The official history of Britain is one of glory, achievement and noble endeavour. This tiny island nation, we are taught, at one time controlled an empire that covered a quarter of the globe, spreading civilisation, free trade, democracy and freedom, British values that have shaped the world for the past four or five hundred years.
This is a nation that has excelled in science, engineering, industry and war. The names of Britain’s war heroes and statesmen – Drake, Marlborough, Nelson, Wellington, Churchill et al – are internationally renowned. British industrial might led the way for over a century in productivity, innovation and invention, and Britain’s system of parliamentary democracy has spawned imitation the world over, as have British universities with their proud tradition of excellence.
Such is the greatness of this tiny island nation its mother tongue remains the international language of choice, spoken and understood by diplomats and government ministers of all the nations without exception.
It would be hard to find a published history that doesn’t concur with the aforementioned in either detail or sentiment. And yet it is a lie, a fabricated, obscurantist version of a history that in truth should be a source of shame to every right thinking British citizen.
The British state came into existence with the passing of the 1707 Act of Union joining the English and Scottish parliaments. The monarchy had already been joined in 1603, but politically, economically and militarily the two nations remained distinct, each following their own course. Wales had already been legally annexed by England in the mid 16th century via the Laws in Wales Acts, and Ireland would not be brought into the orbit of what would then be known as the United Kingdom until 1801.
The impulse behind the formation of the British state was the desire of a rising merchant class, whose power and influence had grown with their wealth, to reap the rewards inherent in larger and more powerful military’s ability to forge a larger empire by which to fund a nascent industrial revolution. The increased supply of natural and human resources required at home to fuel economic growth was also a key factor in the formation of this new political and economic entity. The resulting history since the formation of Britain has been one of war, exploitation, plunder and pillage. From the triangular trade – in which African slaves were bought and then transported to work on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas, with the goods produced subsequently transported back to and sold in Europe – to the opium trade in China, famines in India, concentration camps in Africa, Britain has engineered and perpetrated some of the most heinous and barbaric crimes against humanity ever recorded.
Yet those directly responsible, undoubtedly worthy of being labelled genocidal maniacs and mass murderers, are venerated.
Take Sir Charles Napier, whose statue sits in Trafalgar Square. This is a man whose legacy is written in the blood of the poor and wretched of India, where he spread British values at the point of a sword. It is written in the suffering of the poor and working people of this island, where prior to his posting to India he played a key role in suppressing the Chartist movement. Or what about Lord Curzon? This is another venerated British hero who made his reputation in India, brutally quelling revolt and unrest, before returning home to lend his efforts to the suppression of the movement for women’s suffrage at the beginning of the 20th century.
Then of course there is Winston Spencer Churchill, the exemplar of that British bulldog spirit responsible for withstanding the might of Hitler’s war machine, the inspiration behind Britain’s survival during the dark days after the fall of France in 1940 and up to America’s entry into the war in 1942. We are all familiar with the stirring speeches, the defiant V For Victory salutes. What is less well known is his role in the gassing of the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniya in 1925.
Back then, faced with a growing insurgency in the newly and artificially constituted nation of Iraq, Churchill, who was then Britain’s Colonial Secretary, ordered the town bombed from the air with poison gas.
If regardless of this heinous event Churchill’s racism and imperialist heart still remained in any doubt, it was reaffirmed by the statement he made to the Peel Commission of Inquiry of 1936-37, set up by the British government in response to a popular Arab uprising in Palestine over the influx of Jewish immigrants, this under a Zionist project that was already well underway.
Churchill said: “I do not agree that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more wordly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
In truth there are so many episodes of cruelty and barbarity committed in the name of the British Empire, it is difficult to know where to begin and where to end. From Ireland to India, from Africa to America, a trail of blood and suffering has been the true legacy of an organised system of what can only be described as state-sponsored murder and theft. Every statue and monument in the centre of every British town and city, every grand building, palace, and mansion, all of them were financed by wealth pillaged from Britain’s former colonies and colonised peoples.
Inevitably, Britain’s history of war and imperialism, and its current role as junior partner in service to US hegemony, has had a deleterious impact on British society at home.
