Enoch Powell might be an unexpected inclusion in the list, but this address to the House of Commons was nearly a decade before the “Rivers of Blood” speech. He stood before the House of Commons in July 1959 to denounce the killing of 11 rebels by security guards at the Hola detention camp in Kenya. Criticising the British government’s lack of action, Powell said that we cannot say “because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow”.
Sharpening the British political mind on Africa, Powell was a lone voice that refused to lay the blame solely on the camp commander who ordered the attack, underlining the responsibility of their immediate superiors and the Colonial Service. Although the sentiments expressed in this speech, where he looked towards the end of colonial rule, were at odds with the controversial views he later expressed, this speech remains the strongest statement of principle about Britain’s relationship with Africa ever made in the House of Commons.
It has been said — and it is a fact — that these 11 men were the lowest of the low; subhuman was the word which one of my honorable Friends used. So be it. But that cannot be relevant to the acceptance of responsibility for their death . . . In general, I would say that it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgement on a fellow human being and to say, “Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow.”
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.
Peter Wilby chose this as his favourite political speech: “I choose it because, first, no less a judge than Denis Healey called it “the greatest parliamentary speech I ever heard”, with “all the moral passion and rhetorical force of Demosthenes”, and second, because Powell’s words are so apposite to the recent controversies over Guantanamo, torture, extraordinary rendition, etc.”
Click here for a full transcript of the speech.
Next speech: Harold Macmillan, speech to the South African parliament, Cape Town, February 1960.
Previous speech: Aneurin Bevan, anti-Suez speech, Trafalgar Square rally, November 1956