The Contrarian: 'Sorry' is a Hard Word

The desire of western governments, most notably those of Britain, to apologise for the actions of their predecessors threatens to simplify the complexities of history, argues Tim Stanley.

When is it right for nations to say sorry for things they did in the past? Britain has again been confronted with the legacy of her colonial period and opinions differ on whether or not she owes her former subjects an apology. Visiting Pakistan in April, the prime minister David Cameron cried mea culpa for the ongoing crisis in Kashmir. Referring to the botched partitioning of British India in 1947, he said: ‘As with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.’ A few days later a case opened in the UK High Court on behalf of four elderly Kenyans demanding compensation for mistreatment by the British government during the Mau Mau uprising of 1952-60. Their claims of torture were well-substantiated and the Foreign Office declined to issue a denial.

Saying sorry is generally a good thing; it is humbling and cathartic. But the conditions for doing so must be precise otherwise it has no meaning. Post-imperial powers certainly owe an apology for any behaviour that might be labelled ‘sadistic’ or ‘unnecessary’. But saying sorry for something that was inevitable or beyond the control of the colonial power involved seems empty. Apologising for anything that was tragic but helped to prevent something worse is altogether wrong.

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