It is often easy – or at least tempting – to assume that any major defeat was a foregone conclusion. The failure of successive British governments to take a realistic approach to defence in the Far East went a long way toward making the fall of Singapore inevitable. Even in the last days of the campaign there was a general tendency to ignore the practicalities of the situation. This signal from Churchill to Wavell exemplifies that tendency:

I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to cabinet by the CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff – Sir Alan Brooke) that Percival has over 100,000 men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have so many in the whole Malay Peninsula … In these circumstances and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Army is at stake.

Major General Woodburn Kirby, The War Against Japan,

HMSO, 1957

The cable shows Churchill’s complete misunderstanding of the entire situation. Apart from the fact that he seems to have retained some confidence in the ideas of racial superiority in disregarding the Indian, Malay and Chinese service personnel, he had seemingly failed to grasp that the Japanese had been able to seize and retain their initiative due to better training, better leadership, better air support, their daring use of armour and a better understanding of what could and could not be achieved on the battlefield. None of these issues could be remedied simply by demanding a ‘do or die’ attitude. Defeat in the air meant that movement by day was extremely vulnerable to Japanese air strikes. Since neither Allied fighter strength nor anti-aircraft capacities presented very much of a challenge, Japanese pilots could afford to take their time seeking targets of opportunity. On the ground, the Allies had no real answer to Japanese armour. Yamashita’s tanks may have been old-fashioned, lightly armoured and under-gunned, but the Allies had lost a great many anti-tank guns during the campaign, and even if the guns had been replaced the general approach to training had been so basic that most units had very little idea of how to deal with an armoured threat.

Percival went to The Ford Factory ostensibly to seek terms, though in practice he must have been aware that neither he nor Yamashita really had much room to manoeuvre. Realistically, Yamashita could only accept an unconditional surrender and Percival had nothing else to offer.

Percival’s surrender was unconditional, though not strictly speaking, without terms, since there were a number of practical issues to be addressed. Neither Percival nor Yamashita had effective communications with all of their units, so a ceasefire deadline was set for 2030hrs to allow news of the surrender to be relayed to units out of radio contact. The surrender document explicitly required Percival to ensure that all military materiel – arms, ammunition, supplies of all kinds, transport, papers, ships and aircraft – was surrendered undamaged immediately. Yamashita accepted Percival’s word that there were no aircraft or ships left in Allied hands, but in fact he had already given instructions that all heavy artillery and documents were to be destroyed before 1600hrs.

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42. Lt Gen. Percival and party en route to surrender Singapore to the Japanese.

Clearly there was already a good deal of disorder in the streets with soldiers and civilians looting shops and homes across the city. It would be some time before Japanese troops could be deployed all over the city, so Percival was allowed to retain 1,000 armed men to maintain law and order pending Japanese takeover.

Percival can certainly be counted among the losers in any examination of the 1941–42 campaign. To a considerable degree the dice were heavily loaded against him from the outset. An inexplicable tide of political and diplomatic constraints prevented him from taking positive courses of action from the very beginning of the campaign. Although a plan (Operation Matador) had been formulated to slow the Japanese advance in one of the few real ‘choke’ positions, diplomatic and political considerations conspired with poor communications and a lack of clarity to prevent the operation being put into action in time for it to be successful. He was obliged to follow strategic and tactical policies that were not remotely suited to the situation. The belief that the material production on the Malayan Peninsula, as well as the prestigious naval base and vital commercial facilities of Singapore, could be only protected by maintaining a strong air force may have been well founded, but that forced Percival to scatter his troops to protect the airfields. However, the airfields were only valuable if there was an adequate supply of modern fighter aircraft and pilots to fly them. Neither of these were to be had in 1941.

The absolute and wilful blindness in Whitehall and the British Army on the question of armoured vehicles was another problem. Simply assuming that the terrain was unsuitable for armoured warfare did not make it so. It was certainly true that tanks would struggle to cope with jungle and swamps or oil palm and rubber plantations, but the reality is that tanks mostly stick to roads, and without a good road system the produce of Malaya could not have been transported to Singapore for export around the world. Percival’s problems did not stop there. A powerful belief on the part of various individuals in the civil authority that the Japanese would never attack impeded any progress toward an adequate civil defence policy. Similarly, a refusal to offer a living wage for local labour meant that very little was done to prepare defences in Singapore. The policy of defending the Singapore naval base continued to be a factor in Percival’s planning, even when there were no ships left for the base to tend.

