Empires come and go. Very few go out in a blaze of glory. Sometimes revolution gets rid of them. A few have been wiped out after being on the losing side in a war. Some have just dwindled away.
The British Empire seems to have carved out a place for itself as the empire that is dead but just will not lie down. 70-odd years after it began to fall apart, there are still people living in England (and I suspect it’s only in England) who think they are still living in the Empire, whereas in reality the Empire is hanging on desperately to its last remnants: like the Falklands, Gibraltar and a few specks in distant oceans.
A few folk appear to think the heyday of the British Empire is still with them. I’m thinking of the man who said on TV Britain had managed before the EU and would fine after Brexit, adding ‘After all, we still have the Empire.’ Some, sadly, mistake the Commonwealth for the Empire and think they can issue orders to what are independent nation states. A prime example would be South Africa. Events there are no business of the British but still we show an unhealthy interest. Same with Zimbabwe. Nothing to do with Britain, but somehow the media and politicians just can’t keep away. It came as no surprise to find that some English people – including some politicians – were under the impression that Eire is still part of the British Empire and that citizens of the UK have the right of citizenship there.
I want to say I know a lot of people – not just in England – show lamentable ignorance of the geography of other countries, but even I am surprised at some of the things I hear. On a quiz show, a competitor was asked to name the largest city in Scotland. ‘Clyde?’ she answered. But competitors from outside England are sometimes expected to know the names of stations and lines on the London Underground – and identify palaces and castles all over England.
Strictly speaking, in the eyes of some English people, the only parts of the British Empire left today are Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. People sometimes have a sense of ownership, as if what are in fact two separate countries and a province are somehow the property of the UK state. It’s as if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are extra counties of England, far from being partners in a union, but actually owe their continued existence to ‘Britain.’ (And they should be grateful). We also know that some English people talk happily about Britain when they in fact mean England.
The Empire, UK state – call it what you like – seems to be very reluctant to let these remaining members of the union go. But the chances are they will have to, as one by one Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales decide to go their own way.
I certainly don’t want to be accused of telling England what to do but I could suggest it’s maybe time England went for independence. It could develop a role for itself in the world that doesn’t rely on being ‘in charge’ of other countries. It could stop – as it claims it does – subsidising Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It could reduce its spending on nuclear and other weapons, cut the spending on its navy and its army and spend its income on the poor, the sick and the disabled within its own borders – people who have been sorely tested in the last decade by austerity. England could even give some thought to modernising its government, with a constitution, a bill of rights for its people – and a form of parliament that doesn’t depend on first-past-the-post or ‘gongs’ and rewards those who work hard rather than those who are merely well connected.
But all of that is for the citizens of England to decide. Not us in Scotland. We plan to be citizens too of our own country, but being ‘subjects’ is not in our agenda.