Monday, 30 June 2014

On Paisley, hens, and Scotland's Empire

This is "Paisley" pattern;
Paisley pattern ties - Wikimedia Commons

It's a picture of twisted teardrops, woven into brilliantly coloured fabrics. The pattern is not originally from Paisley - it was brought there by Scottish soldiers and merchants who had seen the originals in India and Persia. Paisley weavers reproduced the cloth mechanically, on looms, and the Scottish merchants went back to successfully sell the patterned cloth to the then Indian colonies. In modern terms, they took the Intellectual Property (IP), and turned it into a profit.

A lot of profit. The evidence is all over Scotland, where our public buildings (Gallery of Modern Art, Hutchesons' School, and Hospital in Glasgow, amongst many others) were donated by people made wealthy by the imperial trade.   We benefit today from public goods, ranging from art galleries to schools, built from imperial profits.

Glasgow Necropolis - Wikimedia Commons

Glasgow's landmark Necropolis, a hilltop covered in the ornate gravestones and memorials of our rich 18th and 19th century merchants - the time when Glasgow was the Empire's second richest city - reminds us that Glaswegians lived, profited and died all over the Empire.  Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) said: "It has been my lot to have found myself in many distant lands. I have never been in one without finding a Scotchman, and I never found a Scotchman who was not at the head of the poll."

The Imperial trade was not simple burglary, or just swapping trinkets for gold. There was exchange, even if it was not between equals. And it is too simplistic to say it was just evil white men; I've been to the West African seaboard, and I know that slaves from what is now Mali were traded by people who would now be Ghanaian.

There were exchanges that benefited both sides. Here is one with a Catalan connection:  In farms in Minorca you'll see fat black chickens scampering about the farmyards. Good layers, and good to eat, these are Menorquin hens.  The chickens are here thanks to the wife of the British Governor of colonial Minorca. This was probably Ann, wife of James Murray, the Scottish-born Governor or Minorca from 1774-1782. She took some scrawny black hens home to Britain, spent years improving them (presumably with a bit of good breeding) and returned them to the island's farmers. Generations of Menorcans have benefited from her imperial philanthropy.

The Scottish Referendum reminds us of Empire, because at various points in the debate it has felt like Scotland is the colony. When George Osborne said that we could not have the pound it sounded like the Empire speaking. How dare he! That pound is built on Scottish wealth as well as English; he cannot simply take it away. And when we are told that Scotland should continue to hand over its oil to support the UK treasury we are being treated as a colony, only relevant so long as the Imperial power can extract valuable raw materials.

Now we know, just a little, how it feels to be colonised.

So now is the time to face up to our imperial past. That means justice,  education and reparation. Education in its very widest sense, so that we the public learn that our good stuff, much of it, was built on bad stuff - on injustice, pain, death and cruelty. Education designed to remind us, before we purchase that new mobile, that new dress or those shoes, that these objects are made in the Empire of today, the multinational trading Empire, and that they are made in the pain of the Coltan mine or the dangers of the sweatshop.

And reparation meaning that we go back to the communities we abused and repair some of the harm we caused. We will arrive far too late, and in far too tiny a way; we will not find the skilled Persian embroiderer who made the first twisted teardrop. But we must seize this moment when we are, for a while, a colony of England, to start to repair the ruin of Empire.


Disraeli quote from The Scottish Enlightenment, Arthur Herman, Fourth Estate, London, 2002, page 294

Poultry for Anyone, Victoria Roberts, Whittet Books, Suffolk, 1998

The Minorca Club - poultry

Friday, 27 June 2014


The people who live here.

It's the phrase used to define who will vote in September's referendum in Scotland. And it signals how different the independence debate is in Scotland than in, say, Kurdistan.

In most "nationalist" debates the heart of the debate is ethnic, defining your nation by virtue of your parentage. JK Rowling got this wrong, in her £1m No statement in which she says that people might judge her 'insufficiently Scottish' (to which the National Collective's Mairi McFadyen wrote such a brilliant reply ).

In Scotland it's not about being Scottish, or not being Scottish enough. It's about a group of people, living in a nation, choosing how they should be governed.

