Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Kenya thoughts, colonialism, and the huge pressures of Democracy 

The sour tragedy of the events in Kenya highlights a colonial centenary. In 1908 Kenya was finally ‘pacified’ within the Empire after several years of conflict embarrassing to the then-Liberal UK government. Perhaps we need to reflect on the pressures of imperialism, how our Liberal predecessors dealt with it, the astonishing assumptions of democracy, and what we can learn from this about our world and how to behave in it.

In 1905 the incoming Liberal government inherited a number of conflicts from over ten years of highly ideological Tory Imperialist expansion policy. The most uncontrolled was in the new ‘East African Protectorate’ where about 1800 people died in various punitive actions, a process that Churchill said ‘looked like a butchery’. By 1908 this had been managed down to colonial stability.

Kenya had a chance to mark and transcend this centenary with a triumph for its own growth and rejection of colonial dependencies. Instead it has, sadly, fallen victim to the dangerous paradoxes of democratic power. The extraordinary notion that someone holding power should give it up to an opponent just because a bunch of people makes marks on bits of paper. The temptations to subvert this are huge when perceived stakes are high.

In th UK of 1905 onwards the abandonment of aggressive territorial grab policies by the incoming Liberal government and the parallel abandonment of a messianic ‘Imperial Mission’ caused huge anger amongst many Tories.

It is not generally realised how dangerous was the situation in Britain after 1905. So convinced were many Tories that the Empire was in danger from liberal meddling that a number of clandestine societies sprung up to organise drastic action if needs be, which in some cases looks a bit too much like plans for a fascist style coup. While public conflicts raged over the curtailing of the power of the House of Lords and the passage of Lloyd George’s budget, extreme Tory plans were laid for a takeover by an Imperial Council ‘loyal to flag and empire’, the ‘demolition of the Treasury’, and ‘putting the House of Commons in its proper place’ (that is subservient to a higher all-Empire political authority not necessarily of a democratic nature). Some of this treasonable activity came to light in the hothouse of the Home Rule for Ireland debate and the Ulster Volunteer threat of armed resistance backed by potential British Army mutinies.

If the results in the extremely close elections of 1910 had been seriously disputed all hell was a possible result in Britain. We should perhaps be a little more aware of our good luck and not be too surprised that other countries succumb to parallel pressures sometimes.

Of course the Liberal policies on Empire from 1905 onwards through the party’s period of office would not gain unanimous approval at a modern LibDem conference.

And yet we face some tough current questions. Do we have better answers? A current Liberal Democrat peer is on record as backing ‘resettlement camps’ in Botswana for ‘bushmen’ displaced from their traditional hunting grounds by the development of a nature reserve. According to BBC correspondent John Simpson she justified this in Hansard with references to stone age people not standing in the way of progress. The difference between this, and the justifications by our various predecessors in Imperial centuries for displacing ‘traditional unproductive cultures’, is hard to see.

Maybe the Liberal History group could help us explore this theme, which is of some relevance when discussing ‘globalisation’?

The treasonable Tory currents are explored in: Bernard Porter (2004, 4th Edition) “The Lions Share: a short history of British Imperialism.” Pearson Longman. pp 223-226.

The Botswana matter is explored in John Simpson (2007) ‘Not Quite World’s End: a Travellers Tales. Macmillan. Pp308-332. The peer he references on P322 is … well go see for yourself (not specifying until I can check out Hansard).

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Jenny Tonge (whom I suspected so strongly that I found it by looking for "Tonge" and "Botswana" in Hansard!) said:

"Unfortunately, the government are being attacked, and investment hindered, by an NGO campaign from this country to discredit Botswana and its government. Survival International, a British NGO, has been waging war against the Government of Botswana over their treatment of the San people, the Basarwa, known commonly as the Bushmen of the Kalahari. When the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was established around 1961, there were a few thousand Bushmen still in that area. They were hunter-gatherers, with ancient tracking and water-detection skills, killing animals with primitive bows and arrows—on our visit we saw some of them in action. It is very romantic stuff and sounds absolutely wonderful—the stuff of boy scouts.

Great if you are a successful Bushman, maybe, but not so great for the Bushwomen and Bushchildren, who have a right to healthcare and education and who may not want to stay in the stone age with their families; they may want an opportunity for another life."

In a debate she instigated on 13th March 2006.

Quite patronising to be sure in her own special way, but it doesn't sound like what John Simpson was implying!
Actually exactly what John Simpson was implying.

The Botswana government has carried out forced resettlement programms which include destroying wells in the desert to prevent people living there and herding people into resettlement camps where AIDS and alcoholism are destroying them.
As usual, there is harm done by both sides.

Some in the west seem to like this vision of a 'noble savage' (not that its called that today).

On the other hand, the removal of people from the land they live from is wrong.

The liberal response should be to ensure property rights are respected, in Botswana probably along homesteading principles - that is those who are using the land can claim ownership. That would give the Bushmen some certainty and if they wished to live as they do now they could, or if they wished to develop or sell the land they could.
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