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43. Rice country in eastern Malaya. Far from being covered by ‘impenetrable jungle’, a great deal of 1940s Malaya was agricultural land. (Author’s collection)

That said, Percival did make his own difficulties. He could and should have made much stronger representations for an allocation of tanks. Vehicles that were being relegated to training-only status in Britain – or even being consigned to scrap metal – might not have made the difference between ultimate defeat and victory, but with no tanks at all Malaya Command was virtually guaranteed to struggle against the Japanese. Percival also failed to ensure any viable degree of training at battalion or formation level. A small number of units – notably the Argylls – had been put through extensive training programmes by their commanding officers, but nothing was done to encourage this. At the level of brigades, divisions and corps there was virtually no training at all, which proved to be disastrous once the battle had been joined. Withdrawing in front of a determined enemy calls for a high level of competence and confidence at formation headquarters, which was conspicuous by its absence throughout the campaign. Percival repeatedly failed to replace senior officers who had been found wanting, though a decent training programme would probably have revealed some of the weaker officers and improved the understanding and competence of others. Throughout the Malayan campaign Percival was continually driven by two conflicting policies. On the one hand there was the need to retain territory, and on the other to preserve his army for what he called ‘the main battle’, which he envisaged fighting in northern Johore.

These two considerations were incompatible with one another. If he pursued a policy of fighting the Japanese at every turn his units would become depleted and exhausted; if he made a major withdrawal the Japanese would pursue him so rapidly that he would not be able to deploy his formations into a well-organised defensive structure before the enemy was upon them. Equally, he did not appear to give any real thought to countering the Japanese by attacking them in order to disrupt their advance, and very little effort was made to form sabotage parties behind their lines. Additionally, he put too much faith in blocking roads and demolishing bridges. A great many bridges were blown – sometimes leaving large bodies of troops and vital materiel on the wrong side of a river – but in virtually every instance the engineers of the Japanese Army proved capable of making repairs at such speed that the advance was seldom impeded for very long. Percival was undoubtedly influenced by his own combat experience in the First World War – during which he displayed conspicuous gallantry – and had far too strong a belief in the power of trenches and fixed defences long after they had proven unsound against the Japanese Army.

The failure of the Allies in Malaya and Singapore was not simply a matter of Percival’s weaknesses as a commander, but he has ‘carried the can’ for the behaviour of others – notably the civil administration from Whitehall downwards – for seventy years.

If Percival was a ‘loser’ in 1942, General Bennett was most certainly a ‘winner’ on a personal level. Having failed time and again to make good decisions in Malaya – even when his troops performed admirably – Bennett continued in a similar vein in Singapore. His decision to do nothing when Brigadier Maxwell misconstrued his orders and withdrew from the Jurong Line, thereby destroying what little hope remained of turning the tide of the battle, is incomprehensible as well as unforgiveable. Not content with tactical ineptitude and a famous inability to get on with his commander, his colleagues or his subordinates, Bennett escaped – or rather ran away – from Singapore and made his way to Australia. Once there, he contrived to appear as something of a hero despite deserting his post and his men, and also managed to set himself up as an expert in jungle warfare.

Fruits of Victory?

The fruits of victory were immense, though not all of them could be put to immediate use. The great naval base that had cost so much money before the war, and the defence of which had been the primary purpose of the campaign waged by Percival, had not been subject to a comprehensive plan of destruction to deny it to the enemy – though it certainly should have been. However, it had not been captured intact and a great deal of work would be required to make it capable of supporting the sort of grand fleet that the Japanese would require to safeguard their new imperial domain.

