Of Vetoes and Slaves: Living in an Age of Empire

I remember hearing Stephen Noon of Yes Scotland speaking during last year’s Edinburgh Festival, referring to the ‘charm offensive’ of the UK Government:” ‘we love you, please stay, if you go we’ll wreck your economy’…sometimes we’re treated very colonially.”(see ‘The Party of I Told You So’ at http://wp.me/p4SdYV-2r ) This got me wondering at the time – to what extent was Scotland’s relationship with England – or, perhaps more precisely, London – a mirror of an empire with a colony? Intrigued by the question, I scribbled a few notes down to investigate for the Blog…but by that stage we were entering the last days of the campaign, and it seemed a somewhat esoteric issue to be researching, when everything was entering the Referendum equivalent of a gameshow’s final decider ‘quickfire round’….then promptly the result seemed to make such a question somewhat less relevant and a lot less immediate.

I’m not trying to overstate the subsidiarity, or pretend that there is some directly analogous situation between what happened during European colonialism and what has happened here in any literal way – of course not: such an approach would trivialise the experiences of Africa and Asia…perhaps in a similar way to David Starkey attacking the saltire as being some kind of swastika over the weekend (classy). But to remove some of the extremity of the situation, and those emotive terms (as I’ve said before, “We don’t need assassinations, internment, or abuse through interrogation, to make the claim of self-determination legitimate” – see ‘What price legitimacy?: The beautiful, shining example’ at http://wp.me/p4SdYV-4 ) and look at it purely in a power and commodification sense – is there any legitimacy to such a comparison?

Firstly, let us look to basic definitions, without the extremity of any examples: an ’empire’ is defined as ‘an extensive group of states or countries ruled over by a single monarch, an oligarchy, or a sovereign state’. Or, alternatively, ‘Supreme political power over several countries when exercised by a single authority’. Well, however you want to cut the arithmetic, those arguments can certainly be made for definitions of the United Kingdom – and perhaps is underlined by the howls of outrage at the very idea that the Scottish bloc vote was going to have a direct influence in the heart of government, as widely believed immediately prior to the General Election last month. This was no ‘family of nations’, in terms of the response from the centre – this was an outrage born of ‘but they are not supposed to be able to do that – not even ONCE’. Imperialist?

Colony – well, that is different. Most definitions rely less on reflections of the power structure and more on the importing of a minority ethnic component to define a colonial approach, whereas this is an attitude based outwith that. Stripping it down a little, as definitions we can have ‘A country or area under the full or partial political control of another country’, or even a definition of colonies as ‘All the foreign countries or areas formally under another nation’s political control’. The ethnic introduction is tacitly assumed as going along with a style of government that would be regarded as colonial. Within this, one can talk about ‘a colonial approach’ without talking about a ‘colony’ in the sense of people imported to live there, so that it is dealing more with where power and decision-making resides.

Which, of course, brings us to Lucy Fraser QC, with her maiden speech to the Commons last week, where she celebrated her constituency’s historical links to Cromwell, and what Cromwell did to the Scots, to ribald guffaws from her benchmates: “”[South East Cambridgeshire] is the home of Oliver Cromwell, who defeated the Scots at Dunbar, incorporated Scotland into his protectorate and transported the Scots as slaves to the colonies…Now there is an answer to the West Lothian question.” The fact that she was responding to a Queen’s Speech which was underlining the importance of extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament (whether or not there is any intention to do that is quite another matter) in the wake of an ongoing constitutional crisis that might require a little bit of sensitivity, clearly did not occur to her.

Dr Tanja Bueltmann makes a far better analysis of this faux pas than I am able to do (see http://thescottishdiaspora.co.uk/?p=2152 ) particularly with relevance to more recent forms of slavery (if it had been a Japanese politician joking about use of British prisoners of war to constructing the Burma railway, would there have been the same perception of it as acceptable, do you think?), but her comments on inappropriateness in terms of slavery, prisoners of war and death marches do raise the question as to whether simply number of years makes such abuse of people acceptable to laugh about – or is it being laughed about because it would always be seen as acceptable by a particular mindset? This, also, is a persistence of imperialism – whether an attitude to invading other countries, or retaining ultimate control over Scots…and not even thinking for a moment that such remarks might be the sort of thing that pushes more people towards independence, just a few more inches at a time – a bit like the Osbornian ‘Sermon on the Pound’ did, for example.

