On Colonialism and Lesser Britain



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46 replies

  1. I had to force myself to read this, it very hard to grasp some of the language used, thank goodness for online dictionaries, but having read it and understood some, if not most of the points, can I just say amazing use of language wonderful piece. I think I see the sun-setting as we speak…. 🙂

  2. I appreciated this article but I did think it could be far better expressed! Better sentence structure!

    Jenkins doesn’t actually mention devo max. You are imputing this to him. He mentions federalism and though he doesn’t define it, it is clear he means fiscal autonomy and fuller powers than Scotland has at present as for instance when he refers to the US constitution by which Texas does not tell Colorado to re-write its drugs laws or when Madrid doesn’t tell the Basques about their taxes.

    It’s equally clear Jenkins misunderstands that fiscal autonomy won’t be coming to Scotland any time soon as when he fondly imagines we will have fiscal responsibility for income tax and that this will give us something significant. Smith’s proposals will only enable us to control 30% of our revenue. And what about collection? That’s a big question for me. Setting up the fiscal machinery to gather tax directly in Scotland as is being set up at the moment for the stamp duty would be a huge step forward in the way of federalism and home rule. Will HMRC collect income tax for us then send it back?

    In the US each state is free to make whatever laws it wishes, including on taxes, as long as they are conform to the US constitution and meet with democratic approval. But there you have it, the missing piece that would make sense of the British polity – a written constitution. That’s the elephant in the corner. Traditionally Britain has had a suspicion of written constitutions for the precise reason that everybody else likes them – because they are a check on the power of the executive.

  3. Thank you for the comment. I shall reflect on your observation on sentence structure; it is a sobering corrective to any complacency I may have indulged following the too kind response of ‘bowanarrow’!

    I do not wish to follow that remark up by trying to ‘score points’; I feel the tendency to do so damages the flow/value of debates in these columns, and is too readily used; so perhaps we are not referring to the same Simon Jenkins article? In any case, regarding DevoMax, on 17th December Jenkins writes: “Relations between Scotland and England will never settle until an agreed constitutional autonomy – “devo max” or “indie-lite” – is formally in place”.

    Best wishes to all contributors for Christmas and the New Year.

    • John – thanks for your article. Since others have mentioned it, I’ll just say that the language is highly latinate and that’s absolutely fine. I wouldn’t bother (despite your gentle ironic reply) about anyone who is concerned about your expression and ”sentence structure”(!) nor from another who is a stranger to the use of conjunctions.

      You speak interestingly of ”The British “imperial secret” ”. I’d simply say that the secret is that Scots have been essential in running that empire despite being part of ‘Lesser Britain”.

      Spooky, isn’t it?

      I will comment that your interesting article has the flavour of history from above, of ‘great men’ deciding the fate of Britannia and nations; a little more recognition of the role of the wealth producers – the people – might have been helpful.

      Above, you often quote Dicey, though to a Scot his comments are devalued if not irrelevant for he tiresomely conflates ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, which always grates, does it not? His English exceptionalism is unaware of events in 1603 and 1707 and is thus fatally undermined, at least in ‘Lesser Britain’.

      • Totally agree on your point about ‘history from above’. That said, constitutional and legal history are necessarily largely written from above, due to those fields concerning books, negotiations etc that are commonly hidden from the ordinary people or – as we know – misrepresented to them by their rulers.

        On quoting Dicey – my interpretation was that John was using Dicey precisely because the latter’s constitutional and cultural absolutism forces him the unwanted logical outcome of offering support for independence. Dicey is useful because he’s hateful. Or, to be exact, because he is both principled and hateful.

        In similar logic, the importance of Scots in running the empire was (is?) not in spite of being part of ‘Lesser Britain’, but because of it. Empires and emperors from ancient China onward have understood ‘divide and rule’ not in the petty sense of dividing a single enemy into factions, but in the sense of offering a real improvement in life prospects to some of the most ‘loyal’ of the conquered peoples. Thus in the British context Scots loyal to the Union crown were central in administering eighteenth to early twentieth century Wales, whilst Welshmen whose religious nonconformity made them suspect at home were central in running the slave trade prior to American independence.

        Hence Cardiff’s Butetown, Strathnairn Street, Ninian Road, Glenroy Street etc etc, and the large number of black Americans called Jones and Davis and Williams.

