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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: A small step, a small audience – but still a piece of history


It lasted less than half an hour. The word “apology” was never used. There were hardly a couple of dozen MPs present. But sometimes that’s how history is made. William Hague’s statement that the Government “sincerely regret” the torture of thousands of Kenyan detainees was not only the first official recognition of the lifelong “pain and grievance” inflicted on those that survived it. The Foreign Secretary did not say – and perhaps did not need to – that today’s £19.9m out-of-court settlement was a necessary, if woefully belated, step in the process of facing up to the dark corners of the country’s late imperial past.

Of these, the treatment of Mau Mau suspects during the draconian State of Emergency was surely the darkest. Hague insisted that “torture and ill-treatment are abhorrent violations of human dignity, which we unreservedly condemn”. He reminded Tory backbencher Col Bob Stewart, who urged him also to support a memorial to the 2,000 killed by the Mau Mau, compared with up to 25,000 Kenyans killed by the colonial authorities, that such violations were also “not effective”. (Which happen to be exactly the arguments used by those seeking redress for those subjected to extraordinary rendition).

Hague defended the previous decision by the present government and the previous Labour government to contest claims by three torture victims.

This bothered Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, who said that a litany of Labour MPs in the 1950s – including Barbara Castle, Fenner Brockway and Tony Benn – had thought the then Tory government did indeed have “liability”. Praising the victims for securing the settlement by exposing “the use of concentration camps, torture, castration, and all the vile things that were done to Kenyan prisoners by the British forces,” he added that such practices “reduce our ability to criticise anyone else for that fundamental denial of human rights”.

Much, though not all, had been known about the abuses at the time. Labour’s David Winnick recalled that one of the greatest speeches denouncing the notorious 1959 Hola Camp massacre of 11 Kenyan detaineees had been made by the then Tory backbencher Enoch Powell.

But it was left to the Lib Dem Tessa Munt to suggest Hague “speak to the Education Secretary and consider whether this part of our colonial past, which did not cover us with glory, might be a topic for discussion in schools.” Now that really is something for Michael Gove to think about.