Perhaps, also, this imperial ‘attitude’ is also relevant in other ways – the way that the UK government sees itself is by the shadows of the possessions of its former empire: this is also why such an absurd GDP expenditure on nuclear weapons per capita occurs in the UK, that is entirely out of proportion to the size of the country or its economic productivity. And in that sense it is one of the reasons why Westminster was willing to fight so hard (the Westminster spending in Whitehall on the Referendum vastly outstripped the Scottish Government, and yet also was more poorly argued and researched) to try and win the Referendum. The potential loss of Scotland would (somewhat belatedly) confirm the disappearance of the British Empire, in a very close-to-home fashion: actually, whether one dates that from the mishandling of the Suez crisis, or the rush of former colonies to independence that was completed by the early sixties, this has been over for some time – but that does not prevent the UK being very much in denial.  This denial means that the ‘imperial factor’ continues to be one of the main drivers for independence, as Scots are increasingly repulsed by the participation of Westminster in the illegal wars of the USA, in some sad attempt to prove that ‘they still matter’ on the world stage – and this, of course, led to the first terrorist attack on Scottish soil as a direct result of us being associated with Westminster’s activity against Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, comparisons are often drawn with Ireland. Ireland was fortunate enough to leave prior to the second world war, and the collapse of the British empire’s global dominion, when ceding something so near to London might have seemed trivial – and an acceptable loss – in the broader global picture of Britannia über alles. Perhaps that is why there has been such a bitter cultural excoriation of the Irish in the post-war years, and that they regularly are used by London as an example of a bad economy (although they are still doing much better than the UK, in terms of recovery). As much as the ‘No’ campaign would trot out ‘do you want to end up like Ireland?‘ with all the scorn in their voice, they never raised the question if, for Ireland, they would prefer to be back in the Union than ‘where they are’ right now. Noone believes for a second that they would under any circumstances vote to rejoin a union that still tries to mock them so bitterly, even today, almost 100 years after they left. In this context, I was struck by how a distinction was noted between those two countries with the weekend’s football match: an advert displayed in Dublin by the Irish bookmakers Paddy Power, showed Roy Keane mocked up as Mel Gibson in ‘that Scottish film’ (see Holding the Line: ‘That Scottish Film’… at http://wp.me/p4SdYV-2W ), and pointedly paraphrased a quote from that film in advance of the qualifying game: “You may take our points – but at least we have our freedom.”

There was a certain chilling resonance to that line – and it is hard not to concede that it is true. It is there in the draft Scotland Bill: “The UK Parliament will not normally legislate in devolved areas without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, whilst retaining the sovereignty to do so.” In addition, the requirement to have the agreement of the Secretary of State of Scotland for changes in the areas proposed to be ‘devolved’ in the draft bill is an additional micromanager’s veto – a sign of some panic, if nothing else, at what Holyrood might possibly come up with – but nonetheless, as George Kerevan puts it, a “subordination” of the Scottish Parliament. So much for making Holyrood an enshrined legislature, with real powers, that could not ever be removed by Westminster, as per ‘The Vow’ – power devolved is very much power retained…especially when there is a refusal to actually relinquish a veto: those powers are not even being devolved, they are simply allowing Holyrood to propose changes, which will only get through if Westminster would have come up with them (assuming Scotland would ever have such priority for them to spend time coming up with such proposals for that territory) itself.

With this apparently being the limit to which Westminster is willing to relinquish powers to Scotland – in the wake of a General Election defeat for them in Scotland (for that is what last month was) that makes it clear that the best way to neuter the rising demand for such powers is to swiftly make a significant offer of real devolved powers – then it seems clear that they see us as part of their empire, with all the limited autonomy of a controlled colonial territory.

And here we will stay, in the powerless austerity of the dregs of the British Empire – until we finally decide otherwise.


“…pleading with us to stay because they loved us – apparently – but now we are going further and actually voting to be part of the government, they treat us like immigrants from the sub continent. Britain took over India, ran it, exploited it, made Indians work for them through enslavement and violent threat and got rich off the back of the Indians. In return the Indians got passports but encountered discrimination and obstacles when they got to Britain. Oh, we didn’t expect you to actually come to live here…” (Derek Bateman, 22/3/2015)


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