        A final question for John. It’s serious, not rhetorical, incidentally: Why include the word ‘slow’ in your final summation? I presume there’s a reason – everything else in the article has a logic to it – but it doesn’t look to me like you’ve explained it. Thank you for the article.

      • Your points are well made. Why do I think the death of Lesser Britain is slow?

        First, I think it fair to describe the Scottish people generally as being essentially (small ‘c’) “conservative”, whatever their politics. I do not believe this will change, therefore it is important to maintain an agreed, incremental momentum drawing in support from Scots from the widest spectrum of political thought; save only those who will never change, many of whom are probably at heart unreconciled even to the continuation of Holyrood. This approach just recognises what I would term the required ‘suasive realpolitik’ in order to succeed, and the limitations.

        Second, the Scottish Enlightenment reflects an interpretation of the world that has had a long an powerful influence, casting its remarkable shadow over thought, society and politics in Scotland over almost three centuries; it is perhaps best described as offering a theory of change based on ‘evolutionary gradualism’.

        Indeed, even Scotland’s ‘left’ radicalism is relatively conservative; only in Scotland would the most articulate political radicals of the early 20th century typically turn out to be teetotal, pacifist, schoolteachers; or the stoutest practical radicals prove to be ordinary mothers organising rent-strikes in the First World War, or running ‘socialist Sunday-schools’.

        I believe the 45% result in the Referendum was an astonishing success in Scotland, far beyond my expectations of what might be achieved two years ago; it marked a watershed moment, a turning-point in the appetite for politics and for change in Scotland. This success was critically important and should not be forgotten. The work has begun, but it is not finished. Therefore I believe the ‘disappointment’ felt about the result, while understandable for some, is unnecessary. If there is to be reflection on the immediate past the focus should be on what has been achieved, and much more important, on the potential; what can yet be achieved, without being side-tracked into unrealistic short-term expectations that will not be met. Thus, the underlying instinct for ‘gradualism’ in Scotland will not, I believe, change significantly. The direction of travel nevertheless has been set, and the long term decline of Britain is now better understood in Scotland.

        Incidentally, I hesitate to refer to Wales as the scope of my knowledge is limited; but I think the Earl of Bute achieved his influence there by marrying the largest coal-fortune in Britain.

    • You are quite correct, my apologies. Caused by not having a paper version in front of me and having to juggle between screens. Or else from memory. But the gist of his article is that he conflates devo max and indy lite with federalism despite apparently understanding federalism. It’s a sincere attempt to understand us, but it just does show how little people down south understand about devolution. In fact, I’m not sure how much Scots understand devolution; this was a point made by Smith.

      https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/79417/Scotland_analysis_Devolution_and_the_implications_of_Scottish_Independan…__1_.pdf

      Crawford and Boyle in Annex A above follow Dicey in his view of the incorporating union, which incorporated Scotland, apparently, but not England!

      An interesting adjunct to the Liberal Unionists like Seeley were the Liberal Imperialists like Lord Rosebery who believed in Home Rule All Round. This saw the British Empire as a liberal progressive force a kind of brotherhood of man which was capable of delivering autonomy to all in its fold once they had reached political maturity. They argued for Home Rule for India as well as Ireland and Scotland. Their vision was never achieved but something like it did materialise in the form of the British Commonwealth.

      • I am delighted you raised Crawford and Boyle, which I think may be considered an essentially unconvincing ‘opinion’; and since it is the official British government position it raises the perhaps unkind thought; is that the best they can do? The Crawford and Boyle ‘opinion’ has been rejected by Scheffer and by Douglas-Scott, who also refers to Sir David Edwards.

      • I forgot to add this on Dicey, which reflects also on Crawford and Boyle. This is what Dicey actually writes of the 1707 Act of Union:

        “Up to the year 1707 there existed an English Parliament sovereign in England, and there existed a Scotch Parliament sovereign in Scotland. These two sovereign bodies in negotiating the Treaty of Union acted with scrupulous, and on the Scotch side with punctilious, independence. Neither sovereign body would consent to be absorbed in the other.

