My father's courage in Kenya reduced me to tears; Man of Steel reveals how he broke down while revisiting African home.
LORD David Steel's statesmanlike demeanour has never let him down during his political career. But researching his father's brave stand during the Mau Mau emergency in Fifties Kenya, finally caused the steely politician to lose control.
The 69-year-old broke down after visiting his father's memorial stone at the Kikuyu mission station in Kenya while filming a Channel 4 documentary.
Tears streamed down his face as he read a moving account of his father's farewell to Kenya, overwhelmed by the moment and the emotional nature of the journey he had come on since setting foot in the African country 10 days before.
He said: "That was definitely my Jeremy Paxman moment, but I don't mind it being shown on TV because it was real emotion and is part of a really powerful piece of film.
"Going out to Kenya was an incredible experience for me, but one that was utterly draining emotionally. We filmed for 10 days, but I never knew what I would be doing or where I would be going two hours down the line, so every day I was being confronted with one thing after the other.
"By the time I went to the graveyard on the last day I was a little overwhelmed by it all and the account of my father's farewell to Nairobi was just incredibly emotive."
The former leader of the Liberal Party was visiting Kenya to film a programme for the series Empire's Children, which sees famous faces with family links to the former colonies digging into their pasts to discover what life was like as part of the British Empire.
Lord Steel spent four years in Kenya as a boy but it was not until he returned to the country with film-makers he discovered how his father, the Very Reverend David Steel, had saved lives during the Mau Mau emergency.
He said: "I always knew something had happened, but I was too young to appreciate what was going on at the time.
"It was also something my father never really talked about through his life and, even when he wrote his memoirs for the family, there was no real mention of it.
"So it was fascinating for me to go back to Kenya because I knew, whatever my father's role in the Mau Mau emergency was, it would play a central role in the programme because so many of his letters and documents are kept in the Kenyan national archive."
Lord Steel was 11 when he and his family moved to Kenya. His father - who died in 2002 aged 92, after returning to Scotland in 1957 - was to preside over a parish of the Church of Scotland stretching across Kenya, Tanganyiki, now Tanzania, and Uganda.
To David and his four younger siblings it was a huge but welcome change from life in post-war Scotland. He said: "It was a very happy time for us all. We had exciting adventures with elephants, I had a pet monkey, the sun was always shining and there was wonderful food to eat, especially all that amazing African fruit. It was just wonderful and totally different to what we had been used to at home."
But Lord Steel, who in 1976 became the youngest leader of the Liberal Party, aged 38, can remember being aware of the growing tension - he recalls that his father carried a loaded gun with him every time he drove out to visit his parishioners.
But after four years in Kenya, David went to school in Edinburgh while his father and mother returned to Africa. And that's when the problems really started.
Since 1952 some of the native Kenyan tribes had been rebelling against the British colonial administration. Triggered by the government helping themselves to land in a bid to encourage more white settlers, the rebels killed 32 Europeans and 2000 black Kenyans suspected of collaborating with the government.
In response, the authorities started rounding up any Kenyan suspected of having taken the Mau Mau oath and holding them for long periods without trial in brutal detention camps.
Many died from neglect or severe beatings, while others were executed.
Reverend Steel did not support the violence of the Mau Mau protest but he did sympathise with their plight.
What incensed him, though, was the response of the colonial government, especially as he believed many of those being held, some of them his own parishioners, were completely innocent.
Lord Steel said: "People were being rounded up in Nairobi and being held without a trial and my father seemed to know quite a bit about how they were being treated.
"As we discovered during the filming, he was being told about what went on in the camps by one of his parishioners, who turned out to be a member of the CID.
"The final straw came when the men of the YMCA group, based just along the street from my father's church, were rounded up and taken to the camps."
FILLED with anger, the Rev Steel began to speak out against the treatment of the Mau Mau from the pulpit, sending shock waves around the world.
And with the help from a colleague he pressurised the colonial government into releasing those people whom he believed to be innocent. Lord Steel said: "He began by making representations in writing to the government about the way the emergency was being handled but you can trace his exasperation in those letters.
"Finally, after the YMCA were rounded up in the beginning of 1955, he broadcast a sermon in which he made a very outspoken attack on the way the government had handled the emergency, which even had the MPs back home in the House of Commons talking about him.
"It was an amazing thing to do and it was incredible to think I never knew any of the detail of what he had done until I went to Kenya to film the programme.
"I had always been proud of my father but to find out what he had actually done was amazing."
Lord Steel, who himself campaigned for Scottish devolution and became the first ever Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, said the highlight of the trip was meeting one of the men freed by his father. He said: "The man had never met my father so when I went to the door and said: 'Hello, I am David Steel,' his initial response was to ask if I was the Rev David Steel.
"Sadly, I had to tell him my father had been dead for four years but it was still an incredibly emotional moment and the man, who was a carpenter, gave me a stool in thanks.
"It was the high point of the trip for me, although the programme researchers had been able to trace so many people for me to meet it had all been quite incredible.
"I even discovered that the parents of the man who is now minister in my father's old church in Kenya were two of the people my father had rescued.
"The whole experience was incredibly worthwhile."
Empire's Children is on Channel 4 on Monday, July 16. The accompanying book, Empire's Children by Anton Gill, is available from Harper Press for pounds 15.99.
'I'd been proud of my father but to find out what he had done was amazing'
MAN WITH A MISSION: Lord Steel's father, the Very Rev Steel, and his family in Kenya; ATROCITIES: Mau Mau suspects were arrested and held in a barbed wire cage
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|Publication:||Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Date:||Jul 13, 2007|
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