The phrase Perfidious Albion or Perfidious Angleterre has a very long history and an equally long justification. Otto the bishop of Freising in Bavaria used a similar phrase in the year 1191 to describe the untrustworthiness and bad faith of the English monarchy following a dispute between the crowns of England and Austria during the Crusades. However the phrase really started to gain traction after the French Revolution to the extent that by the 19th century French writers could refer to “la Perfide Albion” as a well known old saying.
The French revolutionaries had been greatly inspired by England’s so-called Glorious Revolution a century previously which saw the Westminster Parliament curtail once and for all the absolute power of the monarchy and replaced the Stuart dynasty with the Hanoverians. The French revolutionaries originally sought to establish a liberal constitutional monarchy along British lines. However Westminster and the British crown soon turned on the French revolutionaries and allied itself with Europe’s reactionary and absolutist monarchies in a bid to bring the revolution down.
It says a lot about a state that a phrase referring to its supposed proclivity for treachery, deceit and bad faith becomes elevated to the status of a stock phrase that’s a well known old saying. It says a lot, and it says nothing good. Perfidious Albion is the flip side of British exceptionalism. What British nationalists see as the special nature of Britain which elevates it above the rules and norms that apply to lesser nations, others perceive as an untrustworthy deceit and a willingness to go back on the terms of deals previously agreed. It’s an important lesson that you cannot reach a meaningful or lasting agreement with a polity which is founded upon the belief that it is beyond the normal standards of honesty and decency which it expects of everyone else.
Examples of the untrustworthiness and bad faith of the Westminster Parliament are abundant. Just restricting ourselves to recent history and Westminster’s dealings with Scotland, Perfidious Albion rode again with the promises and commitments made to Scotland by the anti-independence parties in order to secure a No vote in the 2014 referendum. Brexit taught Scotland that Westminster did not really believe that Scotland is a partner in a family of nations. The Conservatives’ attacks on the devolution settlement and their willingness to subvert and undermine the powers of the Scottish Parliament tell us that their promise in 2014 that no Westminster government would ever alter the powers of Holyrood without the express consent of the Scottish Parliament was never more than a cynical and tactical lie designed to help them secure a vote against independence. It was never a promise that they ever had any intentions of keeping.
The latest example in a long series of British perfidy is the shameful way that the British Government is willing to trash the Northern Irish protocol which it agreed with the EU in order that Boris Johnson could go into a UK General Election and tell the gammons of British nationalism that he’d got Brexit done. Dominic Cummings now tells us that the Johnson government never had any intention of abiding by the terms of the deal. It was, exactly like the Vow that British party leaders solemnly swore to the people of Scotland on a faux-parchment newspaper front page, only ever a short term tactical lie, designed to allow the Conservatives to get through a short term political problem. In a Tweet Cummings gloated that “cheating foreigners is a core part of the [Prime Minister’s] job”.
Johnson has form for this. He supported Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement at a third Commons vote in March 2019 despite the fact that he had resigned from the cabinet in protest about it, a resignation which was itself cynical and tactical, aimed at burnishing Johnson’s credentials with the Brextremist frothers in the Conservative party who would later elect him party leader and give him the keys to Downing Street. He voted for May’s deal, tactically and cynically because it was expedient at the time. His goal was to agree a deal in bad faith and then once the UK was out of the EU to kill it off from the outside. After May lost the Commons vote, she resigned, Johnson became Tory leader and the lying and deceit which was previously merely a strong tendency of the Conservative party became official British government policy.
The UK has now shown the international community its true colours as a bad faith actor which cannot be trusted to keep an agreement.
This is an important lesson that Scotland is dealing with British nationalist opponents who will lie, cheat, and say anything to get their way. None of the promises that the anti-independence campaign will make to Scotland in the next independence referendum will be worth the air used to utter them for all that they will be trumpeted and amplified by Scotland’s overwhelmingly anti-independence media. Scots too count amongst those foreigners whom Boris Johnson and his allies see as being his core job is to cheat.
This is particularly important because opponents of independence will not go into the next independence referendum campaign with the same lazy and arrogant assumption of victory which characterised their attitude in the early months of the 2014 campaign. They will be under immense pressure to find some story, some plausible sounding promises of a positive offer to make to the people of Scotland in the hopes of securing a No vote. Just like the British Government’s Brexit negotiations with the EU and just like the Vow in 2014, they will be nothing more than expedient and tactical lies which aim to “cheat the foreigners” and will be trashed the second that the Conservatives get the political result that they want. Which is why we cannot cease highlighting their lies and deceit in order to boost our chances of ensuring that they do not get the outcome that they want and that Scotland will no longer be the victim of Perfidious Albion’s lies.
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