Types of Colonialism

Bernard Porter

In the course of the current debate about Scottish independence I’ve noticed a few references comparing it to an anti-colonial struggle: the poor oppressed Scots against their arrogant English masters. This is historical nonsense. Scotland joined the Union originally in order to share in the benefits of England’s overseas colonialism, after its own had failed; and thereafter played a disproportionate part in the expansion and rule of the British Empire, from the butt end of the gun. It has also shared greatly – maybe disproportionately again – in the governance of Britain itself, as well as in its culture. It may be that the loss of the empire has removed one of the original Scottish motives for the Union, and so boosted nationalism in that way. But that is a very different thing from painting it as a rebellion by colonial victims.

On the other hand, colonialism/imperialism has moved on from the mid-20th century. It is now ‘softer’, or more ‘informal’, based mainly on the economic power of businesses rather than the military power of nations. This is an external form of governance potentially as oppressive as formal empires ever were, and as apt to make people feel less in control of their own lives than they should be in truly democratic societies. The imposition of free market values and laws on whole nations - the privatisation of railways, public utilities and the NHS; trade agreements like the TTIP – is bound to make people who consider themselves social democratic (as most Scots do) feel politically impotent. The present image of the Conservative Party – all those well-heeled Home Counties Bullingdon Boys – exacerbates this. We in the north of England feel equally alienated. (Perhaps, if the Nats win today, or later on, we could join them?) Thatcher’s Scottish poll tax experiment didn’t help; taken to be an example of imperial arrogance, it was free market arrogance really. Indeed, Thatcher’s legacy – destroying industry, undermining society, and now the possible break-up of the Union – has a lot to do with this. It began the drift away from consensual binational politics which has created the present gulf. (New Labour didn’t help.)

Maybe other European protest movements can be seen in the same light: rebellions against economic or capitalist imperialism, whatever they profess to be on the surface. In Sweden (where I’m writing this from) there has just been a frightening upsurge of votes for the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party: from people who no longer believe they have a say in the government of their country. Immigration, as well as being a race issue, is also a free market one. Ukip support bears marks of this, despite Nigel Farage’s reactionary views on almost everything. The EU can be seen as another example of free market rules being imposed from abroad. Maybe the Russian-speaking rebellion in eastern Ukraine, against Kiev’s determination – pushed quite aggressively by Nato and Europe – to ally with the free marketist West, is similar? (I don’t know. I’m already getting into hot water in Sweden for suggesting that Putin might have a case.)

Like a lot of English people, I loathe, in principle, the nationalism that some of the Scots are pushing now, and regard the United Kingdom, as it used to be, as a proud example of the way different nations can – could – live together in peace. I also used to be part of an Anglo-Scottish nuptial union (that broke down, but not for the same reasons). As an Englishman, I hope the Scots vote No today. But I understand their reasons for wanting to have done with those rich toffs in Westminster. If I lived in Scotland I think I would vote Yes; merely in the hope – though I suspect it’s a vain one – that Salmond really can create a new Sweden up there. We in Yorkshire would be even worse off; but the catastrophe of a separation would be bound to stir up radical politics in England and Wales too. I shall be watching the TV tonight (the Scottish referendum is big in Sweden too; there's talk of Norrland following suit!) with both anxiety and hope.


  • 18 September 2014 at 5:15pm
    David Timoney says:
    Your thumbnail of the formation of the union is accurate, but that doesn't mean that anti-colonialism as a narrative is illegitimate.

    The Darien scheme investors and Edinburgh burghers who were decisive in securing the Act of Union in 1707 were, along with the corrupt Scottish aristocracy, involved in colonial practice in the Highlands & Islands and Ulster throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The expertise of the Scots in British India was honed in Derry and Fort William.

    Of course, this practice was "recuperated" as romantic nationalism and tartan fashion by Walter Scott et al, leading to the paradox of a modern nationalist movement driven by Lowlanders banging on about the Clearances. Though these Scots can be wrong-headed about their history, they do have a point in thinking that Scotland has become a subaltern since 1979.

    • 18 September 2014 at 10:09pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ David Timoney
      Exactly what I was saying.

  • 18 September 2014 at 5:20pm
    Callum Hackett says:
    As an Englishman of the left, I admire, in principle, the nationalism that some of the Scots are pushing and I think it is a further sign of the pallor of south-of-the-border progressive politics that many people don't recognise that nationalism is not bound to the left or right - it can find expression at both ends of the spectrum. In Scotland's case, accusations of "nationalism" are mostly meant to condemn the idea of independence by implication with the old right-wing politics of the mid-20th century, or now with some emerging trends in continental Europe, but it is obvious to anyone who has actually listened to the tone of Scottish debate, or looked at SNP policies, that their nationalism is a civic, progressive nationalism.

