Brexit undoubtedly highlighted the question of identity in British politics. English nationalism was at the heart of the EU referendum victory with many Leave voters told that Global Britain could soon recover its former glory under the guise of Empire 2.0.
There was little such sentiment in Scotland which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. But the legacy of empire and its influence on Scottish/British identity is rarely discussed in current political discourse.
A debate has, however, begun in England with the success of Sathnam Sanghera’s book Empireland, the controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the forcible removal by activists of the infamous Colston statue in Bristol.
In Scotland, Edinburgh city council has launched a review, not without academic controversy, to consider ways the city can acknowledge its historical connections with slavery and colonialism. It has already put up a plaque in St Andrew Square beneath the statue of Henry Dundas explaining how he delayed the abolition of slavery. In another move, Edinburgh University has renamed the David Hume tower because of the philosopher’s ‘comments on matters of race’. Glasgow university, which benefited hugely from the profits of slave traders, has set up a £20m fund to engage in joint research with the University of West Indies.
But neither government in London nor Edinburgh seems interested in pursuing this debate although it impacts on key issues about identity, immigration and foreign policy. How many ministers know how the Chinese feel about the treaty of Nanjing which ceded Hong Kong to Britain or how Indian diplomats must feel as they pass the statue of Robert Clive outside the Foreign Office?
Scotland and the empire
The Scottish involvement in the British empire after the union of 1707 has been well documented by Tom Devine and other historians. After the failure of the Darien scheme, many Scots turned their attention to expanding and sharing the spoils of the British empire. Most people are aware of Scotland’s remarkable contribution to that empire, as missionaries, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, traders, bankers and administrators.
There is less emphasis on the Scottish role in the slave trade, forcing China to take opium (Jardine/Matheson), and in suppressing the rights of indigenous people in Canada and Australia. Kilted regiments helped put down the Indian mutiny and fought against the Boers in South Africa.
While much has been written about the Scottish diaspora and the role of the Scots in building the empire, there is little about how the empire impacted on Scotland. There is a vague consciousness that Dundee benefited from cheap jute imports and Glasgow owed its ascent to ‘second city of the empire’ because of sugar, tobacco and – mumble quietly – the slave trade.
The reality is that for more than 150 years the Scots of all classes were enthusiastic participants in running the empire. Scots fought for the British empire in two world wars. Only with the rapid withering of the empire post-1945 was there a resurgence of interest in a Scottish identity.
Political identities change over time. The sense of Britishness was interwoven with the empire and was only challenged with its dissolution. When England won the World Cup in 1966, the flags waved at Wembley were overwhelmingly Union Jack. Fast forward 30 years and the only flags you see when England are playing are those of St George. For Scottish games, the Lion Rampant reigns supreme.
Scottish identity was suppressed during the heyday of the empire. Scots bought into its main pillars: military power, racial superiority, Presbyterianism, and the British pretence of free trade. The monarchy under Queen Victoria, who built and enjoyed Balmoral castle at the height of the empire, also played a crucial role. While buying into ‘Britishness,’ some Scots held on to their romantic notions of a separate identity as personified in the works of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Others emphasised alleged special Scottish characteristics such as thrift, the work ethic and meritocracy in their running of the empire.
With the decline in British power after WW2 and the belated decision to join the EU, identities also changed. You could now be Scottish, British and European. Polls show that those placing Scottish identity first increased during the Thatcher years. This trend has been cemented in the past decade with the rise of the SNP, the impact of Brexit and Boris Johnson in Downing Street. One can detect a similar trend in Northern Ireland, a province heavily populated by Scottish settlers, which also voted to remain within the EU. With the rapidly changing demographics in Northern Ireland, there is currently a lively debate about whether Ireland may be unified before Scotland becomes independent.
An honest debate about the empire
But identity is also connected to history. Just look at Putin and Xi’s efforts to re-write history or the backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement in the US or taking the knee in the UK. The Johnson government is keen on re-establishing the Anglosphere but rejects even longer historical ties to Europe. It fails to see the irony of requesting Ghana (a centre of the slave trade) to process asylum seekers, a request that was brusquely rejected by Accra.
There needs to be a much deeper conversation in Scotland, not only about its historical relationship with England (and Ireland) but also about its role in the empire. Given the disproportionate involvement of the Scots in the empire, it is incumbent on Scotland to take a lead in this debate.
How did Scotland benefit from the empire? What was the impact on its economy, politics and culture? How many fine buildings were financed by the slave trade? How did two-way immigration develop because of empire? Some schools do teach the pros and cons of empire but there are few universities offering courses about the empire.
Politicians should be taking the lead. Scotland has a Labour leader (Anas Sarwar) and an SNP cabinet member (Humza Yousaf) of Pakistani origin. Even the British cabinet is more multi-ethnic than ever before. But sadly no politician seems to recognise that an honest debate about British/Scottish involvement in the empire is an important requisite if we are to respond to Dean Acheson’s famous quote about Britain having lost an empire but not yet found a role.
The empire was Britain’s main international preoccupation for over two centuries, yet much of this history is coloured by amnesia. Whether the English prefer to maintain this state of affairs is up to them. But if Scotland wishes to play a more useful and effective role in the world it should seek a measure of clarity about its role in the British empire.
At the very least, every statue, building or institution, especially museums, banks and companies, that benefited from the proceeds of empire should have an explanatory plaque. Museums should review their collections and consider returning some of their loot. Building on proposals put forward last year by the Scottish government to promote racial equality and greater diversity, schools and universities should be encouraged to include the study of empire. The churches should also be involved in explaining their role in the empire. A speech by the First Minister acknowledging Scotland’s role would be useful; a fund to promote research on Scotland and the empire, including a virtual museum, would be even better.
As Scotland struggles with new questions about identity, it is important to confront the reality of what happened in the empire. As Sanghera suggests, ‘until we do this, we will not be able to work out who we are or who we want to be.’