In the Indian capital’s vast Coronation Park, over fifty percent a million people watched as every prince, nobleman and senior official within the subcontinent paid their respects with their new King-Emperor. At that time, resplendent in his coronation robes and wearing the diamond-studded, 34-ounce Imperial Crown of India, George V could do not have imagined that certain day a British prime minister will be talking of his ‘humility’ – not his pride – in Britain’s relationship with India. The King expected his chief ministers to operate because of their country, never to apologise for this. Yet when David Cameron travelled from Istanbul to India this week, he came perilously near resembling the Uriah Heep of international diplomacy, forever telling his hosts how very humble he was. Surrounded by the relics of the best empire-builders ever sold, from Romans and Byzantines for the Ottomans plus the Mughals, he seemed oddly ill relaxed, as if embarrassed by the idea that Britain once eclipsed all of them. He did, in the end, once call himself the ‘heir to Blair’ – a prime minister who never seemed happier than when grovelling in apology for Britain’s magnificent history.
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What a contrast it really is with another Conservative prime minister, who once remarked he had ‘not end up being the King’s First Minister to be able to preside on the liquidation with the British empire’. The date was 1942, the speaker – it will hardly need saying – was the fantastic Winston Churchill. ‘I am proud,’ Churchill said, ‘to be considered a person in that vast Commonwealth and society of nations and communities gathered around the ancient British monarchy, without that your good cause may have perished from the facial skin of the planet earth. Those words still have the energy to evoke tears of pride. Yet it really is no better to imagine Mr Cameron saying them than it really is to assume him telling Brussels to completely clean up its corruption or telling america Senate where you can stick its demagogic criticisms of BP. The simple truth is that inside our political and media class, apologising for the history is becoming an almost instinctive reflex. Since the Sixties, politicians have discovered it simpler to run-down our country, also to criticise the biggest & most prosperous empire the planet has ever known, than to operate for Britain.
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By and large, needless to say, historical apologies are meaningless. Somehow it says everything that Tony Blair found it very easy to apologise for that Irish potato famine, a meeting that occurred within the 1840s, but hasn’t quite got round to apologising for sending British troops to war on a completely false pretext. But since there is nothing wrong with showing just a little humility, apologising for the history may be the very last thing a prime minister ought to be doing – especially a Conservative one. Yes, our past leaders made their fair share of mistakes. And yes, like every nation on earth, we have lots of unsightly skeletons rattling around our cupboard. But Mr Cameron’s stop by at India, of most places, must have reminded him that people haven’t any cause for self-abasement. When Left-wing intellectuals indulge their penchant for self-flagellation, they blind themselves for the realities of past and present. Modern-day India, in the end, is really a success story built on sturdy Anglo-Saxon foundations.
Now the world’s second-fastestgrowing economy, it could most likely not even exist as the unified state were it not for that legacy of British rule. It had been the British, why don’t we remember, who outlawed Indian slavery, infanticide plus the horrendous practice of suttee, whereby widows were burned to death on the husband’s funeral pyre. It had been the British, too, who introduced to India the rule of the normal law, parliamentary democracy and, perhaps most importantly, the English language – the best asset for just about any country in today’s globalised marketplace. Needless to say, British rule had blunders, cruelties and prejudices. Yet, in comparison with another great empires, in the Romans along with the Persians for the French, the Dutch plus the Spanish, Britain’s empire sticks out being a beacon of tolerance, decency plus the rule of law. There is absolutely no episode in British history, for instance, that looks anything just like the appalling exploitation in the Belgian Congo, where ten million Africans died to fulfill King Leopold II’s lust for rubber profits.