Victory in Malaya and Singapore gave a tremendous boost to the prestige of the Japanese Army and Navy, and damaged Allied morale in other theatres. It brought great prestige to General Yamashita who had been somewhat out of favour in the years before the war. It also enhanced the reputation of Colonel Tsuji, who had planned the invasion. After the war he escaped prosecution as a war criminal, probably with the connivance of American and British authorities as part of their drive against communism, and eventually became a member of the Japanese post-war parliament. General Yamashita, on the other hand, went to the scaffold, though the war crimes evidence against him personally was patchy at best and his execution was probably more a product of the fact that he had defeated the British and the Australians than anything else. It may be argued that Yamashita could have imposed a tighter rein on his troops after the surrender and thereby have prevented the vast, wanton tide of murder, rape, brutality and robbery that swept through Singapore, but the reality is that anyone – soldier or civilian – engaged in such a horror is responsible for their own actions. There is a whiff of racism about Yamashita’s prosecution; had he been a German or Italian general it seems unlikely that he would have been hanged. In the end, the ‘Tiger of Malaya’ (as he was described in Japanese newspapers and propaganda material) was one of the losers. Yamashita was posted to Manchuria after the fall of Singapore and it is difficult to assess the extent of his real culpability for the events that followed the capitulation. He certainly failed to keep control of his troops, but it is impossible to make a clear distinction between the reaction of troops who have just completed a difficult campaign and the general ethos of the Japanese Army in the 1930s and 1940s. Japanese soldiers were themselves treated with exceptional brutality and had been indoctrinated to believe that surrender was unthinkable and that soldiers who did so rather than dying at their posts did not deserve to be treated in a humane way. Equally, Yamashita was not content to ignore their depredations. He ensured that a number of looters and the officer who led the infamous massacre at the Alexandra Hospital were executed and he made a personal apology to those patients who had survived.

Yamashita’s troops remained in South East Asia after the capitulation. The Twenty-Fifth Army headquarters was moved to Bukit Tinggi in Sumatra and served as the occupying force there until the end of the war.

The fall of Singapore gave Japan undisputed access to the wealth of the whole of Malaya; particularly to tin and rubber, for which there was a huge worldwide market as well as enormous demand in Japan to support the war effort. Singapore itself was a great trophy. The significance as a financial centre was greatly reduced since she was no longer within the wider commercial sphere of the British Commonwealth. The huge Chinese financial industry was heavily undermined by the Japanese victory, partly because of the instability caused by the war, and partly because of the gigantic fines or ‘contributions’ that the Japanese demanded from the Chinese community. These removed so much liquid capital from the banks that it was almost impossible to pursue any sort of major commercial activity.

Colonel Masanobu Tsuji

Born in 1901 or 1902, Colonel Tsuji served in the Imperial Army from 1924–45. He was a staff officer in the Kwantung Army between 1937 and 1939, and was one of the officers who helped to bring about the events of the late 1930s. He was the chief planner of the Malayan invasion, making several reconnaissance flights before the war. He later wrote a book on the topic, Singapore: The Japanese Version, which sold well in Britain, Australia and the United States as well as in Japan.

Tsuji was a violent racist and was instrumental in numerous war atrocities – including the mass murder of Chinese civilians in the Sook Ching massacres after the fall of Singapore and the execution of American prisoners of war in the Philippines. He was personally fearless and was wounded in action several times. Despite his well-known participation in and even instigation of war crimes, Colonel Tsuji was able to escape prosecution by fleeing to Thailand in 1945, probably with the help of the British and American intelligence services, which hoped that men like Tsuji, with strong nationalistic, right-wing views, would be useful in preventing the rise of communism in Japan after the war. When it became clear that he, like so many other Japanese war criminals, would not be pursued, he returned to Japan, entered politics and was elected to the Diet – Japan’s parliament. On one occasion he allegedly ate the liver of an Allied pilot who had been shot down during the Burma campaign and criticised his colleagues for refusing to join him in the meal. He disappeared during a trip to Laos in 1961 and was declared legally dead in 1968.

