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The end of Great Britain?

  • Published at 10:52 pm September 13th, 2014

The people of Scotland will vote on September 18 to decide whether they want to stay inside Great Britain, or if they want to go on their own and become an independent country 400 years after England and Scotland became a union by an Act of Parliament in 1603. The “Say Yes to an Independent Scotland” campaign has now strong wind in its sails. If the Scots vote yes, then this will truly be a momentous event of history.

It will draw the final curtain upon the political entity called Great Britain – an entity that had outsized influence in world history for a couple of centuries. The British government has already decided that in the event of Scottish independence, the United Kingdom will simply refer to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but the new name has not been decided yet.

The prospect of Scottish independence has sent shockwaves throughout the length and breadth of England. Although comprising only 9% of British population, Scotland is an integral part of the national identity known as British. The British government and the people know this, and that’s why they have been putting up with more than 10 billion pounds of subsidy each year to fund the more generous Scottish social welfare system and increasing political power devolution. But it seems no amount of devolution or money can now buy off the Scottish desire for independence.

To most of the people of the world, Great Britain is an interesting historical entity. Britain will not feature in anyone’s top five most influential countries in the current world – it will barely be in the top 10. So, the final devolution of Britain, if it happens next week, will create barely a ripple in world economy or politics. But Great Britain still has some outsized influence in the world, if not in the physical then in the world of imagination.

To many people in Asia, particularly in British ex-colonies and protectorates, the British Empire was the greatest evil in human history. Because they not only destroyed the economies and cultures of many nations, but also humiliated proud civilisations and forced them to have permanent servile mentality.

However, for some closet devotees of Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, who mainly lurk in Britain and America’s politics and academia, the British Empire has been the greatest civilising force in the world since the Roman Empire. The truth probably, as most of the times in history, lies somewhere in between.

Among the European colonial empires, the British Empire probably was the least bad one. Many studies have concluded that Britain built better political institutions and physical infrastructure in their colonies than other powers. The British Empire genuinely had huge civilising influences –  ending the Atlantic and Indian ocean slave trades will be one of its proudest achievement. The English-educated people from ex-colonies also faced fewer difficulties in integrating with the globalised economy.

But the legacies of British Empire are no less bloody – the sheer number of people dying in the British colonies by direct or indirect effects of imperial policy rivals those of Spanish or Belgian colonies. We are also reminded daily of the pernicious cartographical legacy of the British Empire, particularly in the Middle East.

In my opinion, the main hallmark of the British Empire was hypocrisy. More than the empire, the British people are proud of the legacy of the English (and Scottish) Enlightenment, which gave the world liberal democracy and free trade. The British Empire was built on those ideals.

One can understand that empires cannot be built on political freedom, but the British Empire was also the biggest instrument of economic enslavement in modern history. Particularly the Indian subcontinent has huge reason to look back with anger.

According to Paul Kennedy’s seminal The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in 1750 India’s share in global manufacturing output was 25%, China’s 33%, and Britain’s 2%. In 1900, the share of India was 1.7%, Britain 18.5%, and China 7%. While Britain was fighting numerous wars in Europe and America in 18th and 19th century in the name of free trade, it imposed the most prohibitive protectionist regime in India. We essentially could not export anything to the world and had to buy everything from Britain.

India under the British rule experienced one of the slowest economic growth in all modern history. Unlike China, India has always been a vigorously trading nation since antiquity. One can reasonably speculate that, sans British yoke, India would have continued to export and import vigorously with the outside world and adopted industrial revolution earlier and with more vigour by using its labour advantage.

The ex-subjects of the British Empire have every reason to cheer the end of Great Britain. But historical milestones are far less important than everyday lives of millions of living human beings. So, we should hope that the Scottish people will deliberate very thoroughly before taking the uncertain plunge to independence. Meanwhile, the prospective demise of Great Britain once again reminds us that the merciless tides of history spares no one, great and small.

As the great English poet Shelly wrote in his poem Ozymandias: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.” 

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