The truth is usually bitter. But nonetheless, it cannot be wished away. When the British prime minister, David Cameron, recently admitted his nation’s responsibility in creating much of the trouble that afflicts the world today, he was merely reiterating a fact that is amply evident to many across the globe. There was no cause for the press to go into a tizzy over Mr Cameron’s remark, which was made during a trip to Pakistan. And the prime minister, too, need not have yielded to the provocation so readily. It is unbecoming of an Etonian, especially of one holding the highest office in his country, to have an outburst of scandalous proportions in public. It may well be that Mr Cameron’s history is a bit wobbly in places — his remark was made in the context of the Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir, the origins of which are more complicated than what the British prime minister insinuated — but the larger point of his assertion remains unassailable. Even school students know of the harrowing legacy of colonialism left behind by the British across Asia. So Mr Cameron was merely stating the obvious — and he was not even trying to be particularly contrite or apologetic about the deadly track record of his people. Rather than having made a “diplomatic gaffe” — as he has been accused of doing by the British media — he appears to have made a judicious comment, one that may earn him the respect of the people of those nations that were part of the erstwhile British empire.
So the spin that has been put on Mr Cameron’s remark seems to reflect a certain attitude of the British press and a section of the intelligentsia. Like most colonizers, Britain is prone to an excess of apathy or sympathy when it tries to confront its past. There is either a self-regarding complacency in its self-perception, which encourages warped notions of historic injustice. Or else, there is self-flagellating guilt, which makes a monster of every little move made by the former imperial regime in relation to its ex-colonies. Even beyond Britain, the colonial discourse, in general, has been riven by such opposing logic. Colonialism has been, and still tends to be, either valorized or demonized by post-imperial nations, depending on the extent to which they are willing to confront the apparitions from their past. As a result, the truth gets coated in vanity or righteousness — and a spade is never called a spade.