Britain can never atone for its colonial past

David Cameron spoke with unusual candour for a British prime minister a few days ago when he told university students in Islamabad: “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.” He was speaking of Kashmir, but he might have been referring to most of the globe’s war zones.

Mr Cameron’s unexpected admission of British culpability, while admirable, makes him seem like someone on a 12-step recovery programme who is not willing to go all the way. He has partially subscribed to one step: “Make a list of all the persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.” However, he is ignoring another, just as important: “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so is to injure them or others.”
To make amends everywhere would keep Cameron on the road forever, with most of his time devoted to the Middle East.
Kashmir is obvious. Imperial failure to resolve its status before Britain withdrew from the Indian subcontinent left a permanent scar along what is called the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. In 1949, the United Nations demanded a referendum that has never taken place. More than 47,000 people have died in Kashmir. The Indian government maintains its rule through the usual counter-insurgency tactics: torture, mass arrests, disappearances, militarisation of civilian life, destruction of the economy and the instillation of terror.
That Pakistan has played an equally harmful role, arming insurgents who place bombs among civilians, exacerbates and prolongs a conflict that is a running sore between two former segments of the British Raj. What can Cameron do to stop it? Admitting that Britain made a mistake is a start. Calling for enforcement of UN resolutions would also help India and Pakistan out of the impasse that neither can escape on its own. For Britain to go further, though, would probably make things worse. It has neither the power nor the mandate to employ force.
There is a myth, fostered by the historian Niall Ferguson and his Victorian forebears, that Britain acquired its empire in a “fit of absence of mind.” This falsification of history depends on a belief that British conquests accidentally made it master of one quarter of the world’s land and people, thus absolving Britain of responsibility for any chaos it caused. There is only one difficulty with this laconic vision of the old empire: it does not square with the facts.
Whether Britain was suppressing Fenian uprisings in Ireland to the extent of murdering unarmed men and women or bombarding Aden from the sea in 1839 to make its first Arab conquest, it was imposing foreign rule on people who did not want it. This violation of the right of the governed to choose their own governors sparked a revolution in British North America in 1775, and it would lead to independence battles in every territory Britain did not agree to leave voluntarily.
Behind the redcoats, gold braids and peacock feathers of global imperium lurked the sjambok, the Maxim gun and the interrogation cell. There were also economic benefits to the rulers and financial costs to the ruled. In his excellent new book on the eastern Mediterranean, The Levant, the historian Philip Mansel writes of Britain’s greatest acquisition after India, its invasion of Egypt in 1882:

“The prime minister [William Ewart] Gladstone, had a personal incentive for intervening, as he realized when adding up his fortune in December 1881. He had an exceptionally large holding in Egyptian government bonds: £40,567, or 37 per cent of his entire portfolio. Sixty-five other MPs also had investments in Egypt. Thanks in part to the British occupation of Egypt, these investments would prove to be more profitable than many British stocks.”

This puts Britain’s imperial legislators on a par with Dick Cheney, whose company Halliburton had a vested interest in a US occupation of Iraq in 2003. Halliburton shares more than doubled (to US$39.24 [Dh144.12] in 2004 from $18.71 in December 2002) thanks to the no-bid, cost-plus contracts awarded by George W Bush’s administrators in Baghdad. No one doubts that the United States was responsible for the anarchy and mayhem that followed its invasion of Iraq. Yet nostalgic imperialists defend the British occupation of Egypt, despite the bombardment of Alexandria and a form of governance that enriched British businessmen, gave Britain military control of the Suez Canal that had been built by France with forced Egyptian labour and impoverished further the Egyptian peasantry, the fellahin. The great Portuguese novelist Eça de Queiroz wrote one year after that invasion: “Egypt is now in that giant Anglo-Saxon grasp which no human force, once it has seized a foreign land, whether it is a rock like Gibraltar, or a point of sand like Aden, an island like Malta or an entire world like India, can ever again dislodge or remove.”
From Egypt, Britain conquered all of what was then Syria in 1917 and 1918. Together with the French, the British imposed borders on an area that had been unified since Roman times. Neither the Byzantines nor the Ottomans had fabricated separate states within Greater Syria, but Britain and France colonised the region from 1918 until the end of the Second World War without any reference to the aspirations or interests of its people. At the same time, Britain awarded part of the territory that General Edmund Allenby seized from Turkey in 1917, Palestine, to Zionist settlers from Europe as a “homeland” that it knew would become a state whose indigenous population would have to be removed in order for the settlers to be a majority.
In the Palestinian territories, of course, Britain could make a difference. I do not mean it should allow Tony Blair to linger as pseudo-peace envoy to salvage his post-Iraq reputation. Atoning for its disgraceful behaviour in Palestine between 1917 and 1948 would require Britain to join the world’s demand that Israel cease its occupation of the territories it occupied in 1967, return the land it has stolen within those territories to the inhabitants and absorb its settler population back into its own territory.
Britain could go further and refuse to sell weapons to Israel for use against the populace it rules in the Occupied Territories. This step would make it easier for the United States to impress upon Israel that it is in its own interest to end the occupation and live in peace with a viable state of Palestine. If Britain cannot undo the harm it initiated, it can at least refuse to prolong it.
In so many of the world’s troublesome corners – Cyprus, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Kenya (where British officials are still liable to prosecution for torture) and Iraq – a stamp says “Made in Britain”. Britain cannot undo most of the damage. It can refrain from interfering with continued support of unrepresentative, corrupt and vicious regimes. Its duty is to allow formerly colonised peoples to mobilise to govern themselves without foreign meddling.
Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books