Types of Colonialism
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.