Should David Cameron Apologise for Amritsar?
By Sean Gabb
On Wednesday the 20th February 2013, I was asked by the BBC to comment on David Cameron’s “apology” to the Indians for the events at Amritsar in April 1919. A few hours later, I found myself on air with Keith Vaz MP, who was a Minister in the Blair Government. Without transcribing my words from the recording, here is what I said:
“I do not expect the Prime Minister to apologise for what happened at Amritsar. No more do I expect the Indians to apologise for the Black Hole of Calcutta, or for the bestial atrocities committed by the sepoys against British woman and children during the Mutiny.
“However, while there are doubtless Indians who get a thrill from watching the grandchildren of the white sahib grovel in the dust, this apology or semi-apology is really about British politics. Whether Conservative or Liberal or Labour, we are ruled by a cartel of cultural Marxists. Part of what they are about involves rewriting British history as a catalogue of shame. That alone explains why our leaders keep going about the world, apologising to every group of foreigners who may think they have a grudge against us. I am proud of my country and of its history. I want no part of this.”
To put it mildly, this is not an opinion heard very often on the BBC. But I was then asked about the principle of historic apologies. Instead of discussing the principle more than in passing, I took the opportunity to say this:
“Mr Blair may have apologised for the failure of the Irish potato crop. I wonder, however, when he and Gordon Brown and all the others will apologise for lying us into the war with Iraq, and when they will apologise for all the Iraqi people who were killed in that war, or who had their arms and legs blown off. I note that Mr Vaz was among the enthusiastic projectors of this war. When will he and his friends stand up and admit that they are liars and scoundrels?”
Mr Vaz had taken my earlier statement rather calmly. He now said that I was unwilling to apologise to the dead, but eager to defame the living. He insisted that no lies had been told to us before the Iraq War. He added that “people should not use radio in this way.”
I would like to have said more, but was not able. First, there was the scheduled length of the debate, which allowed only short statements. Second, there is the nature of the BBC. This is the main propaganda outlet for the British ruling class. Though it is required by law to go through the motions of providing balance in any debate, it made sure to give Mr Vaz twice as much air time as I got. Third, and partly in consequence, I knew that every sentence I uttered might be followed by an abrupt switching off of my microphone. This has happened on several occasions, and I needed to make sure that everything I was saying made sense in terms of what I had said already, and did not require further clarification. Fourth, I was contributing to the debate from abroad, in a place where my Internet connection might go down at any moment. These considerations made for a very abbreviated statement of belief. They also forced me into an apparent contradiction – a denunciation of apologies for past alleged atrocities, combined with a denunciation of alleged atrocities in the present. What I will do now, therefore, is give a more connected case in writing.
I will begin with the principle of historic apologies. Always considering the nature of the acts in question, and the time that has elapsed since they took place, I see nothing in itself wrong with the principle. It is often mistakenly applied. Take, for example, Pope John Paul’s apology in 2000 for the Crusades. Since these were a Byzantine and Latin response to a second wave of Islamic aggression that culminated in the taking of Constantinople and two sieges of Vienna, I see no reason for an apology – except, perhaps, for incidental atrocities such as the taking of Acre in 1191, which was followed by a general massacre: or perhaps, bearing in mind how long ago this was, and how many other massacres there have been, there may be no reason to apologise even for this.
Or, if – as in the case already given, of Acre – the principle may be correctly applied, the apology is unbalanced by apologies from the other side. Keeping with the example of the Crusades, I am not aware of any apology from any Moslem in or out of authority for the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, or for the massacre that followed the eventual taking of Constantinople in 1453. Islam has been spread mainly by the sword, and then by various forms of state discrimination against Christians until they converted. I do not think the average Moslem is even capable of admitting this fact. I do not agree with any of the British and American interventions in the Islamic world after about 1956. But I do accept that there is now a third wave of hostilities between Islam and Christendom; and unilateral apologies for past actions put us at a moral disadvantage in the present.
Now, I can almost hear the clatter of libertarian keyboards as the barest principle of historic apologies is dismissed. How can any of us be held responsible for things done by other people, and often long before we were born? The answer is that I am not a very orthodox libertarian, and I do accept that nations are corporate entities that exist over time. I do not accept this in a very strict sense. I do not, for instance, accept that the German people, between 1933 and 1945, were jointly and severally responsible for the actions of the Hitler regime, and were deserving of indiscriminate punishment – which means I do not regard the bombing of places like Hamburg and Dresden, or the ethnic cleansing of Germans from East Prussia and the Sudetenland, as acts of justice. But I do believe in a vague corporate identification of individuals with their nation. I am proud, therefore, of the suppression of the slave trade by the British State in the nineteenth century. I am proud that Bacon and Locke and Newton were Englishmen, and bask in their reflected glory among the principal architects of our modern civilisation. By the same reasoning, I feel a certain unease about our often questionable behaviour in Ireland. The lack of an effective response by the British State during the potato famine has been overstated. But there was probably more that could have been done after the scale of the crop failures became evident.