That a British government was able to take the country into an illegal if not immoral war in Iraq at the beginning of the 21st century, and was able to continue in power after being exposed as having lied and dissembled in order to do so, speaks to the culture of war and might-is-right that still exists in British society, one passed down from generation to generation and so lauded in the nation’s culture.
The anachronisms of empire abound in British institutions that remain sacrosanct yet entirely unaccountable. These include the nonsense which is the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the judiciary. On the surface they appear as quaint, even benign aspects of a heritage that makes Britain unique and distinct. However, unique and distinct are not necessarily positive virtues, and in the context of a society which values progress over regress, justice over injustice, they are in fact positively negative.
Despite currently being the seventh largest economy in the world, Britain has some of the worst social indicators of any nation in Western Europe. It is home to the poorest pensioners; has one of the highest rates of child poverty; the most under-funded public health service; the most under-funded public education system; the lowest paid workers who work the longest hours; the highest paid corporate and management executives; and the highest prison population.
Following the brutal example of her US senior partner across the Atlantic, social and economic injustice is now wedded into the fabric of society in Britain. Indeed, the very notion of British society today, after three decades of the free market, is that of a conglomeration of individual self interest unhindered by any shared obligation or responsibility to the collective. The need to reverse this state of affairs has been exacerbated by a global recession that with a right wing Tory-led coalition currently in power threatens to make reality Thatcher’s infamous statement that there is no such thing as society.
Up until recently many placed hope in the election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party in 2010, believing his leadership would effect a shift to the left by Labour and offer an alternative to the politics of austerity being proferred by the Tories and their Lib Dem cohorts. But after just over a year in the role, Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls have capitulated to the Thatcherite consensus that exists within the mainstream media and within Labour’s own shadow cabinet. By announcing his intention not to roll back any of the Tory cuts and to likewise cut spending if elected prime minister at the next general election, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls revealed the extent to which Blairism, the bastard child of Thatcherism, has retained a philosophical and ideological stranglehold over Labour, in the process killing off any hope of a viable UK-wide electoral alternative to the status quo of austerity for the poor and continued abundance for the rich.
In Scotland an SNP devolved government is committed to a referendum on independence in the year 2014. Since first coming to power, first in 2007 as a minority government within the devolved Scottish Parliament, and latterly winning a huge mandate to form a majority government after the 2010 Scottish elections, the SNP have proved head and shoulders above their political opponents in Scotland in terms of cohesion, purpose, and political nous. Led by Alex Salmond, it is felt by many that the SNP have filled the left of centre space in Scottish politics vacated by Labour in the course of its shift to the right under the influence of Blairism.
In contradistinction to its Westminster counterpart, the SNP have refused to introduce tuition fees for Scottish students entering higher education, cancelled all PFI and PPP contracts within the NHS in Scotland (though PPP has been reintroduced through the back door via the Scottish Futures Trust), maintained free personal care for the elderly, free bus passes for the elderly (both introduced by Labour), introduced free prescriptions, committed to a five year council tax freeze across all 32 Scottish local councils (though this particular policy isn’t as progressive as it seems at first glance given it has deprived local councils of the ability to invest in local services and jobs, especially at a time of deep spending cuts by central government), and remains committed to ending Trident when and if Scotland wins independence.
In addition, the SNP proved consistent in their rhetorical opposition to the war in Iraq and have maintained their support for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes at The Hague. They also deserve credit for effecting the early release from prison on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, but whose conviction has always been the subject of controversy. The SNP’s refusal to bow to pressure from the US over the Libyan’s release was impressive. However their later support for NATO’s military intervention in Libya was less so.
Also less than impressive is the manner in which SNP-majority local councils have cooperated with the Coalition’s spending cuts, laying off workers and cutting investment in local services. Moreover, it wasn’t too long ago that Alex Salmond said that the Scottish people didn’t mind Thatcher’s economic policies. He also championed Fred Goodwin’s disastrous takeover of Dutch bank ABN Ambro at the height of the banking crisis, leading RBS to the brink of collapse, and was a keen supporter of bank deregulation.
