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A BBC article today recalls the trapping and shooting to death of 379 - 1000 Indian protesters by British troops in 1919.

While Winston Churchill called it "monstrous" in 1920, David Cameron paid his respects at the memorial in 2013, and Theresa May expressed "regret" for the "shameful scar" on our history today, the BBC piece (and Jeremy Corbyn) point out this is avoidance of a formal apology.

David Cameron is quoted in the piece thusly:

He later defended his decision not to offer an apology, saying the British government had "rightly condemned" the massacre at the time.

"I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologise for. I think the right thing to do is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened," he said.

Lacking a justification this sounds empty and evasive to me. The overall stance also has the flavour of word games given how condemnatory the language and behaviour of all these prime ministers has been. What's so special about the "sorry" word specifically?

If people want it so badly, and the atrocity happened 100 years ago, surely it does needless damage to Britain's reputation to be seen to go 99% of the way toward an apology but equivocate on formalities? Even more contradictorily, David Cameron did apologise for the Bloody Sunday massacre by British troops in Northern Ireland.

  • 4
    It's been 100 years now... who cares? No one is alive today to remember this event in person. – JonathanReez Apr 10 at 22:38
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    Cynically: Northern Ireland votes for MPs in Westminster. The same is obviously not true of India. The politics are entirely different. – Kevin Apr 11 at 0:43
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    @JonathanReez Just because you and I don't, doesn't mean that others don't. Your personal opinion that nations shouldn't apologize to descendants for monstrosities committed to their ancestors doesn't stop official international organs from demanding them. It also doesn't stop countries from doing so, and it certainly doesn't stop said descendants from feeling relief. – DonFusili Apr 11 at 9:41
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    @JonathanReez everyone should. Following your argumentation, we should also forget about the holocaust, the nanking massacre, and several genocides. With this attitude it's fine to massacre whoever you please, because in 80 years no one will be alive to remember it. Not apoplogizing implies accepting and approving such behavior, and implies that the country could act the same way today, based on it's behavior. – miep Apr 11 at 9:47
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    @miep Nothing you just said follows from his argumentation. For starters, there are Holocaust survivors alive now. – eyeballfrog Apr 11 at 14:29
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This article in The Economist puts it down to concern that other victims of over-zealous colonial administrations will also demand apologies.

[The UK government] wants to avoid opening a can of worms that could see it compelled to apologise for other colonial outrages.

  • I can't see why they'd care. Forget about ethics - from a purely cynical perspective, they can say a few pro forma words at little cost to themselves and silence some criticism, and even maybe thus avoid calls to do anything more substantive. The prospect of being able to wrap up multiple colonial atrocities in one speech seemingly would make it even more appealing. – Obie 2.0 Apr 12 at 5:19
  • Yes, I wondered if there was a question of liability. Some official apologies are caveated with words to the effect that they do not constitute admissions of guilt or causes of action. – Lag Apr 12 at 12:53
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It’s not just Hiroshima: The many other things America hasn’t apologized for reports:

"We don’t apologize, ever," said Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth College and the author of "Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics." This isn't a unique facet of American diplomacy, either. "Countries in general do not apologize for violence against other countries," Lind added, noting that Germany and, to a lesser degree, Japan are outliers, as they have actually apologized.

(my emphasis)


Should a nation apologise for the crimes of its past? :

One of the most common arguments against apology is that offered by former Australian prime minister John Howard when called upon to offer an apology to Aboriginal peoples for the wrongs visited upon them since British settlement. He maintained that today’s generation cannot and should not be held accountable for the behaviour of their predecessors. Indeed, from a liberal perspective, the idea of holding people responsible for the crimes of their ancestors is deeply unsatisfactory.


People calling for apologies may have to consider their own country's past. For example, should India's current leaders apologise for the Hyderabad massacres of 1948?


Generally this can be a difficult proposition for politicians in all countries.

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David Cameron did apologise for the Bloody Sunday massacre by British troops in Northern Ireland.

Subsequently, Karen Bradley, HM Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said:

"Over 90 per cent of the killings during the Troubles were at the hands of terrorists. Every single one of those was a crime. The fewer than 10 per cent that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes.

"They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way."

For a certain kind of Tory, it is almost axiomatic that the police cannot commit crimes; anyone murdered by the police by definition deserved it. Such people are far more likely to construct "deserved it" arguments for the massacre than to apologise for it.

The current political atmosphere in the UK is one of febrile nationalism. Admitting the atrocities of the Empire is going to be very unpopular.

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