Perched up high in Celtic Park’s West Stand watching the dress rehearsal for the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games a number of mundane actions occurring around me rekindled thoughts of Empire. Why does Empire still frame our received understanding of Britain, and why does Scotland find it so hard to throw off that cloak even in the midst of the referendum campaign? First there were the stuttering genuflexions to the surprisingly quick run through of one verse of the National Anthem, with those in front not quite sure whether to stand up, or just remain seated. The Scotch stereotyping, saved in part, but only in part, by Calvin Harris’s White Heather Club mix, was heavy with Empire connotations. Then there was the overt tartan militarism of now long defunct Scottish regimental pipe bands, reconstituted to deliver a rendition of ‘A Scottish Soldier’. At the actual opening the Red Arrows’ red, white and blue flypast added a bit more zing to that militaristic groove, as did the presence of the real live Queen, rather than the pastiche stand-in sporting her ER II tee-shirt. So the British Empire Games, as were, reported all present and correct, sir. Did no one else clock the irony of assorted military types wading through the hordes of happy cheery track-suited people from all across the globe? And did the athletes themselves, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who secured the independence of their nations, fail to notice these less than subtle reminders of how the ‘Friendly Games’ came about?
Glasgow, as Second City of the Empire, exploded into life through exploiting past generations of these peoples. This past is reflected back at you through its Georgian and Victorian fabric and street names – Havannah, Jamaica, Plantation, Virginia. The accumulated capital and privileges extracted from cotton, sugar and tobacco funded the development of coal, iron and steel which, in turn, brought about steam ships, shipping and locomotives. It was not just this vast industrial complex that profited, but Scotland as a whole: whether the ubiquitous mock baronial Highland seat, or the splendour of Moray Place in Edinburgh’s New Town, recently featured in the Open University’s excellent ‘Secret Lives of Streets’. Access to Empire goodies largely explains why Scotland became reconciled to Union after 1707 and, in time, having a role in managing the Dominions was one of the career expectations which went along with being middle class and Scottish. Brought up in Dundee, then still with its jute industry, and living on the edge of Broughty Ferry, the Jute Lords domain, once the most prosperous suburb in the entire world, brought that home to me.
Days later, with the commemoration, or celebration, of the outbreak of the First World War, the British Empire was again offered up, this time in the military shrine that is Glasgow Cathedral. State pomp and power was parading about, and a relative of that dysfunctional family which contributed greatly to bringing about the disaster, appropriately uniformed and medalled, was on hand to take the salute. While other European empires had been swept away upon the succession of hostilities in 1919, one consequence of victory was that our Empire survived, as did that of the French. Versailles allowed both parties, along with the emergent US to reshape Europe, as they had already carved up the former Ottoman territories into appropriately sized Middle East mandates which also suited emerging oil interests, via the Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916, the Balfour Declaration 1917 and the Cairo Conference of 1921. Almost 100 years later, their manipulation of these lands to suit French and British geopolitical interests lies in bloody tatters. Europe’s League of Nations restructuring fell away much earlier with the rise and subsequent defeat of Hitler, whose power base in part came from the national humiliation inflicted by Versailles.
The end of the Second World War altered much, given the emergence of Soviet and American superpowers. France and Britain again badged themselves as victors, although American economic power and remarkable Soviet resilience through the war, which saw the loss of almost a quarter of its population, would suggest some degree of spin. Victors were each expected to play their part in managing their respective sectors of both Germany and Berlin, now inconveniently located within the vast Soviet sphere of influence to the East. All four also played their part in establishing the United Nations, alongside the Republic of China, thus taking star billing on the Security Council. Since then the 51 founding members has grown to 193.
In this new world order both the US and USSR had an interest in growing the UN through rapid decolonisation, but allegiances proved critical as the smattering of bloody post-war proxy wars and brutal coups right across the globe ably illustrated. National liberation struggles, typically buoyed up by indigenous communist protagonists, had learned much from witnessing the fallibility of Imperial military power when the Japanese captured Singapore in 1941. For both Britain and France, it was America that called the shots, given it was bailing out Europe, and one of its requirements was rapid de-colonisation to create new countries keen to join ‘the Free World’ of American imperialism which, over time, became corporatism, then neo-liberalism.
In the immediate post-war period, Atlee the leader of the victorious Labour Government maintained his strongly held anti-colonial principles whereas Bevin, by contrast, saw much merit in retaining the Empire, given it was core to Britain sustaining its status as a great power. Churchill and his subsequent Conservative acolytes, who governed from 1951 to 1964, were very much Empire men. Forced decolonisation stuck in their throats, but they pragmatically bowed to American will.
