Having told the Indians last year that Pakistan was basically a nest of terrorists, David Cameron has now told an audience of academics in Pakistan that the real problem is Britain! Not just Kashmir, he said, but pretty much all the world’s problems are our fault.
He really does like to please an audience. For once I agree with Tristram Hunt, the Labour MP and historian, who said: “To say that Britain is a cause of many of the world’s ills is naïve. To look back 50-odd years for the problems facing many post-colonial nations adds little to the understanding of the problems they face.
“David Cameron has a tendency to go to countries around the world and tell them what they want to hear, whether it is in Israel, Turkey, India and Pakistan.”
Peter Oborne is also correct in pointing out that apology does not make good diplomacy. It might make the people in the room like Cameron personally, because he has helped to reinforce a narrative which they hold dear, or which they benefit from – that Pakistan was hard done by and Britain (and India, of course) is to blame for its various failings. But that is just a narrative; Britain did many good things in southern Asia, and many bad things. Where two countries have an unambiguous history, then such contrition may be appropriate – the German chancellor in Israel, for instance – but Britain’s relationship with Pakistan is more nuanced. After all, as Oborne says, we did give them “parliamentary democracy, superb irrigation systems, excellent roads, the rule of law, the English language and, last but not least, the game of cricket”.
Apologising only builds the negative narrative, so that Pakistanis keen to play on the downsides of British rule can now say to their countrymen: “Look, even their prime minister says so.” That’s human nature. And apologising while handing over hundreds of millions of pounds in aid certainly does not encourage gratitude – only resentment.
Of Oborne’s list the most important, by far, is the rule of law. The reason the world speaks English today, not Urdu, Persian or Arabic, is that England, and a host of other, smaller countries in north-west Europe, were able to undermine traditional family, clan and religious structures and loyalties to create societies with wide circles of trust. England, the Netherlands and Denmark in particular were able to forge nation-states in which men did not rely on clans or religious leaders for protection; this rule of law, and the creation of a strong national (rather than tribal) identity, helped to bring about astonishing growth in trade, transport, education, science and medicine.
Those former colonies which have most flourished are those that have mimicked Britain. Pakistan, alas, is not one of them. Parliamentary rule did not survive military coups and Pakistan took the retrograde step of introducing Islamic law. The country has not looked forward since.
Today the constitution states that “no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Koran” while the Federal Shariat Court has the power to examine whether bills comply with Islamic law (England still has some idiosyncratic religious elements in its constitution, such as bishops in the Lords, but imagine, for instance, if a body of Christian scholars could veto legislation if it contradicted Leviticus). Meanwhile Pakistan has made little progress in nation-building, tribal loyalty is supreme, and cousin marriage – an absolute guarantor of national failure, since it retards the development of civil society – is widespread. Meanwhile the country is rated 143rd on Transparency International’s corruption index (a good measure of civil virtue, which itself is a fairly good measure of national loyalty), which means that for all the good our aid money will do, we may as well build a new Millennium Dome. Out of chocolate. In the Western Isles.
If Britain owes Pakistan an apology, it is for not doing enough to make it more British.