2007 - 2021

Imperial Fantasies

First a simple but uncomfortable truth remains: “Scotland is not a colony, a semi-colony, a pseudo colony, a near colony, a neo-colony, or any kind of colony of the English. She is a junior but (as these things go) highly successful partner in the general business enterprise of Anglo-Scots imperialism. . . ”  – (Tom Nairn, The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism, 1968).

Fifty years on and we are confronted and engulfed by imperial fantasies driving us to a bizarre and economically catastrophic withdrawal from Europe and the world. But they are not our fantasies, they are not our fears and they are not our future.

Gary Younge, probably one of the finest journalists of our time, and author of Another day in the Death of America – a brilliant portrait of the tragedy of dysfunctional US society – writes how:

“Once again, Britain has overplayed its hand. Preferring to live in the past rather than learn from it, we find ourselves diminished in the present and clueless about the future.”

1966 and All That

But like many astute observers Younge is describing Britain as a single unitary coherent political and cultural entity, driven by and captured by the same forces, the same institutions and the same political figures. Whilst Anglo-British elites overlap (we have the spreadsheet, thanks David), there is no credible way in which Younge’s description can be held to be true.

Younge writes (‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’):

“Remarking on the chant “Two world wars and one World Cup” that rang out whenever England played Germany at football, academic Paul Gilroy wrote, in After Empire: “The boast to which the phrase gives voice is integral to a larger denial. It declares nothing significant changed during the course of Britain’s downwardly mobile 20th century … We are being required to admit that the nations which triumphed in 1918 and 1945 live on somewhere unseen, but palpable.”

The problem, as the sharp-eyed reader will have spotted, is that my country didn’t win a World Cup and the culture of Scottish football, and much of wider Scottish society is self-mocking, rebellious, daft, slightly ridiculous. Sure it’s full of bellicose 90 minute patriotism and drunken bonhomie but there is no possible sense in which you could argue that it’s reflective of a loss of status, empire or power.

There is no equivalent of the See You Jimmy Hat at Wembley.

Younge continues: “…while the Brexit vote was certainly underpinned by a melancholic longing for a glorious past, the era it sought to relive was less the second world war than the longer, less distinguished or openly celebrated period of empire. For if memories of the war made some feel more defiant, recollections of empire made them deluded. Our colonial past, and the inability to come to terms with its demise, gave many the impression that we are far bigger, stronger and more influential than we really are.”

Who really did feel stronger and more influential than they really were?

How influential are you feeling having voted 62% to remain in Europe?

Scotland had a role in British Empire – but it has a different relationship to that history. It has a different political culture, a different political institutions and a different political trajectory.

To describe Britain as a collective entity, as the far-right of the Conservative party hatch a plot against Therese May to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement in pursuit of their ideology is absurd.

There are no Scottish MPS in the Brexit cabinet. Not one.

This is not a nationalist point, it is an issue of understanding our times and the forces directing them.

In one sentence Younge describes how: “It took Britain and France overplaying their hand, in punishing Egypt for seizing the Suez canal from colonial control and nationalising it, to realise their imperial influence had been eclipsed by the US and was now in decline.”

In the next he cites the West German chancellor at the time, Konrad Adenauer saying: “France and England will never be powers comparable to the United States”.

Britain and England are not the same. Scotland exists. Wales exists. Northern Ireland and Ireland exist.

The forces driving Brexit are English nationalism. This is about a crisis of English identity and economic failure and political intrigue.

The greatest irony is the line: “At some point they convinced themselves that the reason we are at the centre of most world maps is because the Earth revolves around us, not because it was us who drew the maps”  – and yet the writer remains blinded to his own anglo-normative worldview.

As Anthony Barnett points out in The Lure of Greatness, probably the best account of the Brexit crisis so far:

“Different forces, tangible and intangible, were at work. These included immigration, the refugee emergency, the effects of austerity, the outrageous rip-off of the financial crash, the loosening of loyalties thanks to the internet, the undemocratic nature of the EU, the implosion of social democracy. The popular response to these forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland was to seek closer relations with the EU, with more and better continental solidarity. A similar response came from London, the global city. But across the more numerous England-without-London, an overwhelming majority was for Leave and carried the day.

