Prime Minister David Cameron took on the entire burden of British imperial history this week when talking to a group of Pakistani students. Referring to Kashmir, he said, “As with so many of the problems of the world, we are responsible for their creation in the first place.”
At one fell swoop, he also took responsibility for the Israel-Palestine problem, the partition of Cyprus, Northern Ireland, the Fijian ethnic divide, a wide array of African civil wars and, through a series of blunders, the creation of the United States. He was denounced and praised back home. The rest of the world paid no attention.
It helps that Mr Cameron is so youthful that only a time capsule resident would be able to discern a causal chain between his brand of zero-gravitas statesmanship, the Instrument of Accession and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba.
The truth is most such admissions of historical guilt are done at a time and by a person who no one can seriously associate with the original crime. As one commentator pointed out, it may have had some impact if Lord Louis Mountbatten had admitted he had made a hash of partition, but not representatives of a generation of Britons who think ‘fine wool’ if they hear the word ‘Kashmir’.
But perhaps that should be the way it’s done. Any historian worth his salt knows that no international problem can be reduced to simple blame game of one country, two ideologies, and three men and a dog. It isn’t particularly good when it comes to point-scoring: every country in the world has a skeleton in the historical closet.
Mr Cameron is thus doing the politically smart thing which is to admit blame when it doesn’t matter and when it doesn’t have credibility. The blogosphere will light up for 15 minutes and the world can go back to blaming the Britons for their more heinous crimes: mushy peas, dreary formal wear, and the Twickenham school of applause.