It’s been a frustrating few days, I’ve been offline due to computer problems. To give myself something to do I started on building the new model tram layout I’ve got planned, only to discover that the extremely expensive track system was missing some parts and other bits don’t work. So after a protracted period of hassle I’ve ended up with a much shorter and simpler layout than I paid for – now I know how Edinburgh felt. But at least the computer is working again, although the tram track is still giving grief.
A week ago, Daily Mail and former Record journalist Chris Deerin published an extended piece of trolling in which he set out what he risibly described as the moral duty for Scots to vote no in the referendum, as in his view the United Kingdom is a greater force for good in the world than the Fairy Godmother. The UK is the Magic Kingdom where happy little munchkins gaily skip to zero hours contracts jobs and nothing bad ever happens.
Naturally folk didn’t respond well to the implication that voting for independence is an immoral act, on a par with exposing yer wullie in public, although Deerin was blind to the irony that his list of things that are Great about Britain boiled down to exposing Westminster’s wullie in public. But he still managed to find time to publish a follow up article in which he complained that horrible cybernats were being nasty to him for exposing his many idiocies.
The entire episode has already been roundly mocked, but I thought it might be useful to examine Deerin’s “moral duty” a bit more closely. After all, it’s only possible to arrive at a fair assessment of the UK’s morality footprint if we also consider the occasions when the UK trod morality face down in the mud.
Let’s look at just one of the reasons why Deerin thinks voting for Scottish independence is just the same as flashing yer nads. Does it stand up or is Deerin a flaccid flasher?
The UK, he tells us, led the way in the abolition of the slave trade. It’s a topic that has been under discussion recently, with the success of the movie 12 Years a Slave – touted by the UK media as an example of how it took a British movie to get the Americans to face up to their legacy of slavery. In fact in an interview the director, Steve McQueen, the son of Caribbean migrants to the UK, stated that as far as he was concerned in making this movie he is not a “British director”, he’s a descendant of the enslaved not the enslavers.
The UK was very much one of the enslavers. What Deerin didn’t say is that Britain also led the way in pursuing the slave trade. The historian Professor David Richardson estimates that European nations transported 12 million Africans into slavery across the Atlantic. British slave ships carried more than 3.4 million of them, almost 30% of the total.
Only Portugal, which began the slave trade 100 years prior to British involvement and continued 50 years after the UK had abolished the trade, took more Africans from their homes into a life of degredation and suffering.
Sadly, “the UK, it’s not quite as bad as Portugal” isn’t really the ringing moral endorsement Deerin was hoping for. But it’s the best he’s going to get.
By the second half of the 18th century, the UK was leading the world in slavery – but not in the way Deerin meant. In the 1760s an estimated 80,000 Africans were transported across the Atlantic annually, British ships carried more than half of them. Most were destined for the sugar and tobacco plantations in the British colonies in the Caribbean.
Slavery made some people in the UK very wealthy. By the middle of the 18th century Britain was raking in £4 million pounds a year from the West Indian sugar and tobacco plantations. (In today’s money that works out at close to £1 billion.) During the same period, the entire combined international trade of the UK from other sources brought in only £1 million. Between 1750 and 1780, about 70% of the government’s total income came from taxes on goods from its colonies, meaning that slavery accounted for 56% of the annual income of the UK Exchequer.
The UK abolished British involvement in the slave trade in 1807, although slavery continued in British colonies until 1833. But the British abolition of slavery was not motivated by moral concerns.
The vast funds the UK raised from the 18th century slave trade were invested in new opportunities as the Industrial Revolution got under way. The Industrial Revolution and the financial centre of the City of London were kick started by the capital raised from slavery, and with the growth of factories and industrial production the economics of slavery became less profitable.
The new factories meant Britain had less need for slave produced goods. Instead of an enslaved workforce, the UK economy began to benefit from mechanisation and vastly greater manufacturing efficiency with free labour which could be hired or fired as market needs demanded. Unlike slaves, free workers did not have to be fed by their employers when there was little work for them to do.
After the USA became independent in 1776, Britain’s sugar plantations in the Caribbean went into economic decline as the USA could now buy sugar from French or Dutch plantations. Revenues from Jamaica and the other Caribbean colonies dropped drastically. It now became in Britain’s financial interests to act against slavery, since the economies of the UK’s European rivals were still dependent upon revenues from slave labour.
Although those individuals who led the campaign against the slave trade had the highest of motivations, their campaign was only successful because of changing economic circumstances. From being the financial motor of the British economy, changing times and circumstances had gradually turned it into a threat to British financial interests. Slavery was no longer profitable. As ever with Westminster, it’s all about the money. The only morality Westminster recognises is the morality of the pound note.
If you vote no in September on moral grounds, you are voting for the morality of money, the morality of the market, the morality that puts profit before people. That’s a direction in which the UK’s moral compass has pointed unwaveringly, and continues to point to this day. The UK doesn’t need slavery any more, it has zero hours contracts and workfare instead.