Archive for category History

Three funerals, and a past that refuses to die.

Seamus Heaney in Dublin, 1985, protesting against the South African government

Seamus Heaney in Dublin, 1985, protesting against the South African government

The death of Margaret Thatcher should have been a chance to move on, were it not for the apparent idolisation of the former Prime Minister by David Cameron and, in Scotland at least, a competition between Labour and the SNP over who could distance themselves most from the Thatcher legacy.

Then came Heaney. His funeral was broadcast live on TV, not just a poet but a formidable public intellectual. He was a sane voice in the often dysfunctional politics and public life of the North and the Irish Republic. Heaney protested against both South African apartheid and British policy in the North. Two years after Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, Heaney took home the award for literature. The Nobel committee cited ‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’. What, though, happens when the past stops living?

The death of Mandela is of course a great tragedy, but the curious thing about his passing is the rush to remember events twenty years past without paying attention to the present. The world needs new Mandelas, and not just for the sake of renaming public squares and suburban closes but for the sake of changing a future instead of dwelling on the past. This is, after wall, what Mandela sought to do. It needs more Heaneys too, and whatever the sycophants of various political movements like to say the leaders they happen to have at the time can never be of either sort. You can’t copy greatness any more than teenage boys can become revolutionary leaders by wearing berets. It just ends up as a shallow simulacra of something that once was.

With Thatcher, Mandela and Heaney gone, it feels like now is the time to start living in the present and to leave the past where it belongs. Otherwise we do its giants, its villains and ourselves a disservice by fretting on their legacies.

The Westminster Party – what’s their record?

4159787227_1513c4f155Scotland’s vote in a year’s time is too important to be decided by who looks likely to win the UK General Election the year after. This isn’t about party politics, it’s about the broad sweep of history, and it’s about the institutions we vote for and which then rule over us.

Anarchists are fond of the phrase “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government always get in”, which is what makes the referendum such a rare and fascinating thing. For the first and probably last time in my life I’ll have a vote on whether I want the Westminster government as a whole in my life or not. So let’s put party to one side, or rather, let’s take a look at Westminster’s record as if it were a single political party, the good and bad.

The Westminster Party, for want of a better name, has been in power all my life. In fact they have (for the purposes of this argument) ruled without a break since the mid-19th century. So let’s go back a bit, rather than just looking at the last five or ten years: perhaps the last 40-50 years? What have they delivered over that period? I’ll do my best to be fair and pick a few areas to consider.

Democratic reform: Progress here has been limited at best, with the highlights being the Scottish Parliament itself and the other devolved assemblies. On the minus side the Westminster Party has defended its own interests over the decades by retaining an electoral system that’s non-proportional, outdated, and frankly favours the party’s own self-interest. The only time they’ve offered us a choice on replacing it, the alternative on offer was the smallest tweak possible, still non-proportional, and not something any of the party’s factions has ever even supported. Despite the cautious removal of some of the hereditaries from the House of Lords, we are still ruled in broadly the same way we were back in the 1860s. Oh, and the Westminster Party looks unlikely ever to offer us the option of an elected head of state. Compare to the Holyrood Party – the only level of democracy they could reform under the Scotland Act was local government, so they acted, and we now have a properly fair electoral system for our Councillors. The flaws in the Westminster Party’s record this area shouldn’t be regarded as something just of interest to wonks, either – it’s the foundation for all the policy issues below.

The economy: There’s no nice way to say this. Boom and bust, plus inequality: those are the Westminster Party’s trademarks. The booms have been unsustainable and delivered most of the benefits to the already better-off, to the city, and to London and the south-east, while the busts have been at the expense of the poorest, of manufacturing, and of the North of England in particular. It’s almost as if the Westminster Party’s policies over the last forty years have been designed to deliver instability and ever-widening inequality. Key public services have been handed over to the City, too, and so public money goes to support the lifestyles those who own the companies, rather than the services we use.