This is the central fact of the referendum’s outcome. All the wider influences were concentrated into the force-field of the English spirit. There, they reinforced each other in the prejudices, longings and judgement of English voters across their land to create a decisive majority for Brexit, one that overwhelmed the proportionally larger majorities for Remain in the cities, the capital, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was undeniably England’s Brexit. To understand why this was so, is to understand why it happened.

The heart of the answer is the unique, hybrid nature of Anglo-British self-consciousness. This goes unchallenged by what can be called England’s ‘defining classes’ (its media and cultural intelligentsia) who adamantly refused to be English. Or ‘merely English’ as many put it.”

It is not just that Brexit has been self-described as ‘liberation day’ or that many English voters see Brexit in relation to and often in competition with the ‘iniquity of devolution’, nor is it just that we are witnessing a constitutional power-grab as we speak, but that so many commentators fail to even acknowledge or comprehend this phenomenon.

Brexit is in Barnett’s words: “as the people living in the debris of their land, watching on their screens the new skyscrapers of London rise and shine. The debris is not poverty or lack of money but something intangible and inescapable: the end of Great Britain.”



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  1. Finlay Macleoid says:

    I am so pleased Tom Nairn wrote that Scotland was not a colony and he was as right as he could be. What he didn’t say was the Gaelic speaking areas were a colony and have all the markers to prove it. Destruction of the Gaelic language and then supplanted by the English language firstly through the protestant churches and then by the Scottish school system. The take-over of its land and then of course the Highland Clearances and finally the appropriation of its history, dress and identity plus an array of cultural and heritage products, some of whom are very, very profitable indeed and acted out as it they make no taxation at all.

    Clearly Colonialism did not come to Scotland but it did come to the Gaelic speaking areas in bucketfulls and we still live with it today.

    Fancy an estate or two for shooting or planting trees or showing off to your friends. But of course you will need the money not only to buy the land but the big house that goes with it as well.

    1. True Finlay, its much more complicated than I laid out – and there is both self-colonisation and real-world colonisation within the “UK” as you describe

    2. Me-Bungo-Pony says:

      Scotland is not a colony in the imperial sense. But in effect, it has all the hallmarks of a colony.

      The local population is gradually, very gradually, being supplanted by migrants from the larger neighbour as Scots have to leave to make a life for themselves while incomers sell their “council flats” in SE England to buy large properties in “picturesque” Scotland mortgage free (obviously not all are in that situation but I stereotype for dramatic effect). Looking at a heat map of Scotland’s demographics shows large parts of the Borders/Galloway and the Highlands where incomers make up nearly 50% of the population. Incidentally, the same map on Wikipedia shows the lowest concentration of incomers around Dundee, Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Dunbartonshire. I don’t think that is unrelated to those areas being where support for independence was strongest.

      There is no malice in these people moving their lives to Scotland. It is not a shadowy UK govt policy to “deal with the Scottish business”. They are perfectly nice people (I’m married to the daughter of very nice, though Tory voting, English incomers) simply trying to make a better life for themselves. But that is what colonists do. They move into another country and gradually supplant the local population. Before you know it, they are calling the shots.

      I don’t make that last comment lightly. Scotland is, I’m sure, the only country in the world where the overwhelming majority of the top jobs in its many quangos, institutions and public organisations etc are held by incomers. Such a thing is unheard of in any other country on the planet. There are relatively few Scottish accents in the higher echelons of these organisations. Indeed, after the 2014 referendum, a couple of jobs did go to native Scots and fears were raised by loyalists about the “Scotification of Scotland” as if it was intolerable that Scots should be given such jobs when there are perfectly good English people who could have them. Almost as if it was “dangerous” to let the natives have too much control of the public sphere in their own country. A very “imperial view”.

      So no, Scotland is not an “official” colony. But, in effect, it is. Not by force of arms or even policy. Simply by being part of a greater, asymmetrical union where we have no real political power over our destiny. Very gradually, Scotland is being anglicised. Fairly soon, Independence will be virtually impossible to achieve and Scotland will be no more a nation than Northumbria or East Anglia.

      1. Paul F Cockburn says:

        “Scotland is, I’m sure, the only country in the world where the overwhelming majority of the top jobs in its many quangos, institutions and public organisations etc are held by incomers.”