The business community throughout Malaya as a whole had been dislocated by a number of factors, many dependent on, but not limited to, the direct effects of combat. A large proportion of the managers, engineers and other professionals – both British and Asian – on whom the rubber and tin industries depended had left their posts. Many of the younger British professionals had been members of reserve and volunteer units and had been called up for active service immediately after the initial Japanese landings at Singora and Kota Bahru. Others had made their way to Singapore as the Japanese advanced down the peninsula. Many families had made the trip south to Singapore in the hope that the Japanese would be repelled in short order and that they would be able to return to their homes before too long, an attitude that persisted for some time due to the shameless manipulation of the press; the British authorities continually failed to allow accurate reporting of the Japanese advance. A consequence of this was that there was a degree of pressure on civilians not to take the opportunity to leave Singapore for Australia or Europe because they would be ‘letting the side down’. Tens of thousands of civilians interned by the Japanese in February 1942 would suffer a brutal captivity for the next three and half years. Thousands of them died from neglect and cruelty and all of them would be scarred by the experience – some of them still suffer today.

Prisoners of War

When Percival surrendered he still had something in the region of 80,000 men under his command. This presented the Japanese with a problem. They had not envisaged having to deal with a body of prisoners of war that was larger than their own army. During the First World War some German service personnel – mostly sailors – had been prisoners of the Japanese and had been well-treated, but the situation was very different in 1942. Some Japanese – and a few British and Australians – assumed that the defeat of the Allies across South Asia and the Pacific would result in an armistice and peace conference within a matter of months, and that the POWs would be repatriated. This was hardly a realistic prospect so long as Japan was allied with Germany, and so long as Germany was at war with the Allies, but it would also have been an admission on the part of the British and the Dutch that their days as colonial powers in Asia had come to an end. Although Percival had sought and received assurances from Yamashita that the POWs – and the civilian population too – would be well treated, the reality was that Japan was not a signatory to the various conventions and agreements relating to military prisoners.

Yamashita was posted to Manchuria and replaced General Shimpei Fukuye, whose attitude toward the POWs was one of indifference at best and outright cruelty at worst. The POWs now became a pool of slave labour subjected to horrific conditions. To some extent, this was a product of the general ethos of the Japanese Army; beatings were a normal part of the training system to the extent that two recruits might be ordered to beat one another senseless for minor infractions. There was also a class and racial pecking order at work within the Japanese Army and in their attitude to prisoners. Essentially, officers were seen as being superior to NCOs socially as well as professionally and NCOs as superior to privates, but all Japanese saw themselves as racially superior to the many Korean troops in the Imperial Army and they in turn regarded themselves as racially superior to Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans. The combination of these attitudes, with a belief that an able-bodied man who surrendered was an affront to the traditions of soldiering and an embarrassment to his country, led to the institutionalised cruelty suffered by thousands of British, Australian and Indian soldiers from February 1942 to September 1945. Additionally, the sheer number of POWs was more than the Japanese administration could cope with. Huge numbers were sent to Japan to work in mines or on the infamous Burma Railway, or to build airstrips in the South Pacific. Thousands died from disease, malnutrition and abuse; thousands more were simply shot out of hand when they had outlived their immediate usefulness.

A great many Indian soldiers endured the captivity despite having an opportunity to return to the front as soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army. In the months after the surrender, the Japanese formed the Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army (INA), supposedly a force raised to fight the British to achieve Indian independence, but essentially a means of raising Indian troops for the campaign in Burma. The INA recruited about 12,000 men, less than one in four of the Indian POWs in Malaya. The remarkable thing is that so few volunteered. Many Indian troops felt – with some justice – that they had been abandoned by the British. Many had received very little training and there was at least one incident of a European – presumed to be British – addressing Indian prisoners and telling them that the Japanese were now their masters and should be obeyed. The first attempt to raise the INA force was undermined by a belief that the Japanese intention was not to liberate India from the British, but to take control themselves. However, a second attempt to raise an Indian force was more successful and by the end of the war there were over 30,000 men in the INA. Many of the prisoners, especially those who were career soldiers, remained loyal to the British Crown only to find that when India became independent they were denied their pension rights, so they must surely be counted among the ‘losers’ of the Malayan campaign.