I am Scottish. But like millions of Scots I don't live there, an emigrant looking for opportunities and a lifestyle that Scotland did not appear, in 1975, to provide. I'm ethnically and culturally Scottish, but it's right that I should not have the vote in a country that I chose to leave 39 years ago.

The evolution in the nationalist debate has not apparently registered with the No campaign. The No discourse is still shouting about nationalists closing the borders and hating the English. This is childish. The people who live in Scotland could define themselves as Scottish, English,  Catalan, Pakistani, Brazilian, Kurdish or any one of the hundreds of homes, or ethnicities, that make up Scotland's diverse populace. All of these people can vote.

The policies promoted by the Yes campaign underline this. Yes to immigration (what a difference from Westminster's xenophobia,) Yes to continuing in the EU (UKIP England says No), and Yes to a Nordic alliance, linking Scotland to its historic kin in Scandinavia. The movement to independence is the opposite of isolationist; anyone who thinks for a moment about how a new small country will organize itself will realise that it must make international alliances. The independence White Paper emphasises this, saying that Scotland wants to join and work with international institutions;  "Scotland will be an active member of global institutions and will be party to fair and reciprocal agreements which respect human rights..."

The debate in Scotland is not ethnic, and it is not  isolationist. It's geographic, placing a brilliant new country into a world map. A new country, where the people who live here - wherever they may call home - are sovereign.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Catalan Question

We are "a party divided" no longer "united in our diversity."

The words of Pere Navarro, leader of the PSC (Partit dels Socialistes del Catalunya, in his resignation speech earlier this month.

The cause of his sudden departure? The Catalan Question, mainly. The nationalist movement here is led by the left. As a result the PSC, the mainstream socialist party, has haemorrhaged votes to the nationalist left. Like Gordon Brown in Scotland, the PSC has tried to outline a federal future, but like Mr Brown's version it sounds neither clear nor likely. Voters are not buying it.

The Catalan Question is dominating Madrid politics. Our new king, Phillip VI, made an oblique reference to it in his coronation speech on Thursday. The Catalan Question seems more important in Madrid, than the Scottish Question is in Westminster.

In part this is because of different ideas of nation and thus nationalism, defined here by language, by street protest, by youth participation in Assembleas and Casals. Catalonia has suffered from a history, still in living memory, of bloody oppression.

The images of the nation are different, too; there is no equivalent here of the postcard-packaged image of Scotland (castles, lochs and kilts). Catalonia is harder to package.

Language is central to the debate. In the village in which I live almost everyone speaks Catalan. Our kids go to school in Catalan: a teacher in Mallorca has just finished a hunger strike as part of a mass protest against the imposition of Castellano in state schools there. Catalan is the starting point in any debate. Open your mouth and we know which side you are likely to be on. Harder to do that in Scotland.

We have a generation of protesters to rely on. At the village festas, and most other mass events you'll see a busy wee stand, the Catalan Senyera fluttering, surrounded by a group of older people talking animatedly. This is the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC,, the campaign of signatures for a referendum. The ANC volunteers are, many of them, people who were case-hardened under the 'porres' (batons) of the oppressive Guardia Civil under General Franco. There have been hilarious scenes at demonstrations of the modern police trying to move them on, caught between respect for the elderly, and their orders.

Protest seems much more natural here. People fly the Estellada (Catalan independence flag) at every Barcelona FC match. We couldn't understand why Alex Salmond was criticised for doing the equivalent when Andy Murray won Wimbledon.  Extraordinary numbers of people here join the mass protests. For the Via Catalana 1.6 million people held hands along 480km of our coastline on 11 September 2013.

The great gasping maw of a difference is that in Scotland you can vote. Here, we can't. The Madrid Government refuses to give the Catalans a vote, and both the main parties agree. Artur Mas, Catalan President, has laid plans including ordering 6,000 ballot boxes for the referendum he plans to hold on 9 November.

But Madrid will not allow Catalans to vote and refuses all talk of a referendum. We can expect a summer of discontent followed by an autumn of protest, with the 11th September, Catalan national day, a special focus.

The Catalans will celebrate their day just one week before the people of Scotland vote for their independence.  We’ll be watching, with envy.