The Largely Peaceful Transfer of Power

The increasingly ridiculous These Islands project has published another one of its learned essays. If Scotland in Union is marked as a sort of cartoon of class war and pheasant plucking Toffs gleefully tossing lolly into the cause, These Islands is an attempt at an airbrushed respectability. This is your Unionism ‘peer-reviewed’ and sifted for respectability.

This is Better Together with status anxiety.

In a period marked by an extraordinary reactionary politics and xenophobia Joshua Simons writes of a Britain in language that is reminiscent of Blair in his heyday. It’s an imagining of Britishness and Britain that is as much of a fantasy as Boris Johnson’s new Britannia or Farage’s vision of an offshore haven.

Simons writes:

“Britishness is an identity which embraces pluralism, which views it as a source of strength. It is an identity resolute in its internationalism, defined and redefined over three centuries by men and women looking outward, seeking to understand the place their island should take in the wider world.”

This is a whitewash of history and a very peculiar reading of where we are today. It’s exultant, euphoric and ridiculous.

He goes on to argue that “war, religion, and trade” drove the formation of Britain’s uniquely “resolute internationalism”. It’s very strange.

He explains: “Over three centuries, war did much to bind Britons together. In a moment of war, citizens must decide whether to defend their country. ”

He goes on (and on) to drop-in individual Scots to prop up his remarkable argument.

After explaining the great success of the Defence of the Realm Acts in 1798 and 1803 (“the army grew fivefold over the course of the war, the navy almost ninefold”) he writes:

“Some fought to show courage or pugnacity, whilst others, like Peter Laurie, from a family of East Lothian farmers, thought of pragmatic self-interest. Laurie went to London to make his fortune, joining the metropolitan volunteer corps, later becoming Director of the East India Company and Lord Mayor of London.”

Later he writes:

“In the nineteenth century, men and women from all four nations – Scotland in particular – saw great opportunity in Britain’s empire. A Scot, Allan Octavian Hume, founded the Indian National Congress in 1885, and another, Patrick Geddes, inspired Jawaharlal Nehru, the founding father of modern India. The first Labour Prime Minister in the world, in Australia in 1908, was an Ayrshire miner. Though the United Kingdom is often referred to as England, the Empire is never English.”

That would be a really quite remarkable re-writing of the history of the British Empire in India, and I’m not sure I’d use Geddes of the Celtic Revival and Scots Renascence – friend to Peter Kropotkin and confidant to Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore and inspiration to Macdiarmid – as an example to prop up your dodgy retro British propaganda.

But this is Britain as utopia.

He states boldly:

“Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists are all Britons now. In a world of growing religious conflict, it is an immense strength of Britishness that it is sensitive to other identities in these islands, comfortable with religious diversity” … before later writing in some confusion:

“We should be ashamed of how we treat so many British citizens who are ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims, in our public culture. How can anyone feel a sense of loyalty to the idea of British citizenship if the values espoused in its defence – fairness, tolerance, and liberty – are often flagrantly ignored in practice? Ethnic minorities are still more likely to be poor and unemployed than the UK average.”

His grasp of history seems loose at best:

“These ideas all aim at the same end: to remind ourselves that we, as British citizens, are members of a shared political community. This means we accept that at times in politics we win, and at others we lose. Historically, this has been one of Britain’s great strengths: the largely peaceful transfer of power, even in times of great turbulence, such as the decline of Empire or the Irish Home Rule Crisis.”

Sorry, what was that?

At times it veers off course from sloppy history into complete incoherence. He concludes:

“More and more economic power is now held in fewer and fewer hands. A politics that is built on these shared challenges, rather than on a coalition of identities, may help to reinvigorate a sense of what it means to be British.”

This is academese – gobbledygook – but it’s used in this context to try to give balance – and much craved credibility to These Islands. A veneer of leftism (in their eyes) and a patina of academic respectability is the desperate aim.

There’s room for a balanced history of Britain, but Unionists drawing on the history of Britain at war, of the British Empire as a source for creating a projection of progressive citizenship, values and exceptionalism is absurd. It’s deeply insulting to the many people who suffered at the hands of British troops over centuries and its a comic attempt at creating a fantasy national identity that fails badly.

You might not recognise this “outward looking” Britain from the one  which threatened to “cripple Spain” and invaded Iraq.

