. Long before Cyprus was divided in 1974 – first by the Greek Junta Coup, then by Turkey – Britain’s divide-and-rule damaged Cypriots. Hugh Foot, the last governor of Cyprus, observed of the UK policy that “doing nothing was also a policy”. James Callaghan had wanted to intervene but Henry Kissinger said “No”.
I went to Cyprus in 1971 having only read Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, an anti-Greek Cypriot autobiography. He was a British intelligence officer; once a spy, always a spy. I travelled through the Corinth Canal displaying Junta phoenixes and read AJP Taylor’s Origins of the First World War, the war of Ottoman succession. My parents had a lot of visitors, including four orthodox priests from Istanbul I insisted were Turks. I was sympathetic to Chamberlain not Churchill, and Munich on the Edge of War, based on Robert Harris’s book, may shed light.
I lived in Cyprus for four years, arriving at the same time as Grivas landed in 1971 and EOKA-B was bombing police stations. I read more books, visiting most of Cyprus, under the guidance of Rupert Gunnis’s Historic Cyprus. The Times of Cyprus editor, Charles Foley, invited by Makarios to give a Greek Cypriot perspective (pro-independence rather than enosis, or union with Greece), wrote Island in Revolt as fact – as did the Washington Post’s Laurence Stern in The Wrong Horse, which Kissinger had pulped. It was Kissinger who led the way, in his chapter ‘Cyprus: a Case Study in Ethnic Conflict’, to blaming the colonised with his fiction of warring Greeks and Turks. The Empire and Commonwealth Museum even asserted that they were fighting when Britain arrived in 1878 and when they left in 1960.
By the time I was Labour’s parliamentary candidate in 1987 I was a committed anti-colonialist but yet to see the problem with the UK’s voting system. It wasn’t like an exam, where the more work you did, the better the result. The New Statesman commissioned my article, ‘Electoral Reform and Me’. When I sought selection later, I was accused of only knowing about two things – Cyprus and electoral reform. It wasn’t true at the time but it may be now. They are linked for me by the idea of democracy, which Robin Cook said was also a value.
Novels on Cyprus are often important as historical documents but disliked by Cypriots because they get Cyprus wrong. However, The Cypriot by Andreas Koumi draws on the lived experience of his Cypriot parents. Victoria Hislop’s The Sunrise is a parable of co-operation for Cypriots in Famagusta after it was deserted in August 1974. Small Wars by Sadie Jones is based on a diary by a National Serviceman who commented on British human rights abuses, torture and rape, which led to a 2019 out of court settlement similar to the Kenyan Mau Mau case.
The most recent, Island without Trees, by Elif Shafak, leaves out Turkey, assumes Kissinger’s warring Greeks and Turks, forgets colonialism, nationalism and the Cold War and calls Turkish Cypriots “Turks”. She writes as if Cyprus was always divided by the Green Line rather than the “ethnographical fruitcake” it was during British rule. One well-researched section covers the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus‘s task of digging up remains, identifying bodies and then returning them to their families. Far from dividing people, this has brought teams of Cypriots together and empathy between families, as Sevgul Uludag writes in her factual Oysters with the Missing Pearls.
Recently, devolution has drawn attention to the way Whitehall works: overcentralised and based on ruling the Empire. Michael Gove wants us all to have governors. This links my preoccupation with voting reform and Cyprus. We are the last colony. Governance should be pluralist and about co-ordinating with other countries and devolved authorities.
What the world needs now is more democracy, not ‘Global Britain’. This may be the choice at the next election. The Conservative Party, particularly in this English nationalism phase, is on the wrong side of history. We need to decolonise our history from out of date stereotypes. The playing fields of Eton did not win the battle of Waterloo any more than we will persuade the previously colonised that Global Britain is the future.