The reporters who heard Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron tell Pakistani students this week that Britain was responsible for "many of the world's problems ... in the first place" seemed to think he was joking. But it's a measure of how far Britain is from facing up to its own imperial legacy that his remarks were greeted with bewildered outrage among his supporters at home.
The prime minister should not "run down his own country", declared the Daily Telegraph, the authentic voice of Tory England, warmly endorsing instead the insistence of his Labour predecessor, Gordon Brown, that "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over". In reality, no such apology has ever been made.
Cameron was responding to a question about the Kashmir conflict — a product of Britain's partition of India in 1947 — and was clearly anxious to avoid antagonising either Indian opinion or his Pakistani hosts. "I don't want to try to insert Britain in some leading role", the prime minister explained, with a modesty that eluded him in the buildup to Nato's intervention in Libya.
But his critics were having none of it. Cameron was being naive; he was playing to the gallery, they said; there was nothing to be guilty about — and, anyway, imperial history was all very complicated. So the exposure of a 50-year British government cover-up of official documents detailing the systematic brutalisation, starvation, torture and castration of thousands of guerrilla suspects during the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya in the 1950s couldn't be more timely.
This was a counter-insurgency war in which hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu were interned in concentration camps and tens of thousands killed. Half a century later Cameron's government is resolutely refusing to compensate survivors on the outrageous grounds that responsibility for any crimes by the colonial authorities passed to the new Kenyan government after independence.
But of course Kenya is only one of multiple grim British imperial legacies, a string of which are at the heart of the most inflammatory confrontations of the modern world. It's not just Kashmir and the Pakistan-Indian standoff. The Israel-Palestine conflict is the direct result of British colonial policy, as is the infamous Durand line that divides Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then there's the toxic colonial carve-up of the Arab world and Africa along arbitrary state boundaries, and the colonial divide-and-rule of ethnic or religious groups that continues to haunt the post-colonial world.
Many of the world's most intractable conflicts are in former British colonies or protectorates: from the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, Kurdistan, Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Cyprus and Sudan — with the reflex imperial resort to partition a recurrent theme. What Cameron said in Islamabad can't seriously be disputed. Of course, the colonial legacy is only one part of the story, and Britain's is only one of the colonial empires whose baleful inheritance can be felt across the world. But the failure in modern Britain to recognise the empire for what it was — an avowedly racist despotism, built on ethnic cleansing and ruthless exploitation, which undeveloped vast areas and oversaw famines that killed tens of millions — is a dangerous encouragement to ignore its lessons and repeat its crimes in a modern form.
What's needed are not so much apologies, still less declarations of guilt, but some measure of acknowledgement, reparation and understanding that invasions, occupations and external diktats imposed by force are a recipe not for international justice but continued conflict and violence, including against those who stand behind them. The United States has of course long preferred an informal empire of indirect control, punctuated by military intervention and temporary occupations. And the former European colonial powers, notably Britain and France, now follow a similar approach.
So it is that the British military has found itself back in its old colonial haunts, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Palestine, and now over Libya, which Britain occupied in the 40s and 50s, maintaining its military presence until Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969. They've been joined by Italy, which carried out its own genocidal campaign of repression when it ruled the country before the Second World War.
As the Obama administration appears to have opted for an ‘intervention-lite' strategy in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters, Africa's one-time European colonists are taking the lead. Meanwhile France is now involved in three shooting wars simultaneously for the first time in more than half a century: in Afghanistan, Libya and Ivory Coast. France, the former colonial power that has staged multiple military interventions in Africa since decolonisation and long backed one side in the ethnically and religiously divided Ivory Coast, is the last state to be carrying out such a mission. It can only increase the likelihood of renewed civil war. Just as the European powers built their empires in the name of Christian civilisation, modern liberal imperialism flies the banner of human rights. President Nicolas Sarkozy has hailed the new drive for western intervention triggered by the Libyan uprising as offering a new model of ‘world governance' based on the ‘responsibility to protect'. So long as it remains a pretext for the same powers that have dominated and divided the world selectively to enforce their will, it will deliver neither protection nor rights — but only reinforce the imperial legacy.