In an uncharacteristic, and so far unique, gesture I have Angus MacNeil SNP MP to thank for the proud appearance of the union flag above today’s blog post.
If you follow No Thanks! you’ll realise I’m not a great fan of flags, of any variety (search ‘flags’ for proof of my claim). There are few photos here of flags of any sort, neither saltire-waving crowds of faux kilted highlanders in George Square rooting for ‘indy’ nor serried ranks of rosy-cheeked schoolchildren waving their wee union flags to greet HM the Queen on some civic visit.
Which made Angus’ prominent use of the union flag all the more surprising. The poor soul probably didn’t realise it’d pop up when he linked his tweet to an article by Thomas Taylor Edgar, The real reason we speak English around the globe.
You’ll see MacNeil’s real interest is in a quote from that article:
It is estimated that the British Empire killed over 100 million people in its lust for resources, power and influence.
Edgar perhaps reveals his hand when he continues:
Not for no reason (sic) is the Union Jack known as the ‘Butcher’s Apron’.
Contrary to the conceit of some, that pejorative name for our national flag is not forever on the lips of formerly oppressed people world-wide who were under British rule at one time or another. It’s a label originating, as I understand it, in Ireland and taken up by some Scottish nationalists in relation to the shared history of England and Scotland. You might also wish to note that Mr Edgar, although currently resident in Vietnam, is Scottish and worked for many years on the Stornoway Gazette where he may have had the good fortune to come across the man who would be the Western Isles’ MP.
It’s not my purpose to criticise Edgar’s article, in which there is undoubtedly some considerable truth – English is spoken so widely because Britain colonised much of the world. But most European states were busy at the same game for centuries. It’s why Portuguese is spoken in Mozambique, Angola and Brazil, French in much of Africa, Spanish throughout most of Latin America, and so on and so on. The process of being conquered and colonised is also why Spanish has many words and names of Arabic origin. And it’s why nearly every language in Europe has a basis in the Latin of ancient Rome.
None of these nations or peoples came in a benign spirit, clutching recipes for their respective cuisines or volumes of love poetry to share. Their motivations varied but all were more base than the pursuit of multi-culturalism: they were religious, ethnic, or commercial in one guise or another, not far in fact from the ‘resources, power and influence’ of the single sentence quoted by MacNeil. It’s just that, in the modern era, the British empire was significantly more successful than some of the others and, contentious as it might be for some readers, at its end more benign. If you don’t believe that, swat up on the history of the Belgian Congo or Portuguese Africa and the condition Belgium and Portugal left their ex-colonies in.
As to the claim that 100 million were ‘killed,’ I have as much direct evidence as Angus MacNeil i.e. not a lot. It’s an easily remembered round number, and sufficiently large to shock at first sight. But even if true, I might contrast it with the 13 million said to be killed by the Romans in a much smaller part of the world with a much smaller population, the hundreds of millions likely to have been killed by supposedly benign communist regimes, and so on. None of those numbers alone is helpful in understanding what happened and why.
The pernicious thing, of course, is that some will remember the round number and never question its accuracy or its context. I’m sure Angus MacNeil didn’t think about it, beyond cutting and pasting it from Thomas Edgar’s blog. If you check that, you’ll see that Edgar seems to take the number from a book entitled All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To by historian Stuart Laycock. Laycock himself says his ‘little book’ is
a modest attempt to tackle what is an absolutely enormous and enormously complex subject.
Indeed. Enormous and enormously complex.
But the truth is, Angus MacNeil doesn’t care. Just as he doesn’t care what the many other empires throughout history have done. Enormous subjects and enormous complexity are not his thing. It’s just another excuse to bash Britain and the majority of his compatriots who are content to be British as well as Scottish.
Still, he gave me an excuse to use the union flag for probably the first time on this blog. Thanks Angus.