The Japanese occupation of Singapore and Malaya proved to be a period of misery and terror for the local civilian population. Some portions of the community suffered more than others – especially the Chinese – but a mixture of rapaciousness, neglect and administrative mismanagement in every field led to starvation and disease, and a well-founded fear of the unpredictability of the occupation forces generally and of the Kempeitai in particular. The latter was essentially a department within the army but charged with a wide variety of roles, including intelligence, counter-intelligence and imposing Japanese authority on the residents of occupied territories through sheer terror. Another factor was the Sook Ching massacres in which thousands of Singaporeans (mostly Chinese) were summarily murdered by the Japanese Army in mass shootings and drownings. The Sook Ching operation (the Japanese called the process Kakyoshukusei or ‘the purging of Chinese’) was a deliberately planned policy of mass murder, which theoretically focused on specific groups in the Chinese community, though a great many people were selected and executed at random. The primary targets of Sook Ching included members of the Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Army. Known as Dalforce, the unit – about 500 strong – had been formed by Lieutenant Colonel John Dalley of the Federated Malay States Police Force on Christmas Day 1941 and had fought valiantly in defence of Singapore. Other target groups included those who had been active in or contributors to the China Relief Fund (an organisation that raised money for the struggle against the Japanese in China), civil servants, members of the Singapore Legislative Council, people from Hainan who were assumed to be communists and men with tattoos who were assumed to be gangsters. The Sook Ching massacres are relatively well known, but random shootings and beheadings in the street were a common sight throughout the occupation, particularly in the first few weeks after the surrender.

The bombing and shelling of the campaign caused extensive damage to commerce and manufacturing across Singapore, which was exacerbated by a policy of destroying goods and installations to deny them to the Japanese. Economic dislocation throughout Malaya – particularly in the vital rubber, tin and palm oil industries – was further exacerbated because many Chinese and Indian business people from mainland Malaya, especially those who had been involved in fundraising activities to support the struggle against Japan in China, had travelled to Singapore to avoid capture. Once there, most of them discovered that they could not get on a ship to Australia or India since the available transport was almost exclusively reserved for Europeans; however, their absence from their factories and mines meant that production was hampered or even stopped entirely. Consequently, workers were not receiving wages, which had a knock-on effect on virtually every business and shop in the country.

Sook Ching

Sook Ching was a mass-murder operation conducted by the Japanese military secret police and army under Lieutenant Colonel Masayuki Oishi. It was conducted over three weeks in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of Singapore. The operation had been planned in the weeks immediately prior to the attack on Singapore and the carefully targeted victims included wealthy men and women who had given or raised funds for arms and supplies used to resist the Japanese invasion of China, communists, trade unionists, Chinese cultural activists of all kinds and people who just happened to be prominent in the community. Colonel Tsuji, chief planner of the Malaya invasion, urged that the Sook Ching exercise be extended to the mainland and thousands of Chinese people were executed – at random mostly – through the length and breadth of the country.

The productivity of Malaya was impaired by the absence of these people, but not irretrievably. The policy of denial was not as effective in Singapore as it might have been, but on the mainland there had been no real effort to put together any sort of general plan to prevent industrial and commercial facilities from falling to the Japanese. This was largely a product of unrealistic policies – indeed, little more than a chronic attack of wishful thinking – on the part of the British authorities. A policy of destroying factories and processing facilities would have been an admission that the Japanese advance could not be resisted and that the Allies had no prospect of driving the Japanese back out again. Additionally, there was the question of compensation: if or when the Japanese were defeated, who would pay for installations and stocks that had been destroyed to keep them out of enemy hands?

The Japanese had acquired the wealth of Malaya and Singapore and, therefore, denied it to the British. The rubber and tin that were so important to the production of munitions were also in demand all around the world and their loss was a great blow to Britain’s economy.

For the Japanese, the economic value of victory was vast, but there was also a political value. By defeating the British and the Australians, her forces had undermined widely held views on racial superiority and she had established herself as a major modern power on the world stage. She now became the dominant force throughout South and East Asia at the expense of the European countries – Britain, France and the Netherlands – and she had made a start on achieving a similar position as the dominant force in the Pacific at the expense of the United States. Japan had exposed the British political and military structures in Asia as weak and inflexible. The much-vaunted slogan of ‘Asia for the Asians’ and the concept of the greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere may have been quickly revealed as simple Japanese imperialism, but it had certainly shown that the Europeans generally and the British in particular were far from invincible, and that the continuation of their rule in Asia, regardless of the outcome of the war, was by no means assured.

