Seumas Milne: British Empire Did More Harm Than Good

Roundup: Talking About History

[Seumas Milne is a Guardian columnist and associate editor.]

The reporters who heard 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...

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