        Has anyone actually checked this? Just asking…

        1. Alf Baird says:

          Paul, I checked this out for the university sector in Scotland, and got into trouble at my own institution because of my efforts, which were published in Scottish Review a few years ago. At the time, of the 19 university principals in Scotland only 2 or 3 were Scots. The composition of senior management teams was not that different, i.e. Scots tended to be a minority. I also looked into the position of academics across about 30 departments within the ‘elite’ universities in Scotland and found in most of them that less than half the academics were Scots, whilst some had only a handful of Scots. Of course all the academic jobs in Scotland, as with most of our top jobs are advertised outside Scotland so many shortlists do not have any Scots on them, as I found in practice. What was and is especially worrying is the paucity of Scots PhD students moving through higher education here, as probably in excess of 90% of PhD students come from outside Scotland, which also ensures that future academics in Scotland will not be Scottish. My other concern about what is effectively discrimination against Scots related to the emphasis of elite universities in particular to focus on giving an increasing number of undergraduate places to higher fee-paying students from outside Scotland. My conclusion was and remains that the Scots and Scotland have lost control of the universities here.

      2. Jack collatin says:

        You think, ‘Me Bungo Pony’?
        Append your real name to this rubbish if that’s your firm belief.
        Scotland will be self Governing within the next five years.
        Lovely thoughtful piece, Mike.
        ‘The English’ aren’t our enemy, the Establishment, the ‘Untouchables’ are.

        1. Alf Baird says:

          Jack, nobody said anything about ‘enemy’, however me-bungo-pony is right on the money about the high propensity (80%+) of people from rest-UK to vote ‘No’ and also to vote for pro-union parties. 67% of secondary teachers in the borders and 58% in Dumfries & Galloway describe themselves in the statistics as ‘white – other British Isles’ (i.e. not Scottish) and this is in part reflective of wider movements of people from rest-UK into these and certain other parts of Scotland. This also indicates why or who votes for the likes of the pitiful Mundell’s; i.e. it is predominantly not Scottish people. http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/12/9271

          The teaching stats also show large 45%+ shares of overall secondary teaching staff comprising inflows of self-described ethnic ‘white – other British Isles’ teachers in most rural areas throughout Scotland – e.g. Perth & Kinross, Stirling, Aberdeenshire, Orkney/Shetland, East Lothian, Moray, and first out the box in 2014 with a ‘No’ vote – Clackmannanshire. Lets put this another way – in most parts of rural Scotland around half or more of the secondary (and primary) teachers are not Scottish, they are teachers from rest-UK. These are all areas that, with very few if any exceptions: (a) voted No in 2014, and (b) tend to vote in Tory or LibDem MP’s/MSP’s and definitely not SNP. Further, the population census trend suggests your prediction of self governance to be rather doubtful, assuming this is sought via another independence referendum.

        2. Me-Bungo-Pony says:

          I like being Me Bungo Pony though Jack. It’s been my on-line id for over 10 years. Besides, my wife doesn’t want our windows panned in by loyalist nut jobs such as the George Square riot types or the anonymous poison pen writer who sent me hate mail when I had a letter published in a local paper. Furthermore, how do I know you are Jack and not “Judith” or “Mary”? There is no guarantee you, or anyone else on-line, are using your real name.

          By the way, I hope you are right about Scotland getting independence within five years. I’ve been advocating it all my adult life. I merely pointed out, in this thread, one of the reasons why we need it. Scotland’s national identity is not guaranteed forever while we remain in an increasingly asymmetrical union with a far larger, though friendly, neighbour.

    3. Tommy Aikenhead says:

      ‘Scots’ and ‘Gaels’ are not and should never be interchangeable terms. The destruction of Highland culture was an inevitable result of encroaching modernity, hastened by the outrageous abuse of the fealty of the Highland Clans by the Stuart monarchy. The destruction of antiquated ways of living had been occurring across Europe for centuries, and ‘the Scots’ and ‘the Gaels’ would go on to demonstrate just how brutal such processes would become across the globe, as they played a key role in establishing white settler colonies in the Americas, Antipodes and Africa.

