This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of iScot Magazine. It is reproduced here following Tavish Scott’s announcement that he is to retire. My reasons for celebrating his departure from the Scottish Parliament should be clear from what follows.
Wounds unhealed and lessons unlearned
Against very strong competition, one of the most disturbing facets of the British state’s propaganda effort during the first Scottish independence referendum campaign was surely the attempt by the failed leader of the British Liberal Democrats in Scotland, Tavish Scott, to raise the spectre of partition. Along with the odd party colleague and, if memory serves, an even odder member of the aristocracy, it was he who most fervidly peddled the notion of Scotland’s northern and western island communities being partitioned from independent Scotland to form exclaves of the rump UK.
There was, of course, no evidence of any measurable support for partition among the people of Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles. And Tavish Scott’s constitutional and economic arguments were, to be generous, ill-informed drivel. But, needless to say, his ‘secessionist’ campaign on behalf of nobody who’d ever asked for it won enthusiastic support from the British media.
While it is easy to mock the antics of Tavish Scott and his ilk, this is not a laughing matter. The very mention of partition is deeply offensive to those aware of how the British state’s strategy of divide and rule has blighted large swathes of the world, bringing misery and suffering and violent death to millions. As an instrument of policy in the hands of the British ruling elite, partition has had a devastating geopolitical impact and much of the conflict in the world today has its origins in the seeds of discord sown when the British empire was in its pomp.
India and Pakistan. Israel and Palestine. Iraq. All of the Middle East and much of Africa. All still bear the bloody handprint of European colonialism and, in particular, British ‘diplomacy’.
The casual, clumsy carving of the Indian subcontinent in the few weeks prior to independence in 1947 is undoubtedly the most horrifying example of partition in action. Almost entirely on the whim of a lone British barrister named Cyril Radcliffe, some 15 million people were displaced and a cataclysm of violence was ignited. The number of deaths is put at between one and two million. But the truth is that the disruption was so massive that nobody really knows how many died.
But it wasn’t only the killing. As is ever the case when political malice or ineptitude results in the breakdown of society, women suffered most. Abduction, rape and mutilation was rife. Tens of thousands of women had to endure unspeakable horrors. Tens of thousands more who managed to escape the sexual abuse, forced tattooing and physical torture, still had the torment of their families being torn asunder. Many were separated from their loved ones for years. Some were never reunited.
The bitterness and recriminations born of British blunders continue to affect relations among governments and communities in the region. There is little sign that the wounds inflicted by Cyril Radcliffe’s pen 70 years ago might heal any time soon.
That anyone could even talk of partitioning Scotland illustrates, not only the irresponsible idiocy of British nationalist ideologues, but the totally unprincipled nature of the anti-independence campaign.
It also says something fundamental about the nature of the British state. It speaks of a blinkered attitude to history. An unwillingness to learn from earlier mistakes. Perhaps even a pathological inability to take responsibility for past actions. Because it’s not only the example of partition discussed at some length above. The instances are legion. I would challenge anyone to find a situation in which partition did not lead to serious strife. And yet the British state persisted in resorting to the same strategy. How is this to be explained?
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the British establishment simply didn’t, and doesn’t, care. It is entirely untouched. It acts with total impunity, so has no cause to consider consequences. The British state suffered no significant repercussions from its use of partition. Just as it has never been called to account for its appalling conduct during the first referendum campaign.
It’s all tied up with the British sense of exceptionalism and entitlement which is so ill-concealed by the current Westminster regime. A dumb, smirking arrogance born of the self-righteous certainty that comes with deeply entrenched power.
Those of us who supposed that the first Scottish independence referendum had brought out the worst in the British establishment have been given cause to reconsider that conclusion by Brexit. Much of the unscrupulousness of Project Fear made an unwelcome reappearance in the course of the EU referendum campaign. But the way Theresa May and her ministers have disported themselves since then has put even the insolent hauteur of David Cameron in the shade.
Once more the issue of partition puts in an appearance. We didn’t have to go all the way to the sub-continent to see the impact of the British state’s predilection for the politics of division. We have a telling enough example on our doorstep. The aftermath of partition in Ireland is a piece of historical tragedy too close to home to be ignored. Or so you would think. But Tavish Scott managed to disregard it when he was threatening Scotland with partition – however ineffectually. And, despite endlessly repeated warnings, the British government too has turned a wilfully blind eye to the implications of Brexit for the border between the republic and the British province and the state of relations between and among the communities affected.
With the publication of the UK Government’s position paper on cross-border arrangements, we see yet again the blithe assumption that the British state can simply impose its idea of a solution – however incoherent and impractical and dementedly fantastical that may be.
One can all too readily imagine Cyril Radcliffe, having concluded his slicing and dicing of India, brushing off such concerns as may have reached his elevated ears with a flippant assurance that it would all work out in the end. (As, indeed, it may. Because seventy years on, the turmoil that partition initiated still hasn’t come to an end.) It’s even easier to imagine David Davis echoing that nonchalant sentiment.
The British state represented by both of these individuals is so confident of its invulnerability that there is no need for caution. No need to heed the alarms. No need even for what most would surely regard as careful consideration.
I am probably not the only one to find that discussing the situation being instigated by the British state in Ireland is fraught with trepidation. There’s that nagging, superstitious sense of tempting fate. A feeling that, despite the years of peace, partition has created a structure which is so fragile and finely balanced that a word out of place might tip things into chaos.
Evidently, the British political elite is not given to such misgivings. There is no room for doubt. The price of failure always falls on others. The potential momentousness of that price, as evident from the lessons of partition, simply does not impinge on the calculations and conniving of the British political machine.
We are entitled to ask ourselves if this is symptomatic of established power which has become overly secure for the health of democracy. And, if it is, what do we do about it?
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