This being said, historic apologies can and sometimes should be made. Therefore, it was right for the German and Austrian States to apologise for the murder of all those Jews and others by the Hitler regime, and to make redress. I am not sure about the endless and exaggerated – and possibly self-interested – guilt of the German ruling class. I certainly do not think the actions of one dictatorial government, during fourteen generally troubled years, should blind us to the astonishing cultural and technological achievements of the German people since about 1700. In the modern world, German civilisation is comparable only to that of England. Where music is concerned, German greatness is in the same class among the other European nations as Everest is among the Himalayas. But those who take pride in the genius of their fathers cannot overlook their crimes. The Hitler regime is a blot on a shining record, and any balanced assessment of the Germans must take every fact into account.
I come now the events at Amritsar in 1919. The agreed facts are as follows. In 1919, the Punjab was in a state of serious unrest. The city of Amritsar was placed under martial law. On the 19th April, a crowd of between 5,000 and 20,000 natives gathered in the city. Brigadier Reginald Dyer went, with 150 mostly native troops, to disperse the crowd. He ordered his men to open fire, and they continued firing for ten minutes, leaving between 379 and over a thousand dead.
I do not regard myself as an expert on the history of British India. However, though not recently, I have read The Life of General Dyer, by Ian Duncan Colvin (W. Blackwood & Sons Ltd, London, 1929); and, more recently, The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day, by Nick Lloyd (I.B.Tauris, London, 2011); and I once looked through the seven volumes of the official report into the events (“The Hunter Report”). The truth appears to be that the Punjab was approaching the edge of insurrection. A few days earlier, there had been serious rioting in Amritsar, in which many natives and several Europeans were killed. In most places – and especially in South Asia – the difference between a peaceful gathering and a bloody riot is often one of time and internal provocation. Dyer had not expected the crowd he went to disperse to be so large. He and his men panicked.
This is not a defence of Dyer. Indeed, it is worth admitting that he seems to have changed his story more than once afterwards. But there is no reason to suppose that his actions were unusually wicked. As I have said, South Asian crowds are prone to rioting; and firm action at the outset is often the only way to prevent greater bloodshed later. This is the settled policy of the modern Indian and Pakistani and Bangladeshi Governments. It has been the policy of every power that has ruled any part of the Indian subcontinent for any length of time. If Dyer is to be condemned, so are innumerable other foreign and native military authorities. And most of these are much more to be condemned than Dyer. The condemnation of Dyer, therefore, should be seen less as a revulsion against the shooting of unarmed civilians than as part of the founding myth of the post-1947 Indian Republic. This requires British rule to be painted in the darkest shades possible, and for independence to be seen as an obvious blessing.
On this point, it is worth quoting Nick Lloyd:
“But looking at the violence in the Punjab in 1984, and at the scale of the action taken by the Indian Army, gives the lie to the accusation that the British ruled the Punjab with anything approaching the iron fist of legend. It was not just the events of 1984 in and around the Golden Temple that showed the level of brutality that the Indian state was capable of…. Even if one considers the British response to have been disproportionate or overly brutal, the number of dead and wounded from the disorders remains tiny when compared with the vast numbers who became victims of the struggles in the 1980s…. This was the reality of democracy in India, a far more volatile and unstable type of rule than the British imposed, and which showed its dark side in dealing with the Khalistan [Sikh homeland] problem. But Congress won the battle of history and still distorts our view of the Punjab under British rule.”[p.62]
Having gone this far, I feel obliged to make some wider mention of the legitimacy of British rule in India. My view of the British Empire is that it was a misfortune for the British people. Between about 1660 and 1970, we paid higher taxes for its conquest and defence than would have been otherwise the case. Many of our ancestors died in its wars. It was always a distorting influence on British foreign policy. In the 1900s, it magnified our disputes with Germany so far as we made alliances with France and Russia. These were partly excessive reactions to the building of a big German fleet. They were also made necessary by the need to secure India and the Middle East once we had decided to concentrate our forces against a perceived German threat. The needs of Imperial security made it much more likely that we should eventually find ourselves in a European war with Germany. Though I regret our second declaration of war on Germany in 1939, the needs of Imperial defence prevented our full concentration of forces against Germany. This made war both more certain and more disastrous for all parties. After 1945, the slow collapse of the Empire was a continual drain on our national attention and other resources, and forced us into a much closer dependence on America than would have been required by fears of a Soviet threat to our own country.
The commercial advantages of the Empire were at best zero. Some people gained greatly from its conquest and defence. But the same can be said even of disasters like the Great War. It is the overall balance of enrichment that counts. In 1914, our trade with America and Germany, and even Argentina, dwarfed our trade with India and the white dominions. Against all this must be added the creation of an Imperial ruling class that corrupted the government of England, and, once the Empire was gone, then set to work on recreating England as another unaccountable despotism.
On the other hand, for the conquered peoples, British rule was an unparalleled blessing. For the first and only time in their histories, they had a government that tried – and generally tried with success – to be just and moderate. India in particular gained from British rule. It got a reasonably honest administration, and the benefits of English law and of western science and education. No one who looks at India under Aurangzebe and under Queen Victoria can regard the change as other than for the best for the great majority of the Indian people. Seen purely from the right of the conquered peoples to life, liberty and property, the only disadvantage of British rule was that it finally came to an end. And this is the truth even taking into account the bloodshed of the initial conquests and of the maintenance of British rule. Every imperial power that ever existed has governed by the sword. No other has ever unsheathed the sword so reluctantly and with so many compensating benefits.