Decolonisation started very badly for Britain, but far worse for those in the Indian sub-continent. Mountbatten, another member of that family, by being fixated on bringing about Indian independence exactly two years after the war ended, helped spark the mass ethic slaughter and consequent religious polarisation that brought into being the then two Pakistans, and tensions that still simmer within Kashmir. And then there was the omni-shambles that was Palestine in 1948, leaving another weeping wound as its remaining fragments, Gaza and the West Bank, continues to destabilise the entire Middle East.
In time both the Foreign and Colonies Offices got well practised at taking down Union flags as the sun set on yet another former colony, as brilliantly recounted in one of the 90 episodes of Radio 4s Empire series, that both Departments merged in 1960 to create the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, albeit ministerial responsibilities still hark back to that imperial past. Yes, there were the awkwardness surrounding Indonesia and Malaya in the Far East, the Mau Mau rising in Kenya, Smith’s troublesome Rhodesia, and then Mugabe’s replacement Zimbabwe. Africa continued to feature with Uganda under Idi Amin, who reputedly considered himself to be the last King of Scotland, as did South Africa, and its troublesome jailed terrorist Mandela, but that all worked out happily in the end, despite some cricket disruption and fruit boycotts. France experienced different issues, with painful military defeats in Algeria and Indo China, and a staged withdrawal from French West Africa. This had a profound and brutalising impact upon its national psyche, as French cinema has long explored.
It was during my childhood that Empire quickly and quietly disappeared from the General Knowledge classes at school. First Empire was recalibrated as an enlightened project in which Britain’s interest was to secure clean water, basic schooling and the establishment of good governance through the adoption of the British model of democracy, rather than the conventional appropriation of natural resources and imposition of monopolistic trading relationships. Interestingly recent adventures in Iraqi and Afghanistan were packed similarly. With Empire all but gone by the 1970s, we stopped talking about it altogether, and the world wall maps covered in pink were discretely put away. Sunday School and Blue Peter appeals convinced us that collecting milk bottle tops was as important as Foreign Aid in helping the starving children of Africa. My mother’s threatening encouragement to clear my plate at mealtimes out of guilt for the very same starving children followed a similar logic. But Empire was still implanted deeply in my consciousness, not least because whenever I misbehaved the threat of being posted to the Hudson Bay Company was always offered up.
Militarism was another childhood constant. For the baby boom generation the war was continually being played out on TV and in the cinema, a mainstay of popular culture. Along with the Beano and Dandy there were the Hotspur and Victor plus the never-ending stream of gung-ho Commando comics pouring out from Dundee’s very own media empire, DC Thomson. Violence was thus also a constant for my generation, with belting teachers, physically unrestrained parenting and a eulogised youth gang culture. Television news was war, violence and the threat of Armageddon. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the latest gore from Vietnam on occasions broke away to reports of ‘our boys’ showing military muscle through intervening in places we had previously colonised or controlled: Aden, Cyprus, Ireland, as well as more recently in the Falklands/Malvinas or Sierra Leone. While some never became more than a news flash others, and Ireland in particular, took on the media mantle of Vietnam.
‘East of Suez” was the catch-phrase used to refer to the maintenance of a British presence in the Middle and Far East. The original rationale was the protection of the ‘sea routes’ to India, but after the war the Americans prodded Britain to keep ‘East of Suez’ going in support of their geo-political ambitions. Hence, the Royal Navy still retained a Home Fleet, one in the Mediterranean and another in the Far East, as well as the Caribbean Station. Two archipelago’s, the Caribbean and the Pacific which were well represented at the Commonwealth Games, were originally commandeered as coaling stations for these Fleets. Malaya, Singapore, Aden, and Korea proved ‘hot spots’, sucking up resources which challenged the Atlee and Churchill Governments’ programme of rolling out the new anti-Communist social contract, the Welfare State. At that time, Britain was also dealing with the financial consequentials of the wholesale nationalisation of key industries, and effectively remained still on a war footing, rationing and all, right up to the mid 1950s. But keeping up Imperial appearances had always to take precedence, despite the crippling costs.
Then Suez came along in 1956 and blew that all out of the water. Trying to secure the oil route to Europe backfired and the resulting Suez imbroglio becomes a critical juncture in this protracted tale of Imperial decline, as it so clearly demonstrated Britain’s complete reliance upon the US. Suez was the last time Britain took a military initiative without the approval of the US, and its independent role in the world came to an abrupt end. However, this reality has not been allowed to seep into British popular consciousness. Maintaining the façade of Britain as a world player has been a task entrusted to the equally imperial BBC through its Home and World Services.
The atom bomb has, of course, played a crucial role in masking the reality of Britain’s demise as a global power. But Britain’s illusion of possessing an independent nuclear deterrent quickly faded as subsequent system upgrades revealed it was merely peeking out from under America’s nuclear skirts. The same was largely true for France, but in order to keep up the appearance of independence France and Britain each projected their very own special relationship with the US. This was a world beautifully captured in the novels of Ian Fleming and the subsequent James Bond film franchise. Here clever secret service Brits, with their guns and gizmos were more than a match for the Commies and other assorted baddies, as well as the powerful if somewhat dim Yanks. This of course was make-believe: the reality was Blunt, Burgess, Philby and Maclean inconveniently revealing that MI5 leaked like a sieve.