      Just a tad of irony here Mike, you argue Scotland is different from the xenophobic Brexit English, then precipitate a discourse of how awful those ‘incomers’ are for our pure wee heroic land of lochs and hither. No wonder the indy bandwagon has broken down with such gossamer thin analysis of our history and our current situation.

      1. “precipitate a discourse” … hmmm.

        Point me to where I say anything about awful incomers?

  2. Crubag says:

    It’d be interesting if someone did some regional analysis of the EU vote in Scotland – I’ve not seen any.

    From the 62/38 split, there does seem to be a lot of regional variation, possibly from similar issues as in England, possibly not.

    Edinburgh was 74/26 Remain/Leave, but Glasgow 67/33, dropping to 60/40 in Dundee. Wealth East Renfrewshire was 74/26, but Highlands 56/44.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:


      When the EU referendum results were issued they were on a Westminster constituency basis. Every constituency in Scotland voted remain. The narrowest result was in Moray where the difference was, by ageing memory, a little over 100 votes. The Common Fisheries Policy was a strong factor there and in much of the north east and Northern Isles.

    2. Jamie MacDona!d says:

      What would be even more interesting is a breakdown of leave voters in Scotland who were born elsewhere in UK.. As Alf Baird points out later on in the comments (and the population surveys support the fact), that we have had many more settlers move here since devolution and in my experience not too many are pro EU nor pro Indy..
      Also experienced the top jobs going to English place men too in a division of Scottish power a few years after it changed from SSEB- I was working for an agency and at college at the time-an older guy who had been there some years said the abbreviation stood for Social Security for English Bast..ds!
      To Finlay’s comment- Scotland was mostly Gaelic speaking in the past, the old place names all over the country are evidence of it.. Newton Stewart in the south west had to recruit extra English teachers in 1840s due to the high use of Gaelic in that area, which I suppose makes most of Scotland a colony, sure feels like it about now anyway.

    3. MBC says:

      In parts of Edinburgh (Morningside) the Remain vote was as high as 90% according to Ian Murray, MP (Edinburgh South).

  3. John Rutherford says:

    Great article Mike. I find it difficult to understand the Scottish Unionist indifference to this English/ British phenomenon.
    I used to work abroad and once in Piraeus I saw a shop with flags of the world on the window. Under the Union Jack was ” England”.
    In Leicester once, discussing music, an English friend chose Elgar as his favourite composer. I said, “nice choice, probably your national composer”. Looking puzzled he said “and yours”. ” No, I’m not English,” says I, “I’m Scottish”. “Well, that’s English!” he says.
    Worst one was when an English colleague after a Clyde trip on the Waverley paddle steamer described it as the last ocean going paddle steamer in England.

    Thing is, this kind of thing must happen to Unionists too. I would bet that they make no comment. But would still consider themselves ” Proud Scots”.

  4. Eoin says:

    “Britain and England are not the same. Scotland exists. Wales exists. Northern Ireland and Ireland exist.”

    Funny, Britain and the UK aren’t the same. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and not Britain. Ireland (the State) is part of neither.

  5. Alf Baird says:

    “Scotland exists”?

    Scotland was put to sleep in 1707, as far as the ‘UK’ or anyone worth talking to internationally is concerned. ‘No’ voters decided to switch off the alarm clock which briefly rang in 2014. Whether Scotland ever wakes up again is debatable.

    Constitutionally, and therefore legally, however, Scotland is not a colony. That is the only thing we have to thank the 1707 Scottish Commissioners for and their Treaty and Act of Union with England. Though as things stand this seems rather academic…… or until such time as the majority of Scotland’s MP’s, who can undo the union, decide to undo it.

    It is institutionally that Scotland exhibits the three main characteristics of a colony in that: (a) Scotland is controlled by an ‘administrative Power’ (i.e. Westminster and more specifically England’s 500+ MP’s who can do with Scotland as they please, and they do); (b) Scotland is exploited economically by that ‘administrative Power’ and its laws and supporting elites, and; (c) Scotland has historically been occupied by settlers from the ‘administrative Power’, this being particularly evident amongst the professional classes (i.e. all Scotland’s top jobs tend to be advertised outside Scotland) and, as the census tells us, this in-migration appears to have accelerated since devolution, Scotland lacking in any controls over immigration to/from ‘its’ territory. (see: http://newsnet.scot/archive/brexit-vote-underline-scotland-not-country-colony/).