I could rest my case here. There is no reason, on the principles I have stated, to apologise for the events at Amritsar. They do not rank with the holocaust, or even with the Irish potato famine. And they were now a long time ago. I do not think anyone who suffered there is alive or would otherwise be alive. But I did not speak on the radio only about these events. I accused the British Government of a purely domestic agenda in making these historic apologies. Briefly stated, my argument is that, at least during my lifetime, the British ruling class has been trying to insulate itself from any but an imaginary accountability to us. It has done this by ruling from behind a fig leaf of international treaties and multinational organisations. The European Union is its main current excuse for making laws without our consent, and enforcing them in ways alien to our traditions. But there is also the Council of Europe, and the United Nations, and NATO, among others. These bodies have no real powers of compulsion. Their workings are heavily influenced by the British ruling class. Their commands are taken as binding here with only a show of reluctance.
Our rulers have pre-empted opposition to these policies by a deliberate balkanisation of the country. In a free society, there would be some movement of peoples; and many incomers would be alien in their appearance and ways. At the same time, the incomers would have skills desired by the natives, and would find themselves under strong social pressure to conform to – or simply not to challenge – established ways of life. What we have had, however, is a state-sponsored mass-immigration, largely of profoundly alien paupers. State sponsorship has involved generous welfare benefits, and laws compelling association on terms almost wholly favourable to the incomers.
The natural result has been a gathering collapse of liberal democracy. One of the main reasons for this is that a reasonably homogenous nation state may not be democratic, but it can be democratic. People who have a common identity will often conceive common interests, and stand together against a government that does not respect these interests. They may also trust each other with political power – confident that differences over economic or other policies will not be carried to the point of civil war.
This is an argument accepted within a significant strand of classical liberalism. A century and a half ago, John Stuart Mill stated the argument about as clearly as it can be. In Chapter 16 of his essay On Representative Government, he says:
“Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another. The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, do not reach them. One section does not know what opinions, or what instigations, are circulating in another. The same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect them in different ways; and each fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state. Their mutual antipathies are generally much stronger than jealousy of the government. That any one of them feels aggrieved by the policy of the common ruler is sufficient to determine another to support that policy. Even if all are aggrieved, none feel that they can rely on the others for fidelity in a joint resistance; the strength of none is sufficient to resist alone, and each may reasonably think that it consults its own advantage most by bidding for the favour of the government against the rest.”
A further twist in the ratchet – and this has been applied by the cultural Marxists who only inherited a set of tendencies already set in motion by the previous ruling class – has been to make any expression of national pride by the native peoples of this country disreputable. This includes, as I have said, turning our history into a catalogue of shame for which we must endlessly apologise to the world. If they could do it with a straight face – or had any awareness of it, bearing in mind their usually piffling knowledge of history – I do believe our present rulers would apologise to the Italians for the burning of London by Boadicea.
It is for this reason that, while they remain valid in the abstract, there must be a strong presumption against any attempt to apply the principles stated above. Even where – as in the case of the Irish potato famine – there is some case for an apology, we must keep continually in mind the very sinister agenda that it may be serving. Staying with the Irish case, given the resources available in the 1840s, it was practically impossible to prevent great suffering in Ireland when the potato crops failed. There were also ideological constraints on the Peel and Russell Governments that prevented much help that could have been given – ideological constraints, I will add, that were wholly correct in the wider sense. Even so, no one can call the resulting horrors one of the finest passages in the history of England. But the apology that would be a noble thing from a normal state must be regarded with at least suspicion when it comes from the actual British State. It helps to legitimise a generation of Sinn Fein/IRA terrorism, and contributes to the demoralisation of the English. And, as with the Moslems, I am not aware of any reciprocal apology from the Irish Government for Irish atrocities.
I come finally to the Iraq War. This was a war projected and carried out by people who are still alive. It was projected on the basis of evident lies. It was carried out in a manner that amounts to one long atrocity. When we conquered India, the Indians got two centuries of better government than they could have managed for themselves. When we helped conquer Iraq, we enabled the wholesale looting of the country, and left the Iraqis with a failed state. With the example of Iraq still before their eyes, our rulers then did the same to the Libyan people, and seem eager to do the same to the Syrian people. And, though I have not yet mentioned it, I have not forgotten the earlier aggression against the Serbian people. When I suggested that Mr Vaz and his friends should apologise for Iraq, I may have been far too gentle. Given all the known and probable facts, I should have called for impeachments and stern punishments – and punishments by act of attainder, since the normal laws have been made inadequate.
I wish I could have said all this on the BBC last night. But spoken essays – and from people like me – are not part of public sector broadcasting in the modern age. I should simply be grateful that I was allowed to say what I did. I should also thank Mr Vaz for his moderation in the face of my deliberately inflammatory comments. Most other politicians would have exploded on air and had my microphone turned off before I could draw breath to finish saying my piece.