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William Hague, Mau Mau, and the History of Historical Apologies

8 June 2013

This week saw William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, offer a partial apology for the actions of the colonial administration in Kenya during the 1950s. His speech to the House of Commons recalled some difficult truths surrounding Britain’s attempt to supress the Kikuyu – ‘Mau Mau’ – insurgency. It stressed that:

We understand the pain and the grief felt by those who were involved in the events of emergency in Kenya. The British government recognises that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration … The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress to independence. Torture and ill-treatment are abhorrent violations of human dignity which we unreservedly condemn.

The latest in a long line of revelations about the actions of Britain’s colonial state, not to mention later attempts to bury this history, this speech has caused some notable debate. Some commentators have stressed that Britain was not the only perpetrator in this particularly brutal conflict (though it must be noted that some of those who will now receive compensation only ever had unproven links to the Mau Mau). Others have simply questioned the rationale of such apologies.

There are certainly lots of unanswered questions. Hague, for example, remains adamant that his offer of compensation does not set a precedent for other former territories. Moreover, the government remains less than candid about an administrative process that resulted in hundreds of files relating to the crisis being misplaced for five decades (apparently mislabelled to suggest they belonged to a non-governmental organisation, they remained uncatalogued in a secure secret facility rather than being passed to the Public Records Office). Then there are the practical questions about what form the British-funded memorial will take.

From a more historical perspective, however, some of the most interesting questions relate to the very concept of a historical apology. This is not just a question of whether or not such questions are valid. But also one that asks when this trend began, and by extension, where it might end.

Whilst there are no easy answers, a literature search does throw up a few interesting sources to consider this question. Some – like this American-produced list of historical apologies – are fairly idiosyncratic. Others take a much more academic approach (with a good overview of the literature available in this article by Canadian political psychologists). One thing that emerges clearly, however, is that this seems to be very much a post-Second World War trend. It is also one in which Britain has had a leading role.

This suggests that the concept of historical apologies might be influenced by attempts to promote a framework for responsible governance through bodies like the United Nations, or that it is perhaps linked to a growth of government (and concurrent sense of democratic responsibility). More cynically, perhaps, they might be seen as part of a broader effort to come to terms with a changed world and find a new role. Or they could even be seen as a ‘pre-emtive strike‘ removing the possibility for future conflict.

As for what happens next, it’s worth remembering that the most successful apologies are those that redress an accepted injustice and make both sides feel better. Whether Hague’s partial redress fits this bill remains to be seen.

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