Health: If you go back a bit further than 50 years, you’d see perhaps the Westminster Party’s most shining achievement in this or any other area: the NHS. However, over the last 20 years, despite the massive popularity of a publicly-owned and publicly-run health service, the Westminster Party has chipped away at it, brought in private competition, charged for built new hospitals through dire PFI contracts, and weakened it perhaps permanently. They still charge for prescriptions and eye tests, for goodness sake. Fortunately, Scotland has missed the worst of this: the Holyrood Party, in power here since the start of devolution, has protected the NHS in Scotland from the worst excesses of this marketisation.

Education: You could almost say the primary policy of the Westminster Party here has been change for its own sake (another feature of their NHS policy): endless reorganisations, often without a clear purpose in mind. Having said that, the 1990s saw a period of significant investment at the primary and secondary level, which is to be commended. Unfortunately, at the same time the principle that higher education should be based on ability rather than bank balances was first threatened. Now the English university sector is effectively unaffordable for those who aren’t from wealthy backgrounds or prepared to get deep in debt, a principle which the Holyrood Party also ended in 2007.

Defence: This should really be billed as Interference. Or perhaps Profligacy. Defence is the only part of public spending that never gets challenged by the Westminster Party, who have also been committed to nuclear weapons for as long as nuclear weapons have existed. They never saw a military boondoggle they didn’t want to waste money on, and there’s hardly an American-led war (notable exception: Vietnam) they didn’t support or even actively take part in. Some of those interventions (e.g. Sierra Leone) have gone better than others (two recent disasters hardly need to be named), but the record here is pretty brutal, to say the least.

The environment: Despite an unexpectedly early expression of interest in the late 1980s, it’s been all coal and new motorways and business as usual. The Westminster Party leadership knows it needs to talk as if it cares about the environment, and set some meaningless targets to miss (a flaw it shares with the Holyrood Party, to be fair), but they have achieved literally nothing substantial that might protect the environment either here in the UK or internationally.

Overall, the Westminster Party’s failures of policy and governance could hardly be more clear. This what we’ve had to put up with over the last 150 years, but if Scotland votes No, it’s also what we’ll face for the next 150 years. I regret the fact that the rest of the UK isn’t being offered an opportunity to vote the whole lot of them out out, especially my friends in England who (outside London) don’t have the benefit of devolution.

But that can’t be helped. We have a chance in Scotland to push a domino over next year. Perhaps others will fall after it.

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The Challenge of Historical Preconceptions

A guest post from Craig Gallagher, a Graduate Fellow at the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy, Boston College. Craig is a PhD student in the History Dept, and will be presenting some of his research on Scottish colonial ventures at the British Scholar Society’s”Britain and the World” Conference at the University of Edinburgh on June 21st-23rd, 2012. He blogs irregularly at

Months ago, on this very blog, a rallying call was issued to historians to come to the table and challenge some of the historical misconceptions that have infected the independence debate. Thus far, noted scholars such as Tom Devine, Richard Finlay, Allan MacInnes and even Neil Oliver have been conspicuous by their absence on our screens or in our broadsheets.

While not claiming to possess anything near the sort of influence or intellectual clout as any of the aforementioned, this historian would like to answer the call.

Challenging popular preconceptions of Scottish history is actually very fertile ground. One could, for example, dismiss the way the ’45 Rebellion is portrayed as a Scots rebellion against the English by pointing out that it was backed by French money, used mainly Irish and Highland Gaelic troops (something very distinct from ‘Scottish’ in the 18th century) and gained considerable English support from northern nobles disaffected with their German-speaking King George II. Daniel Szechi and Jonathan Oates, amongst others, have written fruitfully on such matters.

There is, however, a more pertinent historical white elephant that needs tackling within the context of the forthcoming Scottish referendum on independence: the Darién scheme. This was the colonising expedition by the Company of Scotland to the Panamanian isthmus in 1698 and 1699, which has famously been regarded as foolhardy in the extreme, beset by incompetent Scottish leadership and as leaving the country so bankrupt that economic and political Union with England in 1707 saved us from ourselves. There are, however, a number of persistent and troubling problems with this interpretation.

