Those of you who noted the, apparently serious, idea to re-float the Britannia, un-buckling it from Ocean Terminal and letting it set sail to act as a Throwback Cruise Ship for Brexit – kinda like a xenophobia-themed episode of Love Boat, or who clocked our Foreign Secretay’s references to “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”, might not have been too surprised to hear that British Government ministers aim to build something called ‘Empire 2.0’ with African Commonwealth countries.
The overwhelming impression that large sections of the political elite have swallowed some giant amnesia tablet is growing steadily. Our very own (Dr) Liam Fox stating at the Scottish Tories shindig: “The United Kingdom, is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history”.
Re-writing history is an absolutely crucial task for Brexiteers and British Nationalists, desperately keen to establish some terrible slight that has been done against us by those Foreign Europeans and, equally, keen to make sure that any (*awkward!*) role we might have had globally / historically is gently erased.
Sometimes this goes well – as in the subtle propaganda of the London Olympics with poster boy Mo Farah (less prominent now) and the general projection of Britain as a wonderfully egalitarian and multi-cultural festival of openness. Sometimes this goes less well, as the entire Brexit cultural throw-down has bleakly revealed, or when the gentle promotion of Britain turns into something a little more triumphant, as with this from Boris in the lovely Spectator in 2002:
‘The continent (Africa) may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.’
It’s difficult to know were to begin with this level of ignorance-meets-propaganda. Off the top of its collective head Twitter quickly gave us: “Boer concentration camps. Amritsar massacre. Black and Tans. Bengal famine. Dresden firestorm. Suez. Bloody Sunday. Partitions of Ireland, India, Palestine and Cyprus. Deportation of Chagos islanders. Mau Mau uprising. Malayan “emergency”. The Aden “emergency.” The Arab Revolt in 1930s Palestine. The sinking of The Belgrano. The Iranian coup of 1953. Extraordinary rendition. The BNP. The Russian Civil War. The Greek Civil War” – though strictly speaking I think Extraordinary Rendition is a 21C loveliness that we ‘need not bury’.
In the review of Ian Cobain’s Cruel Britannia from Bella in 2013, the Reverend Nicholas Mercer (formerly Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholas Mercer) writes:
“In 2006, Corporal Donald Payne was the first British soldier to be convicted of a war crime in this country under the International Criminal Court Act 2001. His crime was the inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners held by British Forces in Southern Iraq in September 2003. He received a year in jail and was dismissed from the British Army for his crime. However, whereas a foot soldier who is complicit in torture is sent to jail – as the book reveals, for those higher up the social spectrum a CBE, knighthood or peerage await. Such is the hypocrisy in the British history of torture.”
But let’s never mind this aggressive re-imagining of our glorious past, how is this Empire 2.0 thing going to work?
Many of the less swivel-eyed loons on the case are a tad doubtful. It’s not just that (say) New Zealand is tiny, a very long way away and we’ve got plenty of lambs and butter thanks, it’s more that the Commonwealth countries already have preferential deals with the EU. The Liberals Tim Fallon has said:
“Trade with our friends in the Commonwealth is important but Boris is deluding himself if he thinks this will replace trade with our European allies. That idea is for the birds. The Government can think whatever they want but you cannot have a profitable trade policy with a hard Brexit.”
Lord Marland, chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise Council said hopefully: “When the UK joined the EU it tore up its previous agreements with Commonwealth allies and it will now need to set about rebuilding …Luckily those are old friendships.”
This creative re-imagining of Britain’s past is absolutely necessary for the fantasy projection of Britain’s future. It requires some bold spluttering by the now fully un-muzzled Tory Right, but it also requires some loyal stenography from the supposed ‘left’. The Independent’s John Rentoul, cruelly described as the chief supporter of the Dear Leader, and unrepentant, unreconstructed Blairite, wrote: “What is surprising, in fact, is how little the Brexit vote has weakened unionism in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
As the historic shifts of the Northern Irish vote is quietly ignored (Peter Geoghegan points out that the Northern Ireland Assembly Election is ninth news story listed on BBC News Uk Website: Bruce Forsyth’s chest infection is at three) the hubris and wonderful complacency of Rentoul’s ilk is an absolute godsend to any second referendum bid. It is the complacency of the comfortable and we should be careful to rouse them from their slumbers.
