The Prime Minister appeared to distance himself from the imperial past when he suggested that Britain was to blame for decades of tension and several wars over the disputed territory, as well as other global conflicts.
His remarks came on a visit to Pakistan, when he was asked how Britain could help to end the row over Kashmir.
He insisted that it was not his place to intervene in the dispute, saying: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”
His remarks about Kashmir were greeted warmly by the audience of Pakistani students and academics, but drew accusations from historians that the Prime Minister was wrongly apologising for Britain’s past.
Daisy Cooper, the director of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, said: “This is typical of the UK’s schizophrenic relationship with former colonies where it is both proud and embarrassed about its past. The Coalition has said that it has big ambitions for a modern Commonwealth and the UK should stop being embarrassed about its colonial past and they should work with other countries to help improve their human rights.”
Tristram Hunt, the Labour MP, historian and former television presenter, 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.”
Mr Cameron’s apparent willingness to accept historic responsibility for the Kashmir dispute has echoes of public apologies issued by his Labour predecessors.
In 1997, Tony Blair apologised to the Irish people for the famine the country suffered in the mid-19th century. And in 2006, he spoke of his “deep sorrow” at Britain’s historic role in the African slave trade.
In 2009, Gordon Brown issued a formal Government apology to tens of thousands of British children shipped to Australia and other Commonwealth countries between the 1920s and 1960s.
In the same year, Mr Cameron said that Britain should do more to celebrate its history, writing: “We must never forget that Britain is a great country with a history we can be truly proud of. Our culture, language and inventiveness has shaped the modern world.”
Sean Gabb, of the campaign group Libertarian Alliance, said Mr Cameron should not apologise for Britain’s past.
He said: “It’s a valid historical point that some problems stem from British foreign policy in the 19th and 20th centuries, but should we feel guilty about that? I fail to see why we should.
“Some of these problems came about because these countries decided they did not want to be part of the British Empire. They wanted independence. They got it. They should sort out their problems instead of looking to us.”
Mr Cameron’s remark is striking because he has previously spoken of his pride in Britain’s past and named Viscount Palmerston as one of his historical inspirations.
As foreign secretary and later prime minister in the mid-19th century, Palmerston was popular for his brazenly interventionist foreign policy, an approach that later became known as “gunboat diplomacy”.
Mr Cameron was in Pakistan to make amends for any offence he caused last year by accusing the country of “exporting” terrorism.
Kashmir has been contested since 1947 when India was partitioned. The original borders were drawn up by Viscount Radcliffe, a law lord who became chairman of the two boundary committees set up with the passing of the Indian Independence Act.
He submitted his partition in August 1947 and the two nations were created.
While some historians say that makes Britain responsible for the dispute, others point to Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir in 1947.
Despite an expectation that Muslim areas of the subcontinent would become part of Pakistan, he decided that Muslim-majority Kashmir should be part of India.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir since partition, and the dispute continues to strain their relationship. On a visit to India last year, Mr Cameron was criticised when he said Britain should approach its former imperial possession “in a spirit of humility”.
As well as Kashmir, some historians say Britain bears historic responsibility for other international disputes.
Many trace the Israel-Palestine dispute back to Britain’s decision in 1917 to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in the territory then known as Palestine.
The borders of many Middle Eastern states were also drawn by Britain. The badly-defined and highly unstable border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan was also largely defined by Britain in the late 19th century.
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