The search for the elusive positive case for the union continues.

Comments (7)

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  1. Derek says:

    “the navy almost ninefold, as voluntary recruits joined the ranks”

    Has he never heard of the press? Voluntary, my arse.

  2. Carol says:

    “All articles reviewed by the advisory Council, but remain personal views of the writers.” Would love to hear what Dan Snow’s comments were….am surprised he’s on the council at all but you live and learn. My views on this wouldn’t be publishable!
    Well done on another well-written and common-sense response to a dangerous, inexperienced writer with, hopefully, a lot to learn!

  3. X says:

    Thing is there’s a big argument for the progressive elements of Britain and Union and the beneficial impacts in Scotland.

    The Chartist movement was a movement which inspired and went alongside the Radicals. The great Victorian social reformers like Rowntree, Earl of Shaftesbury, Josephine Butler and Octavia Hill. In Scotland our great moral crusades included New Lanark – founded by David Dale, Scottish Industrialist, engineered by Richard Arkwright, an English engineer, and subsequently managed by Dale’s son-in-law, the Welshman, Robert Owen.

    Keir-Hardie was shunned by the Scottish electorate a number of times before being the first Labour MP for an English seat.

    Some of the great Scottish progressive achievements of our past, since-1707, have happened because of not in-spite of Union. Yes there have been the evils of Empire. But can we argue our hands as a nation of Scots are clean? Did Scots not own and run slave plantations in the Caribbean? Join the East India Company? Steal lands from the native populations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and before that the Americas? Scotland’s major cities were imperial cities. Imperial wealth built Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. It gave an in-built market to industry, funded our Enlightenment and brought wealth back to Scotland. Was it shared well? No. But that’s a lack of redistribution – uncommon in most developed economies up tobtge 20th Century.

    As for the Empire there are the same failings of all Empires be it Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Belgian, French, German etc. Hubristic, uncaring and exploitative. The thing is we have moved past it – Britain is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation. It’s let down by a political class who pay lipservice to these things. But it is all there.

    The rise of the right isn’t uncommon here. Look at Hungary, Poland, Austria, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden – all North European and all with a hard right in varying degrees of success. Why should we expect any different? The left – in those nations, the UK and Scotland and the left parties there – are struggling to adapt a message and a policy base to a population who’re progressively worse off, down beat, more frightened and less confident than they have been in a long time due to an economic crash – strawmen pop up as the villians: immigrants, the EU, Muslims (or xenophibic Britain) etc. The left need to ditch the low-tax globalist approach of the 90s and look again at tax-and-spend and keynes and indeed at being more considerate to the issue of integration of communities to remove these worries and to create an achievable better way forward. These are shared problems within a shared history.

    Why we need to view our shared history and problems as such a stark battle between good Scotland and bad Britain is beyond me. The independence movement needs to move off the De Valera-esque cultural nationalism of the past and away from the “Scottish Exceptionalism” to the simple idea of self-determination. The history of the UK and all it was is shared and interwoven tightly with Scotland’s past and has made Scotland what it is today, to it’s DNA. To argue otherwise or stake out that Scotland stands apart from that is simple folly.

    A positive case for Union is simply that together we can achieve more – the Spirit of 45, Pay Equality, HRA, social reform, economic reform, a bigger role in international aid and development and a greater role for peace – than apart. Much like my view on why we should’ve stayed in the EU.

    What is required is political change.

  4. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Of course Mike Small thinks that, “The search for the elusive positive case for the union continues”.
    Mike believes in Scottish independence. Mike’s ‘belief’ is not a viewpoint or opinion that can be modifed by discusion, it is his faith. Mike therefore cannot see a ‘positive case for the union. It can never exist. It is a blasphemy.
    When organisations such as ‘These Islands’ and ‘Scotland in Union’ come together to put the other side of the argument to independence, Mike has a problem. Mike cannot even accept that there are people with a different opinion to himself. Ridicule is the fall back position now.
    Posh boys cant be taken seriously in Mike’s world. I dont get that logic, presumably their wealth excludes them from being listened to? To Mike, ‘These Islands’ are “Better Together with status anxiety”. Again Im a bit lost as to what ‘stutus anxiety’ is? Does Mike think wealthy successful people are anxious because of their ‘status’? I find that hard to understand. Infact I know that is just nonsense.
    Every one is entitled to their opinion, and to express it. I would have thought that if people with wealth and a good education feel inclined to express their opinion, they should be listened to with at least the same respect as all others.