  6. Lochside says:

    “Two world wars and one World Cup”……….Next time we play them…we should chant ‘200,000 deid and nae world cup’. It won’t make any difference to them, but it might inform the unknowing 55% nawbags of how many of our young men were lost to secure ‘two world wars’. Twice the ratio of our population to england’s.

  7. Fay Kennedy says:

    What a dog’s breakfast. Then dogs eat their own vomit don’t they. But we’re all British init? Naw we’re no.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    Perhaps part of the problem (of representative democracy in general) is that just as we have different personas for attending football matches, talking politics in the pub, at work, study, home and so on, we have a separate and quite underdeveloped persona when voting. We just don’t have much practice at this kind of decision-making, and it may be simpler just to transfer some template from one of our other mental compartments.

    Unless we can vote with our integrated selves, bringing to bear our full attention, relevant skillsets and manifold experience, we are likely to fall into the kind of caricatures that the electoral system seems designed for. Not that the general public has much chance to contribute to policy, but at least we can train ourselves to handle greater complexity, and demand it in popular discussion.

  9. Darren Smith says:

    ‘The problem, as the sharp-eyed reader will have spotted, is that my country didn’t win a World Cup and the culture of Scottish football, and much of wider Scottish society is self-mocking, rebellious, daft, slightly ridiculous.’

    Hwa s like us!… says the sheltered middle class voyeur who has clearly never or rarely been to either a football match in England or Scotland. The sheer lack of self awareness in this statement (more worryingly a genuine belief) is troubling. Scotland, like England, is not a homogenous whole. For what it is worth, I disagree with Younge, Brexit has less to do with English fantasies of Empire (any more than I believe there is something inherent in Prussia/ German culture vis a vis fascism etc.) but more basically the loss of agency in a fast changing global world to which Scotland is not immune (or do you think Scottish nationalism and it’s malcontents are somehow immune?). Only 56% of Yes town Glasgow voted in the Brexit ref – and the margin was not large. The areas where most Remain votes were cast was in No voting areas. Due to the large abstention from Yessers, proportionally (per capita) more Englash voted to remain.

    Lazy piece.

    1. I’ve been going to watch Scottish football for about forty years.

      Lazy comment.

  10. w.b.robertson says:

    meanwhile, London is the place where the majority of citizens were not born in UK. A capital city where most folks are foreigners! Which might explain why London voted strongly “remain”, like Scotland.

  11. MBC says:

    Sad that Gary Younge shares this mindset. Yet I find that black and ethnic minority Englishmen are little different in respect to Scotland than the standard white variety. They share exactly the same prejudices and misconceptions.

  12. BSA says:

    Not quite colonialism but I do wonder why BBC 1 Scotland feels it is appropriate to devote 2 hours of this evening to the (English) FA Cup Fourth Round featuring Notts Forest and Swansea and why they similarly scheduled earlier rounds featuring their non league clubs. Beats me why people tolerate the presumption in that especially considering the BBC’s laughable budget for Scottish football. l

  13. William Low says:

    As has been suggested on another post the time is now for the SNP to act and pass the legislation withdrawing Scotland from the union. We can no longer continue with the farce of a Tory government in Westminster. Please SNP use you majority for the Common Weal and let us go!


  14. Graeme Purves says:

    ‘Crown Possession’ comes closest to Scotland’s real status within the United Kingdom.

  15. Brian says:

    Excellent piece, and has clearly stirred up some difficult questions.

  16. RTRQ says:

    ” 1966 and All That But like many astute observers Younge is describing Britain as a single unitary coherent political and cultural entity, driven by and captured by the same forces, the same institutions and the same political figures. Whilst Anglo-British elites overlap (we have the spreadsheet, thanks David), there is no credible way in which Younge’s description can be held to be true. Younge writes (‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’): “Remarking on the chant “Two world wars and one World Cup” that rang out whenever England played Germany at football, academic Paul Gilroy wrote, in After Empire: “The boast to which the phrase gives voice is integral to a larger denial.

  17. Jeel says:

    Brexshit is a project backed by many, including the 1850s imperialist fantasists.
    The fantasists of Greater England.

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