Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Apologia pro Imperia nostra

There’s been something of a kerfuffle about David Cameron’s remarks in Pakistan regarding Kashmir. From the Mail we have The 650m apology; from the Telegraph Peter Oborne issues the ringing rebuke that No apology required; from the International Business Times we have the pretty blunt Britain to blame for Kashmir strife, other global conflicts: PM Cameron.

So, David Cameron went to Pakistan, accepted the blame for the Kashmir dispute on Britain’s behalf and apologised? Um, no. Here’s what the PM actually said in response to a question on Kashmir.

"I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place,”

The issue of Kashmir is a running-sore for Indo-Pakistani relations. It has also previously soured diplomatic relations between the UK and India notably, as Wintour & Watt pointed out, under the last Labour Government with both Robin Cook and David Miliband coming a diplomatic cropper on the subject. (That article is interesting in another way, referring as it does to Cameron’s visit to India last summer. There is clearly a Govt policy not to intervene on Kashmir, either in India or in Pakistan.)

Why, then, does Cameron apologise for Britain’s role? Answer: he doesn’t. He acknowledges responsibility for it, a very different thing. Britain was not, of course, solely responsible for the chaos of partition as a whole, nor the eventual position of Kashmir afterwards. Indian and Pakistani politicians (and the Maharajah of Kashmir too) played their parting the story. For maximum historical accuracy, it would have been better if Cameron had said ‘partly responsible’. But his statement remains historically accurate and politically relevant. Britain is uniquely poorly placed to intervene in the Kashmir dispute precisely because of its historical role in it.

What else might he be thinking of when he refers to ‘so many of the world’s problems’? I can think of two such examples immediately. Israel and Zimbabwe. Britain was responsible (although again, obviously, not solely) for the creation of the state of Israel, both through the Balfour declaration and through the administration of the Palestine mandate. This acknowledgement of responsibility though hardly equates to an apology. Equally, Britain has a degree of responsibility for the current state of Zimbabwe, though as with Kashmir its historical role makes any current intervention hugely problematic.

The problem, I suspect, is that we prefer our politicians not to speak obvious truths. We then, of course, complain when all they say is anodyne and inoffensive.

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