        What they did agree to was to constitute a new State, namely, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and each to surrender their separate sovereignty in favour of a new sovereign, namely, the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom. The English Parliament no more became supreme in Scotland than the Scotch Parliament became supreme in England. The old Parliament of each country abdicated and lost its identity in the New Parliament of Great Britain.” (Ch.VII, p.244)

      • Thanks Nosuch for your many interesting points which I will chew over – but will spare you my conclusions as over these days I will ‘have drink taken’.

        On divide and rule -you say ”Thus in the British context Scots loyal to the Union crown were central in administering eighteenth to early twentieth century Wales,” . I didnt know this about Wales -among many things I didnt know.Thanks. ‘Sic a parcel o’ rogues…’ we are. I did know about Churchill ordering non Scots troops into Glasgow to threaten the people.

        ”the importance of Scots in running the empire was (is?) not in spite of being part of ‘Lesser Britain’, but because of it.” . Yes indeed.

        You say ”Dicey is useful because he’s hateful.” Yes, in the way that Urdu speaking Enoch Powell is useful – he has values even if they are repugnant. So did Thatcher who did what she did.

        However, this I cannot thole, ”Empires and emperors from ancient China onward have understood ‘divide and rule’ not in the petty sense of dividing a single enemy into factions, but in the sense of offering a real improvement in life prospects to some of the most ‘loyal’ of the conquered peoples.”

        Nosuch, do you really think that the British occupied (say) India, that ‘jewel in the crown’ for the good of the people? To improve their life prospects? Really?

        Let me cite an example; in my father’s city of birth, Calcutta, a British induced famine in 1943 caused the death of 3 million, to the indifference of that great Empire loving hero, Churchill. Anecdotally, I’ve seen the Scots tea plantations in and around Darjeeling, but it would be impossible to convince me that these plantations were for the benefit of the occupied peoples. Imperialism is the most ferocious form of capitalism is it not? Even capitalists would agree.

        Mother Teresa and Empire have long been exposed as frauds – I can’t believe that you subscribe to the ‘benefits’ of occupation.

  4. Personally I am expecting 30+ SNP MP’s next May to tell them where to go. Then they can have their “solemn and very British ritual”.

  5. Wow. Not an easy read! I was very tempted to take up a sub-editor’s blue pencil and simplify those long meandering – yet also poetic – sentences. But I think I get the gist.

    The British establishment-state simply cannot evolve, despite appearances to the contrary that may have impressed less attentive observers (i.e. most of us!). It cannot mature in the way called for to address successfully 21st century relationships. This is true ‘both ways’: vis-à-vis Europe as well as vis-à-vis Scotland. It has learnt how to let go bits of the periphery when it has to, but it is in order to preserve inviolate Westminster’s sovereignty. The British State, having never undergone a true transforming shock in its heartland (like a 1789 for France, a long drawn-out war of independence for the Netherlands, a risorgimento for Italy… ) can’t find in itself those values required to build a lasting federal polity, one (like in Germany for instance) where power is distributed and respect is mutual.

  6. ”The British State, having never undergone a true transforming shock in its heartland”

    Wouldn’t you count the ’45 rebellion or the (so called’) English Civil war or the Chartist Movement, Lawrence? The birth and growth of the Labour Party? The current Labour Party would however tend to confirm your point about inability to evolve, for the British State does endure, surviving the recent bid to change it.

    None of these, I’d agree, had the impact of the French Revolution, but they did transform.

    • The English Civil War was almost 60 years before the British state existed, although it was some 40 years after the union of crowns.

      • Well maybe not, Dean. The Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1603 under a Scots king as Head of State(s) as you know.

        And the ‘English’ Civil war started in Scotland.

        See The Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

    • Bothy, the Civil War was certainly decisive in that it assured the ascendency of Parliament. Royal autocracy would never prevail again (contrary to neighboring France – where it survived, so that the resulting later explosion was bigger). And I guess 1688 cemented the edifice. But I don’t see it as a true transforming shock. Our Parliament has spent the better part of 800 years accruing power to itself (from above) while giving away as little as possible (to below), which makes it so damn hard for the House of Commons to even envisage an elected second chamber that would leach some power away from itself. Yet for the Union to survive there must be a more federal dispensation, so we are stuck.

