A version of this was originally posted in my HelpGov blog.
Aficionados of the Scottish independence referendum debate will know how new words and new meanings for words are being created all the time. Some are apposite, some amusing, some offensive, some just plain daft. Recently had a discussion online with a nationalist who writes his tweets as if he were Yoda, I have. A weird experience.
But there are words which, while not offensive in themselves, seek to create a misleading impression to the extent that they are in effect lies.
One such word is colony, the accusation that Scotland is a colony of England. This canard surfaces frequently online and was used last month by former SNP leader Gordon Wilson.
Here I have the advantage over Mr Wilson. As far as I can see he has never lived outside Scotland except for some schooling on the Isle of Man. I have, and I am also old enough to have lived in a British colony (Singapore) and visited others either when they were still colonies or shortly after they became independent.
There was no single constitutional model for a British colony (the Brits pragmatists as ever) but most shared a number of features until very near their end. I would invite Mr Wilson and other perpetrators of the ‘Scotland is a colony of England’ lie to consider which apply to Scotland.
- In a British colony, formal authority was vested in a governor as representative of the monarch and appointed by the British government.
- There were often no democratic structures, certainly no elected national government. If there were elected representatives, they were usually confined to local councils and/or a body that advised the governor.
- Political parties, especially those arguing for independence, were often banned. Bans were often supported by imprisonment of party leaders, sometimes by detention without trial.
- Even if there were some democratic structures, the people had no representation in the UK parliament.
- The legal status of residents varied but they were not citizens of the United Kingdom and had no right of travel to the UK.
- The authority of the governor was often backed up by British army units that were used if necessary to quell dissent.
- In quelling dissent, protesters were dispersed in ways that would not be acceptable nowadays in the UK and people were sometimes killed. Widespread rebellion in some colonies like Kenya and Malaya led to the use of internment camps where local populations were relocated from their homes.
- The judiciary was appointed solely by the UK government or the British colonial administration.
I can hear nationalist objections to my list – ‘Ah but there’s another sort of colonisation, of our cultural institutions and of our very minds themselves.’
Well, yes … although language is used like that in this context not as a form of subtle cultural metaphor but as a blunt instrument to give a false impression that through repetition might become a perceived truth.
There are plenty of arguments for and against independence for Scotland. The lie that Scotland is a colony of England is not one of them.
Footnote. After I wrote this, an interesting ‘Scottish independence essay’ called Say No to colony myth in The Scotsman addressed the subject from a historical perspective. Worth a read if it’s still online (it was in July 2017).