Is there any point to Neil Oliver? Asking for 5 million friends. The windswept hirsute one has been in the news again for all the wrong reasons. Actually that’s tautological, because the chairperson of the National Mistrust for Scotland is never in the news for the right reasons. This is after all the man who called the first independence referendum a “hate-fest”, and who described the possibility of a second one as a “cancerous presence”. Neil’s always been very keen on defending the British state from any threat to its continuing existence or its reputation.
The reason he’s swept his hair and flounced into the papers this week is because of his big take from the scenes of protesters in Bristol toppling the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and rolling it into the water – in an echo of the slaves who were tossed overboard from his ships when they died or fell gravely ill due to the appalling conditions on board. Neil responded by making the trite, and another word that rhymes with trite, observation that the events were “filmed on iPhones by people wearing T-shirts both made by modern-day slaves.”
Neil thought about the African people who were ripped away from their homes for the profit of rich British merchants, sold as livestock, and shipped across the ocean on a death ship and if they were lucky to survive they’d live out the rest of their lives under the whip, toiling away in cane fields, cotton fields, and tobacco fields, or sexually exploited and abused by those who profited from their misery. If by some chance they managed to create a new family they could see their children torn out of their arms and sold like cattle. Neil decided that this was totally the same thing as working in a factory in China for a shitty wage. And this is a guy who makes history documentaries for the BBC. Next month, we can see Neil’s take on the abominations of the slave trade, in which he discusses the connections between whipping, rape, slavery, and iphones.
Odd how he seems to be more angry about a statue than he is about black people being killed by the police. Actually no, it’s not odd at all. If you’re more angry about a statue than you are about black people being killed by the police and the systemic racism which pervades our society, then you’re a part of the problem. In Neil’s case it’s because he can’t handle anything that puts his beloved Britishism in a poor light. Because he’s not a nationalist, you understand. Oh no. Not at all. He’s British, and that gives him a free pass from the evils of nationalism.
According to Neil, removing the statues of racists, oppressors, and exploiters of human beings from our public spaces is just one step away from the guillotine. The usual message from the apologists for colonialism is that we can’t change the past. However this overlooks the vitally important point that we can indeed change how we look at the past. It was not too long ago that the likes of Edward Colston, whose statue was dragged down in Bristol, was uncritically hailed for his contributions to his native city, while everyone conveniently overlooked the fact that he was only ever in a position to make those contributions because he conspired to exploit, despoil, rob, and torture abroad. The benefits that he brought to Bristol were on the back of African deaths and misery.
Scotland has its own share of Edward Colstons. Our cities are full of streets named for colonialists, for slavers, for those who enthusiastically exploited their fellow humanity for personal gain and for the glory of the British Empire. Andrew Buchanan, who gave his name to Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, and Archibald Ingram, who gave his name to Ingram Street, made their money from slave plantations in Virginia and the Caribbean. They were amongst the infamous Tobacco Lords for whom the city’s Merchant City district is named. They grew wealthy from slave labour. The beautiful buildings in Glasgow’s city centre were built from money sweated out of slaves with blood, tears, and misery.
The imposing building that stands on Queen Street, formerly the Stirling Library and now the Gallery of Modern Art, was originally built as a mansion for William Cunninghame in 1780 at a cost of £10,000 (approximately £1.5 million in today’s money). Cunninghame’s wealth came from the tobacco grown on slave plantations in Virginia. Glasgow only has this beautiful building, which continues to enrich the cultural life of the city, because of the sacrifices and misery of generations of enslaved Africans. Yet nowhere in Glasgow is there any public recognition that the city was enriched by the labour of slaves. What is true of Glasgow is also true of other towns and cities in Scotland.
Scotland has a unique place in the history of colonialism. As individuals Scots were enthusiastic participants in the exploitation, theft, dispossession, genocide, and oppression which created the British Empire. In the process many came into immense wealth and accrued great power. Yet at the same time the majority of ordinary people in Scotland were being exploited and oppressed at home. The Clearances represented an act of ethnic cleansing which was not all that different from the dispossession of peoples from their land in other parts of the British Empire. The victims of the rural clearances – both Highland and Lowland – were for the most part crowded into the slums of those cities whose middle classes were being enriched by the exploitation of the Empire abroad. The less privileged became cogs in the machines of industrialisation, living short and brutal lives characterised by poverty and despair. The British state manufactured a Scotland founded upon religious discrimination, and created an underclass out of Scots of Catholic and Gaelic heritage in order to divide and rule the populace and keep Scotland safe for the Empire. Scottish culture and language were denigrated, despised, and oppressed. Scotland was simultaneously coloniser and colonised.
For Scotland confronting our past means confronting our dual role as both coloniser and colonised, as both oppressor and oppressed. It means looking under the stone where the British nationalist origins of sectarianism are hidden. It means learning the truth of the Clearances and the internal colonialism that the British Empire inflicted upon this land of ours, and remembering that the glories of the empty Highlands exist only because they were cleared of humanity, of our grandparents several times removed. It means accepting that Scotland’s wealth and architectural glories derive in no small part from the exploitation and oppression of people abroad. It means learning that Scotland isn’t just a victim but was also a victimiser. We were cleared from our lands in Scotland, and went on to clear others off their lands in Australia or North America. We lived in the misery of the industrial slums in Scotland, and enslaved and exploited others abroad.
We can’t confront our past while we uncritically celebrate slavers and oppressors in our street names, with statues, and whose beautiful buildings adorn our cityscapes unrecognised as objects created from pain and misery. It takes a dramatic event such as toppling a statue to force people to confront uncomfortable truths. The Scottish past contains much that is uncomfortable, both for British nationalists and for those in the independence movement who would prefer to paint a picture of a Scotland that was forever a victim. The reality is far more complex, far messier, far less cosy.
No wonder Neil would rather we didn’t examine it critically. Confronting the ugly reality of what the British Empire did abroad also means confronting the reality of what it did at home here in Scotland. His beloved Britain doesn’t come out of the story well.
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