Child poverty in Scotland has gone up under his administration (it is now 1 in 4), and one of the first things the SNP did upon taking office was cut back Labour’s scheme of free central heating for the elderly. Internationally, Salmond’s original vision of an independent Scotland joining an arc of prosperity with Ireland, Iceland and Norway was left in tatters when the first two of the aforementioned economies were among the hardest hit due to their over exposure to financial markets.
Wisely, the leader of the SNP has since focused solely on Norway as the economic template of a future independent Scotland, which significantly is not a member of the EU and has created a hugely successful oil fund for future generations. The high price of oil has seen Norway’s economy not only protected from being overly impacted by the global economic crisis, but register increased growth. It is an economy in which the state enjoys a large footprint, in which a strong welfare state and large public sector combines with a commitment to progressive taxation to provide its citizens with among the highest living standards of any advanced economy.
But here’s the rub. If the SNP intends to try and emulate Norway’s social and economic model, it will have to commit to nationalising the oil and other key sectors of the economy, while raising taxes for the rich, business, and high earners at the same time. This path is contradicted by the SNP’s intention of reducing corporation tax to 15 percent.
The question of what an independent Scotland’s currency would be has yet to be convincingly addressed. With the eurozone in a state of crisis, and with the EU likely to be redrawn in favour of its most powerful member states as a result, the viability of the euro as the new Scottish currency is questionable. And even if possible, how does an independent Scotland’s entry into the EU square with the SNP’s flagship economic policy of reducing corporation tax? Ireland got away with this reform at a time when the global economy was enjoying a boom. Now the situation is much different, with the EU unlikely to rubber stamp any new member state setting a rate of corporation tax as low as 15 percent.
The validity of such a policy must also be examined more closely, given what it would mean in terms of wealth redistribution. If the objective is a low tax paradise for big business and he likes of Donald Trump, this surely contradicts Alex Salmond’s recent pledge to have Scotland set a progressive example for other nations to follow.
On the other hand, if an independent Scotland were to retain sterling as its national currency, it would be in the invidious position of having its interest rates set by the Bank of England. Where would this leave the question of sovereignty? Scotland in this scenario would be entering into a position of economic vulnerability to decisions made by the central bank of a foreign country, much the same as Panama vis-à-vis the United States.
These are vital questions that have yet to be addressed by the SNP.
Constitutionally, the notion that progressives and those interested in a society based on the principles of social and economic justice should support a campaign for Scottish independence that does not include a republic among its objectives is misplaced. With an unelected monarchy still in place as head of state, Scotland’s newly won independent status would undoubtedly be compromised.
When it comes to the tactics employed by the SNP in fighting its independence campaign, reductionist analogies with historical events, such as the Battle of Bannockburn, which bear no relevance to the 21st century, do the Scottish people a great disservice. On the contrary, they open the door to anti-English sentiment, which if carried too far could have dangerous consequences both north and south of the border.
The Scots are not an oppressed minority. Indeed, the notion that the likes of the Duke of Buccleuch, Sir David Murray, Sir Tom Farmer, and Brian Soutar are oppressed because they are Scottish is risible. Nor is it possible to escape the fact that someone living on benefits in Glasgow or Edinburgh has more in common with his English equivalent than he does with any of the aforementioned names. Overall, the British establishment is made up of Scottish, English, Welsh, and Irish members, which places even more importance on the need for progressive supporters of independence to call for an end not only the 1707 Act of Union, but also the British Monarchy and its various institutions and privileges, such as the Privy Council (of which Alex Salmond is a member) and the Crown Powers.
Anything less is to invite the danger of supporting the status quo under a different flag, rather than breaking the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated the political, economic and cultural life of these islands for far too long.
This Thatcherite consensus, by the way, was delivered with the help of the SNP, which back in 1979 tabled the vote of no-confidence in the then Labour government at Westminster, thus paving the way for the snap general election that followed and Thatcher’s entry into Downing Street.
Of course this is one historical event of which Alex Salmond and the SNP won’t be eager to remind the Scottish people.