The first concerns the expedition’s supposed foolishness. While it might seem fantastical to us today to imagine Scots as strewn across the Darién isthmus, a place utterly remote from home in both geographical and ecological terms, it is worth noting that it fits comfortably within the narrative of small powers in the late seventeenth century trying to carve a niche for themselves in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the New World. The Swedes, for example, colonised the Delaware River between 1638 and 1655, while the Brandenburg Prussians shared custody with the Danes over the Caribbean island of St. Thomas until 1735. The Dutch, of course, owned the Hudson River colony of New Netherland until its conquest and renaming by the Duke of York’s armies in 1664, to which the redoubtable Dutch responded three years later by conquering and holding English Suriname until modern times.

The degree of investment the scheme attracted was also remarkable for its diversity and creditworthiness. Figures as towering as John Locke, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun and William Paterson (the founder of the Bank of England) all regarded it as a sound project, while subscribers could be found in most of the major merchant houses in Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. Their faith was well-founded, for even after the colony at Darién’s collapse, the Company of Scotland continued to trade for seven years after Darién’s downfall. This begs the obvious question: if it didn’t even bankrupt the parent company, how confident can we be that the venture’s failure left Scotland as destitute as has been commonly asserted?

There is much mileage in discussing the various problems the Scots had in Panama, such as disease, poor quality soil and rancorous leadership, and these have been expounded on impressively, if glumly, by scholars such as John Prebble and Douglas Watt. But more needs to be said about the political context of Darién’s downfall, which is where the venture’s explicit relationship to Scottish independence becomes apparent.

King William II of Scotland (known to many Scots colloquially as ‘King Billy’) was entirely complicit in the Scottish failure to realise their dreams of empire, given that he explicitly forbade English colonies such as Jamaica from offering any aid or succour to the struggling colonists in 1700. He furthermore refused to intercede on his own subjects’ behalf when the Spanish colonial forces in the region began to menace the Scots, so concerned was he with his diplomatic clout in the court of Madrid because of the impending Spanish Succession crisis (the childless King Carlos II died later that year). The interests of the united British Crown were put ahead of that of its vulnerable subjects.

The idea that disasters like Darién represent what happens if the Scots are left to their own devices persists unchallenged in much of the popular imagination. Yet it fails to take account of all of this and more, including the fact that like many other early modern kingdoms, Scotland had colonial successes and failures. Nova Scotia in Canada takes its name from the short-lived (1629-32) Scottish settlement established to compete with the French in the beaver trade, while the establishment of a Covenanter haven at Stuart’s Town, South Carolina (1684-86), provoked the ire of local Spanish military garrisons in much the same way as the Darién colony did.

As for successes, Scottish cultural enclaves existed all across the North and Baltic seas in Europe, particularly in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Konigsberg in East Prussia (now the city of Kaliningrad) and in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where Scottish Calvinists were invited by the Protestant monarchy to settle and convert the Commonwealth’s mostly Catholic and Orthodox population. East New Jersey was also a high-profile and enduring Scottish overseas project, founded by the poorly-studied Scottish Quaker community in 1683 as a religious haven from the determinedly Episcopal Church of Scotland of this period. There is also a well-established historical argument that the Ulster plantations, began in 1606 by the newly crowned Scottish King of England, James VI & I, represent a Scots colonising initiative in Ireland, given the degree to which Presbyterians from the Lowlands displaced the native population and owned swathes of farmland as a result. Seen as such, it would arguably be one of the most successful and long-lasting of all European colonies, were it not for the region’s well-known troubled history.

The point worth emphasizing is that Darién did not exist in isolation. The circumstances of its collapse were far more complex than is usually allowed, and had as much to do with wider British political calculations as much as it did with Scottish financial mismanagement. That is the lesson it teaches in this moment of national assertion. The Spanish have, this time at least, promised to stay out of our affairs, while Alex Salmond’s careful courting of the Queen suggests he has understood the importance of our colony’s collapse to our dialogue with the British state. If you’ll allow me a provocative comparison between English negligence in the 17th century Caribbean and the 20th century council estates of the Central Belt, I would suggest that it is perfectly possible to conceive the Scottish independence debate as an appropriate historical bookend to partner the circumstances of our colony’s collapse on either side of Scotland’s British interlude.