    1. Clive Scott says:

      Absurd pleading on behalf of the “posh boys”. The “status anxiety” of the sharp elbowed and selfish “wealthy successful” is down to their fear and dread of a more equitable society. In their world it is an outrage that a child born into poverty should have the opportunity of fully resourced education, health care and social services. The massive flaw in the argument that people of “wealth and a good education” is illustrated by the lunatic pronouncements of the posh boys and girls in government – Brexit means Brexit; No deal is better than a bad deal; Saddam WMD and 45 minutes; Special relationship; punching above our weight (with aircraftless carriers, nuclear subs with arming codes in the stubby hands of the deranged Trump); lets spend 7Bn on the crumbling ruin that is the Palace of Westminster; double the handout to the benefit cheats of the House of Windsor. No, we have given the opinions of the wealthy hearing enough these past 300 odd years – the time is long overdue for a change to self determination for the Scottish nation state and be done with the Westminster cesspool and fetid Union.

      1. TorryJoe says:

        Excellently put Clive. People really must understand what is behind the ‘posh’ cliche. We need more awareness.

  5. Jack collatin says:

    Perhaps some contributors on here should revisit ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.
    It was the wealthy, the Kings, Queens, Empress Victoria, the Lairds, the rich merchants, the Generals, the Admirals who wreaked havoc throughout a third of the world under Empire 1.
    Certainly there were hundreds of thousands of Brits who ventured out into the undeveloped world and raped, pillaged, murdered and enslaved hundreds of millions of defenceless peoples.
    The history of these islands is one of unfettered psychopathic slaughter of innocents as Victoria’s armies led by Generals and the Nobility weaned at Eton Harrow and Oxbridge on the Classics and the butchery of the Roman Empire, committed the most horrific crimes against nations for profit and domination.
    Boris Johnson could quote Caesar’s Gallic Wars at the drop of a diplomatic pouch.
    Back home, Orwell describes what it was like to be a citizen of the Empire in ‘the North’ which excluded Scotland, btw, and for those who have not dipped into ‘Wigan Pier’, I urge them to do so now.
    Most Britons outside the Elite and their buffer zone Middle Classes lived in Third World poverty.
    According to Orwell, while the Working Stiffs in London seemed to be managing ok, Oop North, it truly was grim.
    There was no Empire ripple effect benefits for Brits North of Birmingham.
    And the further North you went, the more wretched life under England’s Empire became.
    On the eve of the launch of the QE II which my father built, with the help of some mates who did the heavy lifting, ‘the families’ were given a wee tour of the obscenely ‘luxury’ liner.
    None of us thought that we would ever be wealthy enough to be passengers; ever.
    We knew our place in the late ’60s.
    Leave school at 15 cross the road, an apprenticeship in shipbuilding trades, bred to serve, die prematurely in poverty.
    Clydebank’s cemeteries are full of working men who died in their early sixties.
    MY father just made his 66th birthday, and died of ‘blanket cancer’ whatever that was.
    Yet we still get this hoary old chestnut dragged out to justify being better together.
    Certainly our Scots forebears joined in the Empire pillaging and looting.
    We were as murderous as the English, which is sold as a positive bond between the two nations? Our mutual Manifest Destiny to rape pillage commit genocide is part of the glue that binds us to England in the 21st century? Aye, richt.
    But for those back home barely surviving , the rich, the elite. the mill owners, the Shipping Lines, financially suppressed the population, bred workers like cattle, and consigned tens of millions of ‘white men’ back here to the ‘burden of an early poverty strewn death.
    18 billion working class lads and lasses died needlessly during WWI because a Kaisar and a King fell out over a game of Royal Monopoly.
    Cannon fodder..
    We are on the cusp of monumental change.
    Scotland will reassert its independence; Self Determination is the natural state for any nation, and although Mundell, Davidson, Rennie, Neil Findlay, et al., deny their own birthright, Scotland is a self determining nation, caught in a decaying political construct, the United Kingdom.
    We shall break free eventually.
    The Unioniosts know that.
    They’re trying to hang on until they’ve sucked the last drop of oil out of the ground, and fracked the hell out of the Midlands of Scotland until it is an uninhabitable methane clogged swamp.

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