But as the seismic shift of Northern Ireland’s vote settles, I suggest some like John read Sara Houston:
“My background and my upbringing would say that I am not Irish. My passport is British. My family are a combination of Unionists and Loyalists. Some served in the British Army, some in the Navy, others were members of Loyalist paramilitaries. My dad grew up playing the drums on the 12th. My Granda was a Grandmaster in the Lodge. I select British when filling in forms, unless there is an option for Northern Ireland. I say I’m from Ireland when in America, and Belfast when in England, because it is just easier than trying to explain anything beyond that. I support Team GB in the Olympics but I also support the Irish team. I celebrated both Northern Ireland’s and the Republic of Ireland’s success at the 2016 Euros. I support Irish rugby then Scottish, Welsh and English (in that order because no one wants to deal with the English when they win – that is just unbearable!). I sing God Save the Queen and Ireland’s call because singing along to anything is fun. I collect mugs of the British monarchy and I say Derry because it is shorter than saying Londonderry. And I will apply for an Irish passport because Brexit sucks and I’d quite like the option to travel freely around Europe. I am and do all of these things and I am just one girl from East Belfast. Identity is fluid. It is complex. It is interchangeable and it can be contradictory. My identity is not strict or absolute in its definition.”
This is the sort of pragmatic shape-shifting identity that the 21st Century owns. The ridiculous caricature of Scottish nationalism by reject fear won’t survive a second round, and how many No voters might just ‘apply for a Scottish passport because Brexit sucks’, like Sara? Having spent forty years dismantling all of the vestiges of Britishness, what’s left?
The Love Boat?
A Grim Charade
The completely absence of consciousness of Anglo-British nationalism (they morph) is its key weakness. As Lesley Riddoch writes of Theresa May’s position:
“A fortnight before she is set to trigger Article 50 – without a bespoke deal for Scotland – she has attacked the SNP’s record and railed against their obsession with flag-waving and constitutional change. Anyone spotting Union Flag- clad delegates in the half-full auditorium for Theresa May’s Scottish Conservative conference speech will have savoured the irony.”
Aside this we have the extraordinary spectacle – the “grim charade” – as John Harris has it “of Effectively, the anti-EU posturing of old Bennites” fusing “with the Conservative party’s decision to surrender its soul to rabid Euroscepticism”.
This double-act of constitutional abdication from Left and Right is a sure-sign of Britain’s death-rattle – a litmus test of national failure.
Harris writes (‘Hard Brexit is making the case for Scottish independence’):
“…at the heart of the revived noise about independence are a set of clear points. Last time, if the case for Scotland leaving the UK came down to one shared conviction, it was this: that over the previous 30 years, politics in England had too often taken a mean, callous, small-state tilt that had not only spelled bad news for Scotland but collided with the fact that it is a country with an essentially social-democratic centre, and left it marginalised.
Today, the government’s vision of Brexit surely makes that argument a thousand times more vivid. Meanwhile, as the Labour party meets hard Brexit with the whitest of flags, it becomes even more obvious that Scotland can leave behind the worst kind of consensus politics, leading in the worst of all directions. Who wouldn’t grab that chance with both hands?”
The unionist argument is peeling apart and the terms of the debate are now reversed. How can whoever has the unfortunate position of leading the No campaign this time round possibly stand up and argue against flag-waving nationalism, splitting up unions and economic romanticism when the entire Brexit fiasco is predicated on such themes? The hard-headed case being slowly unveiled by Andrew Wilson to essentially de-couple the oil economy from the case for Scottish independence is well overdue and will undermine and disorientate the most rabid unionist spleen.