John Lamb

John Lamb

By John Lamb, Lecturer in Criminology

The recent ruling on the mistreatment of Kenyans under British Imperial rule, by the High Court in London, has potentially unlocked a door to the ‘dark’ side of Britain’s colonial past. In the 1950s as Britain attempted recovery from the Second World War, many of its colonies launched campaigns for independence. These campaigns were often violent and somewhat resembled the asymmetric conflicts the world has witnessed recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan the counter-insurgencies fought by Britain during the 1950s are often seen as having been successful inasmuch that order was usually restored enough to allow the move to independence to happen without widespread disruption.

Yet, it now seems that there was a high cost for the restoration of order in Britain’s former colonies. Mass detentions, re-settlements of entire villages and collective punishments were not uncommon and individuals caught up in such actions were often physically and mentally abused. As is right, the High Court ruling on Kenya finally appropriates blame for such barbaric acts to the United Kingdom and awards compensation to those who suffered and are still alive. However, the ruling potentially unlocks an era of Britain’s past politicians would undoubtedly prefer was forgotten. After all this ruling has created a judicial precedent which, in theory, allows any person who suffered during the withdrawal from Empire to seek recompense. Given the huge size of Britain’s previous Empire, the government could now face a large number of such cases.

In a time of national austerity a swathe of such cases and the resultant pay-outs would be a drain on the countries financial resources. To avert such an event the government should disclose the documents relating to the era it currently holds and issue formal apologies to those who were wronged. For over 60 years the true accounts of what happened during the period have been kept secret and Britain is now, literally, paying the price. A move towards honesty and transparency along with official apologies may offer sufficient closure to dissuade some claimants from seeking judicial proceedings. Such openness would also allow Britain to admit to and move on from the dreadful acts carried out in its past.