For the people of Malaya and Singapore, the British had been replaced by a far more oppressive source of authority and in the early months of 1942, as communities adjusted to the new dispensation, it must have seemed very doubtful that any power on earth would be able to liberate them; Japan had triumphed. In reality, her position was far from secure. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor pushed Hitler into declaring war on America. Over the next two years the United States would become the world’s greatest industrial power, and American materiel and manpower would be instrumental in bringing down Nazi Germany and then imperial Japan little more than three years after the fall of Singapore.

The people of Malaya and Singapore were certainly losers in any economic, political or social sense, but the British had suffered an enormous military and political defeat. Percival’s surrender gave the Japanese credibility as a military power and brought a considerable prize in military materiel. Huge quantities of small arms, artillery and, perhaps most importantly, vehicles fell into Japanese hands just at the point when Japanese industry was really starting to struggle with the demands made by the army and navy.

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44. One British pre-war banknote and three Japanese ‘Occupation’ currency banknotes. The Japanese banknotes lost their value very quickly during the occupation years. (Author’s collection)

Final Effects

Defeat in Malaya and Singapore was a huge blow to British prestige abroad and, for a while, undermined confidence at home because so much had been made of the ‘impregnability’ of ‘Fortress Singapore’. The failure to defeat the Japanese either in Malaya or Burma was unsettling to Britain’s new ally, the United States. Although American public and political opinion was much more focused on the attacks on Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, the fact that a very large British force had been comprehensively defeated by a smaller one in only ten weeks did nothing to aid American confidence in the British military establishment.

In the short term, the Japanese Empire was certainly the beneficiary of the campaign. Their successes in late 1941 and early 1942 made a great impression on their Axis allies. Strategically, however, the fall of Malaya eased some of the burden on the Royal Navy who could now devote more resources to the Atlantic and to ensuring supplies to the British Army and the RAF who, in turn, could now concentrate more effectively on the campaigns in North Africa and Burma – though the latter continued to be at the end of the queue for resources. The victory of the Japanese Army and Navy in Malaya was total and crushing in both a strategic and tactical sense, though in terms of grand strategy and policy, the acquisition of the vast territory conquered in 1941–42 made them as vulnerable as the British, Dutch and Americans had been when hostilities opened, and in fact they adopted a very similar policy to that of the British before the war. Essentially, the rationale was that although Japan now had an enormous perimeter to defend, it would take the Allies a long time to deliver a counter-offensive and that wherever they chose to strike there would be ample time for Japan to mount a relief operation strong enough to destroy any Allied expeditionary force.

In practice, the Japanese really had to fight several very different wars at the same time and had seriously underestimated the capacities of their enemies. By the summer of 1945 the emperor’s forces had been defeated in Burma, New Guinea and the South Pacific. Japan’s war industries were collapsing and her manpower shortage was critical, but she still had extensive commitments throughout South and East Asia. By September 1945 the Allies were ready to invade Malaya (Operation Zipper) with an overwhelming force of British, Indian and African troops who had more than got the measure of the Japanese in every aspect of combat and had successfully driven them from Burma. Only the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented a hard and bloody campaign to liberate Malaya and Singapore from what had been an incredibly brutal Japanese occupation. At the time it was not absolutely clear that even those attacks were sufficient to end the war in the Far East. Field Marshal Terauchi seems to have been willing to fight to the bitter end and might well have done so had he not fallen victim to a heart attack.

In one sense, the ‘winners’ of the Malayan campaign included British politicians of the 1920s and 1930s and of the wartime coalition government. The British political establishment had failed miserably to ensure the security of either the various colonial possessions or the different states whose defence had been promised in treaties. None of the political figures were held to account after the war. Churchill’s promise that there would be an inquiry as soon as war was over and all relevant persons available to give evidence was not kept. In part this was due to the change of government in the 1945 General Election, but of course several members of that government had also been members of the wartime coalition Cabinet. Letting the matter fade into obscurity was in the interests of senior politicians of both the Conservative and Labour Parties, since so many of them would have had hard questions to answer had it not.

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