      I wouldn’t consider the Chartists transformative, compared to what happened in 1848 elsewhere in Europe, but the rise of Labour Party is a good candidate, its true. And yet….. look at today’s Britain.

      new subj:
      JSW – don’t take all these grumbles about your literary style to heart! OK, some of it ain’t exactly pellucid, but see how much interest you have aroused. As another commentator wrote, this is an article worth re-reading. It made us think. In terms of content, it is one of the best that Bella Caledinia has carried in a long time. Well done!

      • I’m sceptical of the idea that the Labour Party qua party changed anything substantially. Had it retained its embryo form as a ‘representation committee’ rather than becoming a conventional political party by the vote of its MPs alone after the 1906 election then we might have expected serious constitutional change from it. In fact, Labour politicians – with a vanishingly small number of honourable exceptions – have been less imaginative and radical (in terms of policy as well as constitution) than any of their opponents for most of the party’s history. Except when persecuting the left, which the Labour Party has often been very proud to do on behalf of the Conservative Party and the media.

      • Thanks Lawrence,

        but this is a puzzle – ”Our Parliament has spent the better part of 800 years accruing power to itself ”.

        Who is ”OUR Parliament’ of 800 years? There has maybe been an English Parliament for 800 years, but not a British Parliament, which came into being in 1707. Perhaps your North American perspective has distorted your view on history, absorbing English rather than British history. No worries, it’s quite a common misperception. It’s your loss.

        Yes I agree the Chartists were not transformative, sadly. Like Occupy Wall Street, it was not a political party and was doomed to failure, despite its great ideals.

        You say ”we are stuck.”. No Lawrence, we are not and that’s the whole point is it not? Fatalism is not a Scots trait.

        On ”Royal autocracy”- I prefer the French solution…it is unambiguous…..

      • Well, you are right of course. By “our Parliament” I was thinking as an Englishman. And it is as English that we are stuck. The Scots are luckier. You are not.

        In summary I am a reluctant Yesser. I would fain see a Union that survives but I know that for it to do so, the Westminster establishment must find in itself the ability to think big, to decentralize, to cede power to an elected second chamber… and it just cannot. The WM establishment is both rigid and I think in last resort brittle. Not to mention deeply corrupted (vide the paedophilia + cover-up scandal ongoing 30 years – what a stench of putrefaction that throws off). In fact ever since 1776, whenever the Empire was faced with the choice of sharing power or ceding territory, WM chose the latter.

        So I believe independence for Scotland is but a matter of time, and (being 1/4 Scot also!) I wish Scotland well.. Happy New Year to all!

  7. Definitely not an easy read, in fact, it will have to be re-read several times. There is a certain magnetism about the piece which demands a return. A nut shell was mentioned, I would have liked a pointer as to the writers take on Lesser Britain’s final chapter; how long will the death throes of the Empire last and when will Scotland finally ‘withdraw’?

  8. Gibbons you ain’t.

    “But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”

  9. Oh dear. I found this really heavy going. I persevered but wonder how many people gave up after a few paragraphs. I think I understood what the author was conveying in this article but would it not have been better to write in a style that can be understood and appreciated by a wider audience? This literary ‘showboating’ may be appreciated by a few but will certainly annoy or worse still be ignored by the majority. I think this would have benefited from a peer review before being published, but judging by the authors response to some of the constructive criticism, doesn’t seem to be welcome.

    • I am sorry you feel my response to constructive criticism was to consider it unwelcome; I was attempting to convey the opposite impression. I am disappointed that you thought I was ‘showboating’.

      • In one of your responses you said “I do not wish to follow that remark up by trying to ‘score points’;” which to me implies being followed by a big BUT. Maybe it is just the way you write, but that is the impression I get.

      • If you examine the exchanges with ‘MBC’ I think you will find that there was confusion over what Simon Jenkins had actually written on DevoMax; which we satisfactorily resolved.

      • The negative comments to JSW are unkind, and are there simply because some want their reading to be predigested, needing no effort to absorb.

        I for one did not at all think that you were ‘showboating’. That remark says more about John’s insecurity than your article. And no need for a ‘peer review ‘ to determine if John could read it without effort. The ‘Sun’ has a reading age of 12 – this blog is better than that.

