A small treat for students of British imperialism especially in Ireland where the agenda of withdrawal from Empire was set. Only the Daily Telegraph so far picks out a headline on these remarks by David Cameron who is keen to make a new start with Pakistan. Odd, coming from the leader of the historic party of Empire where the orthodoxy remains that the civilising mission, however flawed then and anachronistic today, wasn’t all humbug. Is Cameron taking Tory modernisation to new heights of revisionism or will he as I suspect he will, row back on the ad lib?
“I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”
Are we? Could 100,000 British in India hold back the tide of communal violence in an India of 350 million bent on splitting? By complete chance, another part of the imperial legacy comes under close scrutiny tomorrow as a survivor of the terrible Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s appears in the High Court in London to bid for compensation for suffering castration by his colonial master. It so happens that the Times spreads across two pages the story of thousands of documents recounting grim tales of suppression from all over the Empire. The story, now disproved, had been that they had been loaded into a Lancaster bomber and dumped in the sea.
And who at the time had made the loudest protest? Why none other than that most perverse of politicians in his famous denunciation of Hola Camp, Enoch “rivers of blood” Powell himself. To be fair to Enoch he was consistent about law order and justice. I remember when he was defending an ultra slim 500 majority in South Down, his last speech of the campaign in Shrigley Orange Hall was a stinging denunciation of Ulster Unionist support for capital punishment. He lost the seat.
At least 12,000 rebels were killed, but atrocities were committed on both sides, and an estimated 70,000 Kenyans were held in prison camps as the British tried to quell the uprising.
It has been said — and it is a fact — that these 11 men were the lowest of the low; subhuman was the word which one of my honorable Friends used. So be it. But that cannot be relevant to the acceptance of responsibility for their death . . . In general, I would say that it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgement on a fellow human being and to say, “Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow.”
Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard. We cannot say, “We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.” We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere.”
It was the Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod who said of Powell: “I often start with Enoch on the train of logic. The difference between is that I jump off before it hits the buffers.” Macleod stayed with that particular train though. It was he who sped up the retreat from Empire until it had virtually disappeared by the mid sixties.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London