SEVERAL commentators last week [w/b 15.10.23] insisted that “Scotland is not a colony”, and that British rule over Scotland cannot be seen as colonial in nature. This bears some clearing up.
On the most trivial level, “Scotland is not a colony” because “colony” was one particular form of governance within the British Empire, which never applied to Scotland.
But many other parts of the British Empire were not officially “colonies” either. Some, like Malaya and the Trucial States, were protectorates. Some, like Canada after 1867 and South Africa after 1910, were “dominions”. Some, like Gibraltar and Bermuda, are now called “overseas territories”.
“Scotland is not a colony” because imperial rule over Scotland was established by treaty, not conquest. But that also applies to much of the British Empire. Imperialism-by-treaty was a common mode of expansion.
The imperial power just needs to apply the right pressure to the right people. Find the parcel of rogues and pay them off. When that fails to pacify people, then send the redcoats in to uphold the treaty – there is a clear line between 1707 and 1746.
“Scotland is not a colony” because the Scottish elite actively cooperated with and benefitted from imperial rule. Of course they did. Every successful empire brings native elites on board – and has done since the first Gaul, seeing what side his bread was buttered, donned a toga and learnt Latin.
Being absorbed into an empire can be beneficial for these assimilated elites. They have economic opportunities that would otherwise be denied to them. Above all, they gain protection against their own people.
There might even be a “sahib” class of elite natives who have been so socialised into the imperial ruling system that they are trusted to manage things, so long as they do so in the ultimate interests of the Empire and not in the interests of their fellow countrymen. There are still a lot of these Scottish sahibs about, quietly running Scotland and keeping a lid on things.
“Scotland is not a colony” because we have self-government. So did most colonies. Colonialism entails the subordination of high politics to imperial ends – a colony loses the power to determine its own destiny on the world stage, to make war and peace, to conduct international affairs. Low politics may be left in local hands. Indeed, general patterns of rule across the British Empire were hands-off. Most colonies had devolved legislatures, with broad powers over their own affairs, but subject to London’s ultimate veto. Does that sound familiar?
“Scotland is not a colony” because Scotland has seats in Westminster. So did Ireland. But somehow the same people who deny Scotland’s colonial status are happy to acknowledge the colonial nature of British rule in Ireland.
“Scotland is not a colony” because Scotland was a coloniser – as if the two were mutually incompatible. Unfortunately for those who like their historical narratives clear and simple, the world is not divided into goodies and baddies. Some, looking at their grim opportunities in Scotland, willingly took the boat. Others, looking at their burning clachans, were rounded up and forced to the quayside. That is how easily the colonised become colonisers.
“Scotland is not a colony” because Scots fought proudly and bravery in the British Empire’s wars. That’s also a common feature of empires. A colonially governed country is a useful source of canon fodder, to be sure; colonised people with “martial traditions” like Punjabi Sikhs or Scottish Highlanders can be put to work on behalf of the imperial scheme.
“Scotland is not a colony” because there was no cultural oppression. That must be why this article is being written in English, while the native languages of Scotland are preserved like curios on signposts.
“Scotland is not a colony” because colonialism is all about racism, and therefore it cannot happen to white people. This is the most ridiculous argument of all. Go tell it to the Ukrainians.
“Scotland is not a colony” because others had it worse. Aye, and some had it better. Most were given independence when they asked for it. Scotland is denied that opportunity.
In short, to deny the colonial nature of the British Empire’s rule over Scotland is either to misunderstand the complexity and ambiguity of the British Empire or else to downplay the reality of Scotland’s subjection to British imperial rule.
The good news is that all empires die. They get to a pinnacle where all lies at their feet, and end as a ruin in the desert with the inscription: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
The final death throes of the British Empire can be easy or hard. The easy way is to allow the peaceful, democratic, transition to independence, as it was done across much of the world by post-war British governments. The hard way is to fight it and lose.
Which is Sir Keir Starmer to emulate: Harold Macmillan or Lord North?
Website Note: Macmillan is remembered for his “Winds of Change” speech when he facilitated the decolonisation of British African colonies and their move toward independence. Lord North, on the other hand, was the British prime minister who hung on to and eventually lost the American colonies, ie the USA.