  10. So you did actually score some points then.

  11. No, I did not. My original statement can be taken at face value. Whether Simon Jenkins had discussed DevoMax was actually a matter of real substance to the discussion. I think that is quite clear from the exchanges. While I am keen to be helpful, I can say little more on this subject.

  12. There seems to be a common thread in the responses made by at least 5 people and one other who had his comment removed (not sure why) that this is ” Not an easy read! “. Maybe Bothy Basher has come up with the thing that links us in that we all have a reading age of 12.

    I think I’ll stop thrashing now as the horse seems to be dead.

  13. Well John, the first thing to do is relax.

    The article was thoughtfully written and generously contributed here – and the writer got personal abuse for it. I object to that – I ask you criticise the content only and avoid ad hominem attacks. That’s normal isn’t it?

    You say that 5 people were grumpy about the article which doesnt make them right, but it does make them rude if they moan that it was too difficult for them. A fine way for you to encourage the contribution of items to Bella!

    Try to see beyond your individual struggle to understand – if it was too much for you, then move on. Look around for an ‘easy read’. I could suggest a few if you ask; look at the the excellent images of Greg Moodie. . My reference to the Sun’s reading age was directed at 1 of the 5 commenters as you well know, and not a million miles from your good self.

    I agree you’re right to stop thrashing about.

    JSW – excellent article! Thank you!

  14. Interesting, but an incorporating union is precisely what was not agreed in the 1707 Treaty of Union. That is the root of the Empire Loyalists’ dilemma. For Scotland has a different legal system from England and Wales, and that is why, for example, Cameron and his xenophobes cannot take Scotland out of Europe against our will. If England wished to leave the European Union, she would have to secede from the United Kingdom first.

  15. Thank you for a fascinating and thought provoking essay, which is surely one of the best in recent times.
    To my mind, British/English assimilation/Anglicisation is merely intentional discrimination against Scots and Scotland by the larger partner in the UK joint venture state. The BBC and MSM have arguably been the main assimilation vehicles and continue this agenda. But far too many Scots (well, at least 45% who voted in the ref) have seen through it; new media offerings like Bella etc have helped greatly.
    I doubt that ‘Ulsterization’ could occur in Scotland because the Act of Union confirmed Scotland (and indeed many Scots regard themselves and Scotland) as an equal partner nation in the Union, not as a province or colony. The Act of Union signed by Scots MP’s in 1707 reminds Scots of our equal status. Whilst our legislature was dissolved, as was England’s, our nation was not. As you mentioned, this is not really understood in England, even in 10 Downing St.
    As for former colonies that became independent, I think Scotland is not comparable to any. While some Anglo-‘Scorpions’ may claim that Scotland was incorporated, the Act of Union makes it clear this was not the case. To extend corporate analogies, the UK is a ‘joint-venture’ state comprising two principal partners – England and Scotland. As most business analysts know, in JV’s there may be one partner more solvent than the other at any given time. However the key factor in JV survival is to what extent all ‘partners’ continue to derive benefits from the JV. If ‘returns’ (not only financial) fall below acceptable levels for one or both partners then the JV will come to an end. If the JV vehicle is bust it will likewise be dissolved. It is possible of course for one JV partner to acquire the other partner; that would then be ‘incorporation’ or ‘absorption’. In that case the incorporated/absorbed entity would cease to exist. Clearly Scotland has not been ‘acquired’ and is unlikely ever to be so, despite the fact that some Scots politicians accepted bribes for their votes in 1707, though that is another (criminal) matter entirely.
    Doubtless the scorpion will still be there whichever route we Scots take to liberty, whether that be a referendum or even a rapid declaration of independence by the 30+ SNP MP’s next May. As your essay illustrates, Parliamentary sovereignty is all Imperial Britain understands, and the union could and perhaps should be ended the same way it was formed – i.e. by majority vote of Scots MP’s, hopefully next May.
    Britannia cannot ‘sail away’ from Scotland, as implied, however. As Britannia consists, in large part, of Scotland as one of the two principal JV partners, the latter’s exit from UK union means, finally, the end of Imperial Britain.

