Wednesday, 27 April 2011

For the people

I hadn’t visited the People’s History Museum in Manchester for almost 20 years. Whilst I’ve been away it has expanded from its original home in an old pump house that used to supply the city with drinking water to include a modern building alongside.

Its displays trace the struggle for democracy so that all men and women had a vote. It puts to shame a society in which only a minority bother to exercise their right to determine who represents them in national and local government. It also charts the struggle for workers rights from the formation of illegal groups of workers to the establishment of trade unions. These struggles cost people their livelihoods and sometimes their lives. So much that is taken for granted was only obtained at great cost.

The large, colourful banners of the unions, carried in processions and rallies, proclaim their pride in their work and a commitment to unity. They believed that their battles against injustice could only be won by standing together. Their view of the world was communal not individualistic. Not my rights, but our rights.

Among the cartoons displayed from several generations are those which challenge the rich and powerful for not paying their fair share (or any) tax whilst the poor pay the cost – nothing changes.

A kind of motto of the People’s Museum is ‘there have always been ideas worth fighting for’ and its displays illustrate that. Going round them is an exciting and moving experience. It’s also disturbing as I wonder if in this age in England many are so materially comfortable and the rest are so dispirited that the struggle for justice fails to engage us.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

No excuse for not owning up

Shame on the UK that we cannot even take moral responsibility for the horrific behaviour of those who acted in our name in Kenya in the 1950’s. At a time when we are prepared to exercise our military muscle to ‘protect’ people in Lybia from abuse by their government, we wash our hands of horrific behaviour by our colonial administration not that many decades ago.

I had come to know a little of this British behaviour in Kenya from visits there and conversations with Kenyans with whom I worked. However, to say that the reality revealed by recently released documents has shocked me is the understatement of the year. Not just the scale of beatings and killings but the documented torture and castration through to roasting alive. The detail is too disgusting to describe. No one should pretend that the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule did not produce its own atrocities. That may be the context of the colonial administration’s response but it is not an excuse.

The papers reveal the endemic nature of abuse and that it was condoned and, even, encouraged. The existence of abuse was officially denied and officials who raised concerns were publicly denounced. The paper trail leads out of the colonial administration in Kenya to the government in London.

In the mid-50’s Colonel Arthur Young, an experience police officer and a Christian socialist, was appointed as commissioner of police for Kenya. In a letter to the Governor, forwarded to the Secret Registry of the Ministry for African Affairs, he observed that the Screening Camps (ostensibly for sorting out the active dissidents from innocent bystanders but in fact a dumping ground for anyone who came to official notice) presented a ‘state of affairs so deplorable’ that they should be investigated. Police were diverted from law and order issues to being agents of repression. Africans who suffered from ‘the brutalities that are clearly evident’ had no one to whom they could appeal for justice because the whole colonial structure was complicit. He called for the ‘elementary principles of justice and humanity’ to be observed. In his measured tones it is a damning letter. Young resigned in disgust after eight month’s service. (

Very often people make excuses for not dealing with such things. I’m told that we shouldn’t judge actions in the past by the standards we apply now. This is why Arthur Young is an important witness. His appeal in situ for justice and humanity is the one we would make today. If we fail to name the behaviour of the colonial regime and its agents for what it was, we become complicit. The challenge of Arthur Young and those like him who were prepared to risk opprobrium and loss of job will have fallen on ears equally as deaf as those of the civil servants and politicians in the 1950’s.

I have no idea whether the legal responsibility now lies with the UK government or with the Kenyan government as successor to the colonial administration. I am certain where the moral responsibility lies.