    Although the word feels a bit dirty to us because of our imperial history, we English seem comfortable with the idea of "patriotism" instead, but is it really so distinct? In the name of patriotism, we claim some dull attributes for ourselves, like 'diversity', 'tolerance' and 'free speech', which are all really marks of civilization rather than Englishness and, besides, are things that not all the English are in favour of. But a genuine, convincing patriotism has more to do with national culture than politics. To be a nationalist is merely to find some personal meaning in the expression of your cultural heritage - in the history, the art, the literature, the music - but we have warped the language of nationalism since the Second World War in fear that any mention of it will bring up inescapable urges for imperialist supremacy. This is obviously nonsense, but our fretful denial of the fact that we are necessarily distinct from other cultures, just as they are from us, leaves us with an exploration of our national identity that amounts to little more than an annual middle-class nostalgia-fest that consists of the media asking us to ask ourselves what it means to be "British" - normally that we are self-deprecating and don't mind the odd immigrant.

    We can all acknowledge universals in human rights and spirit, and equally feel an affinity for any citizen of any country, but at the same time it's childish to deny the existence of national identities because it is those that make the world so diverse. Nationalism at its heart is simply an embrace of this - not a coercion - and that is what we see in Scotland and need to see more of in England. I'm tempted to think that many of the English urging 'No' vote are simply jealous of the confronting reality that the Scots have an authentic national identity that we have ignored for however many decades, while we have been living with a vacuum of segregated 'multi-culturalism' that we claim describes us but which we cannot even define.

    • 19 September 2014 at 10:12am
      Bernard Porter says: @ Callum Hackett
      I agree. We're talking about different Scottish nationalisms. I've seen both kinds.

  • 19 September 2014 at 8:37am
    semitone says:
    Bernard, as an Australian living in England I felt your last paragraph echoed my sentiments absolutely. I would have voted No yesterday, but still I woke to a jarring disappointment that a chance to really disrupt the system had been missed.

    There's so much wrong with British politics that it needs a shock; though I agree with you that it's unlikely a Yes vote would have been the right kind.

    What odds do you think of a UK-wide conversation in parallel with devo-max, where we address the democratic deficit that is the House of Lords along with the issue of regionalism, and consider an Upper House, with "senators" drawn from each County according to PR, elected on party lines but there to represent their regions? Thus the best of the Australian system, without the costly State government apparatus underneath.

    • 19 September 2014 at 10:27am
      Bernard Porter says: @ semitone
      That's my hope too, and it is, as you'll be aware, being aired widely now in Britain. A Yes vote would, I think, have forced this kind of fundamental rethinking of our political system on the political class - they couldn't have avoided it. I'm pleased to see the Union prolonged (for a few more years); but I suspect and fear now that it will allow the main parties to avoid the question. After all, they can point to Prescott's offer of devolution to the North-East (of England) a few years ago, which was rejected in a referendum there.

      The Australian model (which I'm familiar with, having lived there) is I think a good one. But the Australian states had autonomous identities before confederation, which the English regions didn't; unless you want to go back to Wessex and Mercia.

      Two encouraging aspects of the Scottish referendum are the interest in politics it has revitalised - because they believe their vote can affect them, unlike in Westminster elections; and the fact that the almost unanimous 'No' position of the Press doesn't seem to have affected it as much as one would have thought. Maybe this is the real beginning of the end for the evil Press barons.

  • 19 September 2014 at 10:58am
    David Timoney says:
    The depressing outcome of the referendum is not the decision of the Scots, which was predictable (despite the myth of post-Thatcher social democratic solidarity, they're as conservative as the rest of us), but the assumption that devolution for all will be progressive.

    As you note, federal systems are usually the result of a qualified merger of powers, not the subdivision of a unitary state (the mooted revival of the Heptarchy is just antiquarianism). The "problem of Britain" is that London & SE will remain the net donor in terms of fiscal equalisation, and all other regions beneficiaries, for the foreseeable future.

    Devolution risks entrenching this imbalance, allowing London to maintain indirect power while absolving it of much domestic policy responsibility, and supporting local elites who will use regional resentment to distract from class politics (cf the SNP and corp tax). The debate is already focused on tax and spend, when it should be addressing capital formation.

    Attitudes towards the Lords are emblematic of this. There is no "democratic deficit", merely the absence of (and an affront to) democracy. We don't need reform - which will inevitably lead to either directly-elected party hacks or placemen nominated by regional assemblies - we need abolition.

    It is absurd that a small, unitary state needs a bicameral system. We seem incapable of seeing through the fiction of the "united kingdom".

  • 19 September 2014 at 11:38am
    Bernard Porter says:
    Oh, the UK has always been divided in all kinds of ways. Class of course is the main one, with the House of Lords (quite obviously) reflecting this. That can be stronger than nationalism. When I first met my future wife's aunt in Edinburgh she disapproved of me, not because I was a sassenach, but because I told her (truthfully) that I loved haggis. She associated that with the working classes.

Read more