Ancient Laws for Ancient Abuses


In what has been described as a ‘marathon trial’, the claims of 40,000 Kenyans seeking compensation for their treatment by the colonial British government during the Mau Mau uprising of 1952-60 are being examined in detail. The solicitors of the Manchester-based Tandem Law firm have now been warned by the Foreign Office that their arguments might be in ‘contempt of parliament’. This is remarkable, as this is an ancient and essentially forgotten power of parliament that allows it to punish non-members of parliament for contempt, which can include what May has outlined as reflections ‘on the character of the proceedings of the House’.

This particular warning was issued following courtroom evidence implying that the former colonial secretary of state withheld information about a massacre of 11 people during the uprising. Just as the actions of the former secretary of state were made to protect the image of an empire, the actions of today’s government are to protect the reputation of those who shaped that empire, even if they are already 30 years dead. Indeed, it seems as if today’s government is once again attempting to cover up what happened in Britain’s colonial past.

Clearly, this is not done overtly. The government is in no way openly denying its past. In fact, a previous class action brought by survivors led to a pay out of £19.9m. Yet as soon as the stakes are raised, as in this case, the government appears to be using any means to cover up the extent of atrocities. In what appears an attempt to uphold the 59% of citizen’s views that the empire is something to be proud of, the government is pulling out all the stops to delegitimize the claimants’ voices.

Ministers claim that the trial cannot be done fairly, as the events occurred so far in the past that the necessary testimonies are either lost or those involved dead. This is precisely the point. The means to uncover what truly happened in the empire are slowly disappearing, and with them the people invested in ensuring the past is remembered. In an ironic twist of fate, it seems that as soon as the topic of our colonial past surfaces, the government feels the need to hark back to ancient laws. Rather than using this chance to move forward, it seems that by denying the past our government is simply returning to the tools of empire.

[Kirsty Campbell]


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