Following the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, Polaris moved to the Clyde, not only at the US Holy Loch submarine base, but also at Coulport, where British made subs also operated with the same missile system. This was another critical juncture, this time for both British and Scottish politics. Public opposition to nukes fostered many new relationships and alliances which, over time, fed directly into the ‘Home Rule’ movement. It also gave the nationalist cause an international moral perspective, namely to rid Scotland and the world of these grotesque weapons of mass destruction. Britain’s agenda differed, and one consequence was a steady stream of disillusioned socialists moving from Labour to the SNP.
Gaitskell, along with the majority of Labour’s leaders since the late 1950s, clearly understood the geo-political importance of nukes. Bevan, long the doyen of the left, had in 1957 decried unilateral nuclear disarmament stating “It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber”. In you did not have them, then you could not retain a seat at the top table, the UN Security Council, and Britain just like France had to be there. Blair understood that when he decided to replace Trident in 2006, in direct breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But then, at least he was being open. Both his predecessors Wilson and Callaghan, along with the Conservative Prime Minister Heath, had long kept Chevaline hidden, the secret programme to harden the Polaris warhead, at a cost over £1billion during a period of high inflation. Thatcher’s desire to replace Polaris with Trident made Chevaline public, and the bill on this occasion rose to £10 billion, plus the £2 billion annual running cost. Now the cost of replacing Trident is put at £100 billion.
Labour at its recent National Policy Forum in Milton Keynes recommitted to supporting the replacement of Trident, despite 50 submissions from constituency Labour Party organisations to scrap it and another 43 Trident-related motions. The final statement issued to avoid a vote stated the Party’s continued commitment ‘to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent. It would require a clear body of evidence for us to change this belief.’ Scottish delegates argued that to say anything else would be a fillip to Yes campaign, while trade unions, even those with an anti-nuclear pedigree, buried their principles for the promise of arms jobs. But also lurking there was the fear of the tabloids and how they would paint Labour as un-patriotic, letting down Great Britain.
Although the Empire has long gone, taking out a new lease on American weapons systems allows Britain to retain the illusion that it is a big, powerful and thus important state, still able to ‘punch above our weight’. But do we? Militarily Britain has been shown to be inept, needing to be bailed by the Americans on two occasions, first in Basra, during the illegal Iraqi War, and then later in Helmand where Britain’s third Afghan campaign was being pursued. But that is just reflective of wider military adjustments. The Royal Navy has lost all its fleets and now, excluding its nuclear submarines, possesses a mere 19 major surface combatants, 13 frigates and six guided missile destroyers. Yet, surprisingly for such a small force, there is a compliment of 40 admirals and 260 captains. The army finds itself in the same boat, so to speak, in that there is a surfeit of ‘top brass’ – field marshals and generals – commanding very few ‘squaddies’. The plan to pad out troop numbers with territorial’s, to an equivalent size of the full-time force, has completely backfired. And then there are the Red Arrows. So the delusions of Empire conjure up a distinct Wizard of Oz persona. Blair’s illegal contribution to the ‘War on Terror’ revealed the ‘smoke and mirrors’ reality.
Just as the ambitions of the post-War welfare state were sacrificed in order to try to clutch onto Empire status, the austerity agenda is presented as the means to restore Britain’s greatness, but this time it’s the Empire mask provided by the nukes, not the Empire itself that is being paid for. While it was long argued that working class salvation could only ever be achieved through Labour, this ambition was sacrificed, or betrayed initially in order to hold some assemblage of Empire, the Commonwealth, and then later through having to pay to join America’s nuclear club.
Both Labour and Conservatives being equally enthralled by power, share the trappings, the cloak of Britishness, as has become so evident throughout this referendum campaign. Britain as a political entity can only be brought into focus through this Nuclear Empire lens. Thus, as hard as it might have once been to envisage, there is no irony in arms dealers, city suits, dodgy oilmen and retired spooks funding the No campaign, happily leaving Labour to front it. Empires are powerful places, run by powerful people: we are powerful people, we run things, so we buy into Empire.
Britain cannot escape Empire, as it is what defines it, as the Commonwealth Games and World War One celebrations so ably revealed. But Scotland still finds itself caught within the Imperial cloak, as for so long Empire and Scotland were also synonymous. The Yes campaign needs fully to appreciate this and from that understand just what it is up against. Scottish independence is, as Tom Nairn has long argued, a political consequence of the British Empire’s long and slow demise. But Scottish independence will also bring about a major political convulsion in the rest of the UK, as the Empire delusion finally comes crashing down. And perhaps we all, right across the globe, need to think of the consequences of a world without the British empire.