With fools like this its no wonder England is cooked.
Sorry, but it’s not right to apologise Â (Peter Osborne/Telegraph)
The Prime Minister’s mea culpa over the conflict in Kashmir is neither welcome nor wise, says Peter Oborne .
There are a number of half-decent excuses for David Cameron’s sloppy and poorly informed remarks about the role played by the British Empire in creating the conditions for the contemporary conflict in Kashmir.
The Prime Minister was doubtless seeking to please a sceptical and perhaps hostile audience, angered by our military presence in Afghanistan. There was a smidgen of truth (though no more than that) in what he said. He was in the middle of a long and gruelling trip, and may have felt tired and jet-lagged.
But it is the job of a British prime minister, as Cameron knows all too well, to stand up for his country when abroad. He could have pointed out that we gave Pakistan (and indeed the rest of the world) many splendid bequests: parliamentary democracy, superb irrigation systems, excellent roads, the rule of law, the English language and, last but not least, the game of cricket.
Had he wished, he could have added that we contribute billions of pounds of aid to Pakistan and that we have been foremost in the list of countries that leapt in to help during last year’s terrible floods.
Instead, David Cameron played the politics of apology. It seems likely that he was attempting to ingratiate himself with an audience that was mainly composed of students. But this was the wrong approach. Apologies for events in the distant past are problematic, even when fully justified by incontestable facts.
(Eddy Murphy Â would diagnose this guy as one sorry mother f*#@r……)
Problem number one is that the act of apology is meaningless. It cannot change anything. Had Viscount Mountbatten, Britain’s final viceroy in India, chosen to apologise for leaving the princely state of Kashmir to choose for itself between India and Pakistan after independence in 1947, that really would have been something. The apology would have carried real weight, and expressed Mountbatten’s personal contrition.
Second, apologies of the kind offered by the Prime Minister can do harm. This is because they encourage a culture of victimhood. The verdict of history on the 60-year-long conflict in Kashmir will always be provisional and incomplete. But all serious historians can agree about one point: many other historical actors have played their part in the recent story of this deeply troubled Indian state. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first and arguably greatest prime minister, promised a plebiscite to settle the disputed issue of sovereignty, but never delivered.
Meanwhile Pakistan, right from independence in 1947, has mischievously stirred up disaffection. But history is not some retrospective court case in which blame is apportioned and villains castigated: it is about understanding. It was more than audacious of David Cameron to leap into a minefield where the professional expert treads so carefully. It was idiotic. The sad truth is that the Prime Minister’s ignorance of the subject about which he was speaking knows no bounds.
One of the reasons for celebration when David Cameron became Prime Minister 11 months ago was the hope that he would have the character and judgment to avoid flip assertions of the kind he produced yesterday. The British imperial past is a complex matter, and it is always tempting for a British prime minister overseas to court easy popularity by trashing his own country.
Tony Blair, who had little or no sense of British history and institutions, was a past master at this kind of stunt. He never apologised for the lies and the errors of judgment that took Britain into our war with Iraq. Yet at one point in his premiership he apologised for the Irish potato famine, and at another for British involvement in slavery.
In fact, our role in slavery is a very complicated one, and certainly not susceptible to Tony Blair’s school of facile analysis. It is true that private merchants were heavily involved. But Britain was the first country to ban the slave trade, on March 25 1807, and thereafter our navy swept the high seas in search of slave traders. We acted in this highly principled and moral way in defiance of wealthy private interests â€“ it was one of the proudest moments in our history.
Yet Tony Blair was oblivious to British history, and, very sadly, David Cameron is turning out to be almost as bad. Last summer, on a trip to Washington, the Prime Minister sought to ingratiate himself with disturbingly anti-British President Obama by referring to Britain’s role as a “junior partner” alongside the United States in the war against Hitler in 1940.
The truth, as Cameron should have known, is that we and our empire (including hundreds of thousands of very brave Kashmiris, Pakistanis and Indians) fought alone against Hitler in 1940. It was only late the following year that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor jerked a very reluctant United States of America out of neutrality and into the war on our side.
One problem is that, when at Oxford, the future prime minister, like opposition leader Ed Miliband, read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a degree course notorious for skimming the surface of understanding and historical knowledge. Even so, one would expect any British prime minister, however badly educated, to have known about the year his predecessor in Downing Street Sir Winston Churchill rightly referred to as “our finest hour”.
Of course, it is right that historians should always scrutinise the British imperial record with a sceptical eye. We were far from perfect, as the stories emerging this week about our treatment of Mau-Mau rebels in Kenya demonstrate (though even these atrocity stories are much more complex than they seem). And there are numerous other cases. Of course we are open to the charge that we constructed arbitrary borders across much of the Middle East and Africa, and few would doubt that the British imperial presence across the globe sometimes contained a disturbing undercurrent of racism.
But it is meaningless to take past events out of context, as David Cameron did yesterday. As L P Hartley wrote in The Go-Between: “The past is a different country: they do things differently there.” This is the fundamental premise of the historian’s craft. We can’t assume that the sensibilities and the context of the past are the same as ours.
It remains odd that so many of our contemporary politicians seem so attracted to the most negative and unpleasant interpretations of our history. David Cameron is no exception to this rule. Indeed, he indicated as much yesterday when he remarked that “with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place”.
So many great forces have driven world events over the past hundred years: the rise of communism, fascism, globalisation, climate change, the global dominance of the United States, today the rise of China. The role of Britain in much of this scarcely counts, and nor is it all negative.
Had he wished, David Cameron could have emphasised that we don’t come too badly out of all this. We stood up against the Nazis, we fought against Soviet Russia and we stand for freedom and liberty. Compared with the French, the Belgians or the Italians, we handed over our colonial empires with good-natured and civilised ease.
The Prime Minister ought to know this. In recent months he has been talking up the Commonwealth, an institution that would not exist were the legacy of empire as malign as he seems to think. So David Cameron needs an urgent lesson in history. But he also needs an urgent lesson in patriotism.