09 May 2017
May 9, 2017

Not so Great Britain


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?






22 Responses to Not so Great Britain
  1. The famines in the late 19th century were worse than 1943. But I suppose they would seem distant by being out of living memory. As would the literally millions who died during the seizure of the African colonies.

    • Very much so. There are plenty folk around still who remember the 1943 one, mind you, although gie few in Britain.

  2. I’ve got no problem in debunking the Empire myths providing so doing can be seen to have some sensible & effective end result. However the most likely outcome is simply to entrench views already strongly held.
    I don’t agree with holding Germans of my generation responsible for past errors and I’m certainly not going to take any responsibility for past Empire errors regardless of how many Scots were involved.
    Educate by all means but thats where it stops.

  3. When you hear the word ’empire’? It’s a safe bet that expansionism, absorption, invasion and exploitation, or any mix of the above were involved.

    The great problem with empires is that once begun, you have to keep them going. The aftermath of failed and failing empires tends to surround you with folk who aren’t overly fond of your visit to their country.

  4. It’s a sobering thought for us all who live in their last and closest colony. They don’t just allow their colonies to naturally become independent and to have a peaceful, mature transition to a normal and equal relationship. For them their always has to be conflict first.
    If we were living in another age I pretty sure we would already see an occupying military presence in Scotland.
    Were there not papers declassified in the last decade showing that the Wilson govt. in the 70’s we’re having no hesitation in drawing up plans for Martial Law in Scotland should we attempt to become independent on the back of the North Sea oil discovery.
    Their entire history is about the subjugation and exploitation of other countries and peoples for their own benefit, with of course help, shamelessly, from the Scottish Cringe.

  5. Awareness of the past to determine the future. But, do many of the populace who should be aware, show interest, or be likely to soon? Hopefully articles like this will help.

  6. There’s an interesting website here

    Horrifying stuff the Kenyan thing particularly difficult to read, like many we were taught the empire was a wonderful thing that brought civilization to the world,

    I now wonder how people outwith Britain view our our wonderful empire, do they know the truth and if so for how long


  7. The UK used and abused countless countries and vulnerable groups over the centuries. The accounts of the Karen and the Kachin (north Mayanmar) where the British promised them their own homelands if they’d fight against the Japanese with us is horrific. We didn’t do anything of the sort after the war of course. We abandoned them and they scurry from one border to the next now…looking for somewhere to settle.

    • Thanks for this, Susan. I hope the context of the Scottish independence debate enables us to cut through some of these terrible myths and expose these blindspots (well, as you say, rather bigger than ‘spots’) about Empire.

  8. Now let me think…..is this the history I was taught at school ? NO . I hope things have changed .

  9. And now we have Empire 2.0, i.e. the English Empire of the United Kingdom, and Scotland is the new ‘jewel in the crown’.

  10. All that Thatcher’s revolution did was to replace one Raj with another.
    That is the nature of the British state,rapacious feudalistic exploitation of others for the benefit of a small elite,now known as “trickle down economics”.
    The trick is,to convince the exploited that this is in their best interests and they need to continue supporting the establishment.
    Thanks Eric.

  11. Yes, as much as I want indepdendence I also want some kind of contrition to be show for Scotland’s involvment in many of ‘Great Britian’s world affairs.

    It’s odd watching Brexit ‘Wangland’ searching around for Empire again (2.0) without any idea that it ended becuase the victims woke up to the abuse.

    Trying it on with them again will be a disaster. Leaving the EU .. its going ot get VERY bad.

    • Yeah, Wangland. Our telly is full of public-school educated young men and women telling us how magnificent (mainly) England’s past is. They expose a few warts but spend most of the time lauding personalities and traits, and so little on the values which underpinned our actions abroad.

  12. I tend to hit the empire as a lot of Unionists are in Awe of it as boosts their inferior ego’s. I agree, we need to burst that little bubble so we can look back in shame and educate to stop history being repeated

  13. A timely reminder of tsome of the realities of Empire. Indeed Eric, to debunk the complete mythology would take a War and Peace length contribution.
    The important point is that from Ireland to India, not one country had an association that came about and was maintained to a greater or less degree of military coercion.

    • Thanks, `mark. Yep. In India, we spent a third of all tax raised locally – sometimes as much as a half – on our standing armies there. We weren’t there to help.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *