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571. Duration (XI)

During the Irish War of Independence, Britain deployed a paramilitary group, the Black and Tans, in order to fight the insurgency that raged against the regular army. The Black and Tans were composed from WWI veterans, they were a British Freikorps—an independent buccaneer band on the look out for adventure, and as such they were more than happy to engage in extracurricular warfare. The result was that the Black and Tans have become a byword in Éire for unrestrained violence and British perfidy. You will see Winston Churchill named as being responsible for their deployment, at the time he was War Secretary—Lloyd George was PM. However, the question of who was responsible for the Black and Tans remains vexed, and it exemplifies how governments “really work” in the conspiratorial vein—although not as conspiracy theorists have it.

The Black and Tans were required because Britain was engaged in a guerrilla war; and in a guerrilla war reprisals become essential. Yet Ireland was the same British territory as London—not distant colonial India—and so for the British Army to directly launch reprisals against British civilians or captured insurgents was a tricky issue. This was where the Black and Tans stepped in: there was no official order from London to begin reprisals, rather British Army bulletins in Ireland published extracts from a Federal general in the American Civil War who described how he undertook reprisal actions against Confederate guerrillas (standard democratic terror tactics). There was no direct order to act in a similar way, rather discipline was relaxed and the suggestion was made in the media the soldiers consumed that if they happened to vent their frustrations at constant ambushes—at the loss of their comrades—then a blind eye would be turned.

The position in London was that soldiers occasionally “boiled over” in outrage because their comrades had been assassinated in underhanded ambushes. Hence the British Army could use the counter-insurgency tool of reprisals in a deniable way. As it happens, Lloyd George really ran one of the first fully democratic British governments: since the hereditary House of Lords was neutered in 1911, no longer being able to veto money bills, Lloyd George presided over socialisation in a context where the franchise was fully extended, even to women. In full democracy, the priority becomes to avoid responsibility—and Lloyd George was expert at that.

This situation was challenged by a young MP, Oswald Mosley, who protested that Black and Tans were engaged in a terror campaign against the Irish people—Mosley proved to be the driving force behind an investigation into the violence the Black and Tans unleashed. It was only when Mosley put the spotlight on the situation—demanded to know who was responsible for the situation, if reprisals against the Irish (British citizens) were official policy—that Lloyd George was placed in a tight spot.

Up until then he had handled the situations as democrats do, as such situations are handled in governments today: there was no official policy for the Black and Tans to act this way—yet it happened to be awfully beneficial to government policy, so it was maintained that there were one-off incidents while unofficially encouraging them in the military press. Churchill, for his part, wanted to bring in summary execution for captured insurgents.

The issue exemplifies how democratic politicians launder responsibility. When Mosley forced them to take responsibility, the Black and Tans were withdrawn—and that was why Mosley, even when in disgrace, was admired in Ireland and lived there for a time. Paradoxically, many former Black and Tans—being buccaneers—later joined Mosley’s BUF; and they were joined by Irish Catholics—genuine Irish unity was only achieved under Mosleyism. For Mosley, the Black and Tans were admirable in their adventurousness but were put to a counterproductive and dishonourable end by irresponsible democratic politicians, by Lloyd George and Churchill—given the right structure they could work productively, and even join with Irish Catholics in a common enterprise.


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