April 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
What were the Cold War circumstances in the case of MI5 and Dr Bronowski, whose treatment his daughter has compared with that of the East German Stasi’s victims? With great respect to Lisa Jardine — a luminous figure in my eyes — I find that comparison rich. Nobody lifted a finger against Bronowski, who enjoyed a glittering career. It’s just that in his younger days our security apparatus was worried — no less, no more — about his ideological sympathies and his friendships, which did include Anthony Blunt.
No action, however, was taken: it simply tried to keep an eye on him. For some of this period Stalin was still in power, and it was an era when we were convinced, perhaps rightly, that the Soviet Union was out to destroy our way of life. A small but not insignificant minority in Britain admired the Soviet Union (my socialist uncle and aunt used to holiday there) and believed the triumph of communism was desirable and inevitable. I do not accept there was anything preposterous in keeping tabs on them.
I feel similar unease about some of the commentary on the Kenyan revelations. Everything about the undeniably autocratic nature of colonial rule is being jumbled together. Commentators are exclaiming that we hanged hundreds of people. But we hanged people in Britain too.
Hanging was the penalty for the most serious crimes; the Mau Mau were murderers; they murdered thousands of people, mostly Africans; a state of emergency had been declared; insurgents were trying to overthrow the Government; and most of us British believed (whether or not you or I believe it now) that our Government was good for Kenya.
But here — and before we lapse into harrumphing that one age has no right to judge another — we should pause on our tightrope and glance into the slough on the other side. What most tellingly condemns some of what is now emerging from secret archives on Kenya is how strenuously people tried to keep them secret. They knew at the time that some of what was being done was shameful, and if disclosed would be seen as disgraceful at the time. It was to the searchlight of their own generation and their own circumstances, that, if held up, their actions would be found wanting.
Secrecy is the clue. If people won’t defend in public what they’re doing while they’re doing it, then let them not, half a century later, plead altered national values. And let us— who as we voice our horror at Kenyan colonial atrocities very strongly suspect that our own governments have been conniving at torture, extrajudicial murder, illegal detention and extraordinary rendition, and denying it out of shame — expect no mercy from The Times of April 2061.