09 May 2017
May 9, 2017

Not so Great Britain

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The ‘Just say No’ camp are fond of reminding Scots of the magnificent achievements of the UK as a nation. But Britain’s sense of itself is horribly distorted and the myths the No camp direct us to are so much self-serving claptrap.  Post-imperial historians have often questioned ‘Great’ British nationalist myths, of course, but the facts have rarely made their way into the public consciousness. Maybe it’s time we tried a bit harder.

In 1943, for example, over 2 million people died in Bengal as a result of famine. A poor crop in the region was exacerbated ultimately by the fact that the East India company then the British Raj had for two centuries configured the Indian economy around the interests of Britain, not India. The sub-continent had become a net importer of grain and much of this was imported from Burma (now Myanmar). When the Japanese disrupted that supply by taking Burma during World War 2, one British response was to destroy local rice supplies in Bengal to forestall any Japanese advance there. Another was to prioritise wartime aims for vessels over famine relief; and another was to officially deny the scale of the famine. Later, the British Raj blamed the entire disaster on the local Indian authorities.

In 1946/7, neither Muslim nor Hindu leaders, the Muslim League and the Congress Party respectively, wanted the full partition of India and Pakistan. Britain decided that having based the UK economy for two centuries upon our colonial domination of India, the cost-benefit equation now worked in favour of a British withdrawal; our policy on India was inverted. Both the Muslim and Hindu leaders, amongst them respectively Jinna and Nehru, overestimated Britain’s preparedness to act responsibly while negotiations sought a federal solution or reluctantly accepted the need to devise a coherent plan for partition. Instead, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten explained that not only would Britain not hang around to steward the changes and maintain order during what was inevitably going to be a very disrupted period, we would foreshorten the timeframe for our withdrawal. His ‘Mountbatten partition plan’ was presented to the rival camps in June 1947. The Muslim and Hindu leaders were informed that Independence would take place in August and that the British would quit India immediately thereafter. In the ensuing, panicked partition, over 2 million people died and rape was endemic, women were forced to commit suicide and blood ran in the streets for want of an orderly British withdrawal. Mountbatten simply commended the excellence of his administrative effort.

The entire 200 years of British domination of India was characterised by the wholesale exploitation of the sub-continent in the interests of Britain, often with tragic consequences for the people of the sub-continent. For the first hundred years, British policy was based upon the embedding and exploiting the caste system, and latterly was rooted, officially, in the racial superiority of those with whiter skins. Today, we all but choose to ignore this in our commonly known historical narratives.

Dundee’s jute (scroll down to ‘jute’) industry is an interesting case in point. Much of Dundee’s grand housing stock today, on and around ‘The Law’ for example, was built on the proceeds of an industry which employed most folk in the City. Our processes, adapted from the whaling industry, were hugely efficient. We shifted from flax to Jute primarily because we had control of India’s production base. Then, over time, we displaced manufacturing in places like Bengal; we imported their jute then put their unindustrialised manufacturing sector out of business through our industrialised processes. Then we sold them back the finished products via deals we controlled through military force wherever required. Many of the folk who lost their means of feeding their families were displaced into less-skilled and poorer-paid agriculture. Then we exposed their grain production to the world markets; so periods of apparent internal famine, like the one in Bengal in 1943,  were common while we profited from the sale of India’s grain output – which could have fed the people producing the stuff – to foreign markets.

The general rule of thumb was to use the sub-continent as a wealth producer for Britain while using the proceeds of taxation to maintain military dominance there. Throughout the period of the Raj, until 1947, levels of expenditure on health, education, housing and everything else were a fraction of what they were in the UK; the notion that the Indian economy should be developed to provide revenue and a tax base to deliver western standards of life in India never crossed anyone’s mind. The need to deliver post-war improvements in the UK, and the growing cost of subduing India by force, led to our ludicrously fast withdrawal. Our social progress was paid for with the blood of millions of forgotten people on the sub-continent.

This is the legacy of the British Empire. Time Scots started thinking again about our place in it?