In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention without Trial in Wartime Britain

In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention without Trial in Wartime Britain

In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention without Trial in Wartime Britain

In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention without Trial in Wartime Britain

Synopsis

During the Second World War just under two thousand British citizens were detained without charge, trial, or term set, under Regulation 18B of the wartime Defence Regulations. Most of these detentions took place in the summer of 1940, soon after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister--when belief in the existence of a dangerous Fifth Column was widespread. At first, Churchill was an enthusiast for vigorous use of the powers of executive detention. He later came to lament the use of a power which was, in his words, "in the highest degree odious." Although many detainees were soon released, a considerable number remained in custody for prolonged periods--some for the duration of the war. This book provides the first comprehensive study of this Regulation and its history. Based on extensive use of primary sources, it describes the complex history of wartime executive detention: the purposes which it served, the administrative procedures and safeguards employed, the conflicts which surrounded its use, and the effect of detention upon the lives of individuals concerned, few of whom constituted any threat to national security. This study is the first to penetrate the veil of secrecy, telling the story of the most serious invasion of civil liberty which has occurred in Britain this century.

Excerpt

During the Second World War a very considerable number of people were detained by the British government without charge, or trial, or term set, on the broad ground that this was necessary for national security. Most were not British citizens, but technically enemy aliens—in fact most of these enemy aliens were refugees from Europe. A far smaller number of those detained were British citizens, and they were held under Regulation 18B of the Defence Regulations; it is with this regulation and those detained under it that this book is concerned. Although Winston Churchill was not responsible for the regulation itself, he was an enthusiast for its extensive use in the desperate days of 1940. But later in the war he came to feel increasingly unhappy over the gross violation of civil liberty over which he had presided, and the title to this book makes use of a quotation from a telegram of his on Regulation 18B which originated in Cairo in 1943.

During the war the executive imposed as much secrecy as it could get away with on the use of the regulation, and although a fair amount has been written on the subject there is in print no general account of the history of the regulation and the uses to which it was put. One reason for this is that since many of the detainees, but by no means all, were or had been fascists, they have not excited much public sympathy; the detained refugees have, and in part for this reason their story has been fully told. I have tried to write as full a history as is possible of the 18B detainees, but my account necessarily suffers from the fact that most of the relevant government records have been destroyed, and access to much of what has survived is still refused. In spite of this the quantity of material which is available is very considerable, and one of my chief problems has been that of keeping my account within a reasonable compass.

My own background is that of an academic lawyer, and, apart from . . .

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