  16. John S W, I just wanted to thanks you for this and other articles which I much appreciate and to wish you and all your readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 🙂

  17. Nosuchthingasthemarket
    December 26, 2014 • 18:15
    I’m sceptical of the idea that the Labour Party qua party changed anything substantially. Had it retained its embryo form as a ‘representation committee’ rather than becoming a conventional political party by the vote of its MPs alone after the 1906 election then we might have expected serious constitutional change from it. In fact, Labour politicians – with a vanishingly small number of honourable exceptions – have been less imaginative and radical (in terms of policy as well as constitution) than any of their opponents for most of the party’s history. Except when persecuting the left, which the Labour Party has often been very proud to do on behalf of the Conservative Party and the med”

    Nosuch, the Labour Party has made many advances for wealth producers before it abandoned Clause 4 and became New Labour. Yes it has sold out. Yes.

    • ” Had it retained its embryo form as a ‘representation committee’ rather than becoming a conventional political party….Had it retained its embryo form as a ‘representation committee’ rather than becoming a conventional political party …..”.

      Nosuch, this is daft. Who taught you history – Dick Cheney?

  18. What an orgy of language ‘fookwithery’! Interesting read, some impressive research in play, but surely a turn-off for many? In reading it, I felt like the author was self-flagellating while typing with one finger…!

    On the plus side for me, some compelling parallels with the historical record.

    I could not do better, I only offer opinion. There is surely a balance to be struck between this historian prose (so typified by folk like Brian Sewell in ‘wanky’ art documentaries) and plain english, which would work well but perhaps be more easily digested?

    Looking forward to May, anyhow! 🙂

    • Wonderful lexis from you Rose, beginning with ‘orgy’ and ending in ‘wanky’. Your comment is indeed an orgy of one. Enjoy! and thanks! Keep on tickling your qwerty……

  19. JSW: a last word ref. style…

    Bothy is right. We have grown too used to easy pre-digested reads…

    Because you aroused my interest with this concept of ‘Ulszerisation’ I looked up Bourke’s article on Pocock and the pre-suppositions of British History. It was on sale for £20 which I thought a bit steep. So I actually tracked Richard Bourke down (he has moved from Queens Univ London to Berlin) and emailed him to ask him for a less expensive way to read it. He promptly and generously sent me a copy.

    Now believe me, THAT is a tough read, if anybody has the fortitude!! Good, though. After getting through that, I have nothing but admiration for the way you have summarized his argument, elegantly.

    Happy New Year!

  20. What a lovely outcome! Not only searching out the key article, but contacting the writer to do so, and receiving such a swift and generous response at Christmas! That is just the best Christmas present I could possibly imagine. Thank you. Happy New Year everyone…. …. …. yipeeeee!

  21. Not sure if it’s the same article but Bourke’s 2010 article on Pocock and the Presuppositions of the New British History, is freely available online as a PDF.

  22. Thanks for pointing people towards Bourke’s article which I’ve just finished reading. What’s interesting for me is seeing how Ulsterization manifests in relation to Scotland. We saw it most blatantly in the referendum over the issue of the common currency. No middle way could be possible. Scotland either had to stay in the union on Westminster’s terms or be cast out completely. In other words Westminster reverted to the only response it could to an attempt to reconfigure relations on this island by preferring instead to cast off the offending province. As Seeley said the centre cannot see the periphery as part of itself but instead sees it as possessions to be disposed of when there is any threat to the maintenance of things as they are at Westminster. As Macwhirther says in his new book, it was at that moment many Scots saw the real nature of Scotland’s relationship to the British State, and Dicey’s sham constitution lost its power to deflect us away from seeing the true underlying nature of the British power. It’s also useful to see how this relates to British euro-scepticism. Useful because it’s through comparison with other states that Britain’s peculiarity becomes evident. All the members of the EU have had to pool sovereignty, the fact that it is only in Britain that the debate on this has become so fetishized on parliamentary sovereignty and the solution is seen as cutting off the contaminating connection. This is why Nicola Sturgeon is so right to concentrate on this issue because it demonstrates the central problem facing Scotland which is that we are signed up to a polity which is at variance with the modern world.

  23. ”it demonstrates the central problem facing Scotland which is that we are signed up to a polity”

    Yes Alex. We are signed up.

    A thoughtful response (I agree with much of it) which if you’ll excuse me for saying, has a thread running through it of Scots as victims.

    It’s not so. We are where we are because though we may not like it, that’s what we voted for.

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