The Hola camp papers were released last week. Although the events at the camp, brutality and maladministration leading to the deaths in British custody of eleven Kenyan detainees, happened more than fifty years ago, the news instantly recalled a night from my youth.
In 1959, when I was barely eighteen years old, I visited the House of Commons for the first time. To be precise, it was the 27th July and I had stumbled quite unwittingly upon the Hola Camp debate about those deaths and subsequent inquiry.
It was a vivid enthralling attack upon the Conservative Government.First it was mauled by the young Barbara Castle and then from its own side by Enoch Powell whose speech is a Commons classic. His peroration left an indelible mark upon me. Here it is
Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard. We cannot say, “We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.” We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere. All Government, all influence of man upon man, rests upon opinion. What we can do in Africa, where we still govern and where we no longer govern, depends upon the opinion which is entertained of the way in which this country acts and the way in which Englishmen act. We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.
The debate started at 10:20 pm finished close to 3 am. Then to my astonishment, my local MP for South Ayrshire, Emrys Hughes, started another debate about the return of the Casement diaries to Dublin.
The whole experience left me a bit starry eyed about Parliament. Many years had to pass before I found a more balanced and critical view of the institution.
I fancy too that I saw the end of empire that night. India had gone ten years before but the fiction that an African Empire could somehow be maintained was undercut in debate. Within six months, the Government announced plans to decolonize Africa and as the Union Jack came down so went the Empire.
Another aspect was the heroic status Enoch Powell acquired. I was already reading about apartheid in South Africa and racial discrimination in the US and railing at the injustice of it all – values Powell seemed to share in his speech.
Later, seeing the immigration pressures at first hand in my employers factories, I studied the ‘colour bar’ in a London evening class and joined an ‘race relations’ committee in Camden. So when Powell made his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, I deserted him. But looking back now and setting aside his emotional language, I can see his argument that exceeding economic capacity for immigration is dangerous for all.
And a footnote about Emrys Hughes. My father stood against him as the Tory candidate for South Ayrshire in the 1951 and 1955 General Elections. I traded on this fact when I lobbied him that day in the Commons but he was charming and had me admitted to the gallery for a full house occasion remarkably like PMQs. (PMQs were not formally introduced for a few more years). I didn’t understand much that was said but was clearly intrigued enough to come back in the evening and that is how I stumbled upon the Hola Camp debate.
Emrys Hughes’s election agent was the young John Pollock who himself became a senior Labour politician and chairman of the party in Scotland. Thirty years later when I campaigned with John on Scottish broadcasting, he told me that Emrys only ever came near his constituency at election time.