09 March 2021

Biggar, but far from better

A frustrating article in The Irish Times by Nigel Biggar has driven me back to my files and something I'd written about three, three-and-a-half years ago; I attach it below.

The latest piece is sheer sophistry, and historically dodgy sophistry at that. It takes real disingenuity — or laziness — to dismiss this speech as an example of President Higgins having drunk too deeply at the wells of postmodern and postcolonial theory, despite it being clearly steeped and informed by a deep knowledge of Irish history and Irish history under British rule.

And what do you do with a statement as horrendous as 'Said’s claim that empire invariably involves cultural repression does not readily accommodate the fact that the renaissance of Irish language and literature with Yeats, Synge and Hyde occurred within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland'? Given that the only reason that there was a need for such a renaissance was the cultural repression of the native Irish over centuries of British rule, British rule that saw the country's population reduced by as much as a fifth on three occasions between 1640 and 1850, or that the three people he cites were all Anglo-Irish writers, people hardly representative of those whose culture had been crushed...

The whole article is utter rot, and I can't be bothered trawling through it again. I'm just left, reading it, baffled that Nigel Biggar is seen as an authority on morals. I'm not even sure what that is, tbh: I'd have thought that experts on morals should simply be good people.

I have very serious issues with President Higgins's take on ethical remembering, as I think he tends not to get even close to the high standards he calls for, but his thinking about this — as, for example, here and in the video linked above — and his willingness to engage with Irish violence in the causes of nationalism and imperialism, is genuinely impressive, and far above those of Prof. Biggar.

* * *

I should begin, I suppose, by pointing out that my views on the United Kingdom have shifted since the Scottish referendum of 2014. Although there were those who misunderstood my concerns about provoking nationalist sentiments in Scots otherwise content with a British identity as support – even as cheerleading – for independence, I was far from convinced of the case for it at the time.

As I said then to a few people, it ultimately smacked to me of that bleakly selfish cry from Lewis’s final Narnia book: “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs!”

Brexit has changed this, and in particular the handling of the Brexit referendum by the British parliament has changed this. There is, I believe, nothing wrong with referendums, but they need to be anchored in proper constitutional systems where their role and status is clear, and where flawed ones can be overturned.

None of this has been the case with the 2016 Brexit referendum, where most people seemed unaware of its advisory character, where politicians are treating a wafer-thin majority as an unassailable directive, and where the vote was won in a way that in Ireland’s case would at least cause the Supreme Court to consider whether it should be rerun.

More to the point, Brexit has shown that even if the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish vote as one, a solid English majority in referendums would be enough to force them into positions they do not want, especially if MPs will abandon the Burkean ideal of voting in line with the conscience in the interests of the country as a whole in favour of one where they act simply as voters’ delegates. It has demonstrated, if there were any question about the issue, that if there’s ever a solid majority in England, the other parts of the UK must simply accept the will of the English.

This might not matter especially to those who define themselves primarily as ‘British’, but for those who don’t, Brexit laid bare the realities of the modern United Kingdom, such that if I were Scottish I think I would almost certainly now vote to dissolve the union. Scotland, I would think, should not be an English vassal.

(I would, of course, always have favoured Irish reunification, and increased reading combined with the callous disregard for the North shown through the Brexit debate, along with the willingness of the UK government to use it as a pawn to pressurise Ireland with has, if anything, confirmed me in that view, such that I’m afraid there’s no way that I could ever fully support any group dedicated to maintaining the UK as it currently stands. The principle of consent is key when it comes to Northern Ireland, of course: we’re bound by treaty to the fact that Irish reunification won’t happen till there’s a majority for it on both sides of the Irish border, and I firmly believe that this is as it should be.)

These Islands
That said, to ‘These Islands’ and to Nigel Biggar.

I don’t know if you saw the Irish journalist Naomi O’Reilly’s comment on ‘These Islands’ this morning, but she made a very valid point in saying “’These islands’ was a perfectly good euphemism until these lads came along,” with the UCD historian Conor Mulvagh observing that it offers “a great insight into the fragile, confused, mostly white, mostly male, and misty-eyed world of modern day paternalistic unionism”.

I’d not go anywhere near that far, and have been defending the effort, pointing out to people that it is clearly far better to try to put forward a positive case for continued unity than to simply try to scare the Scots – or indeed the Northern Irish – into staying. I think this is a very difficult enterprise, of course, not least as there are circles that need squaring in terms of comparing and contrasting the current unions with Scotland and Northern Ireland and the historical one with Ireland.

And then there’s the name.

‘These islands’ is a term that pops up on a regular basis in documents drawn up by the Irish and UK governments, and– is a deliberately euphemistic term, intended by the British to be polite and by the Irish to avoid any suggestion of British ownership or dominion. The term ‘British Isles’ is in fact offensive to many – though by no means all – Irish people, and as Norman Davies observes in the introduction to his 1999 book The Isles: A History, “The Isles ceased to be British precisely 50 years ago, when the Republic of Ireland left the Commonwealth, though few people in the British residue have yet cared to notice.”

A universally acceptable name for this archipelago seems to elude people: ‘British isles’ is far too loaded; the historically ancient ‘Pretannic Isles’ sounds like an absurdly antiquarian venture; ‘Islands of the North Atlantic’ rather ignores the reality of – for example – Iceland; nobody seems to want the ‘Celtic Isles’ or ‘Anglo-Celtic Isles’ even if Ireland, Scotland, and Wales together take up more space than England does; ‘West European Isles’ is slightly clunky and could irk those Britons who don’t see themselves as European; and ‘Britain and Ireland’ skips the likes of the Isle of Man and the offshore islands.

‘These Islands’, of course, can’t work from an external viewpoint, but at least when talking among ourselves it works well as a good way of referring to these islands in a politically neutral way: these islands would be ‘These Islands’ regardless of what political structures existed within and across the islands, heedless of borders, monarchies, and republics.

All of which makes it a problematic term for a think-tank or advocacy group dedicated to maintaining the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as it appropriates a deliberately broad, generous, and neutral non-political term and deploys it towards a specific, narrow, and highly political end, and does so in a way that suggests that Irish attitudes to this don’t matter.

Nigel Biggar and the ‘British’ Irish
Certainly, that notion seems to underpin all too clearly Nigel Biggar’s essay ‘What the United Kingdom is good for’, which less than a couple of paragraphs into its more than 5,000 words baldly states that the Irish are British.

Three paragraphs later, then, we’re told that the UK is a multinational state, comprising a union of peoples who have maintained their own national customs and has either retained or acquired its own institutions; bizarrely, he states that the “Welsh language flourishes far more strongly in Wales than Irish language does in the independent Republic across the water” without acknowledging how it was during the relatively brief period that the whole of Ireland was in the UK that the Irish language was almost totally extinguished , and then goes on to claim that “Northern Ireland has enjoyed its own legislative assembly much longer than either Wales or Scotland”.

This is a straightforward falsehood, even if we put aside how the Northern Assembly hasn’t met since January. The Northern Ireland Assembly first met on 1 July 1998, less than a year before the first sittings of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, both of which first sat on 12 May 1999.

It is possible, I suppose, that Prof. Biggar is trying to suggest that the Northern Ireland Assembly is the same thing as the Parliament of Northern Ireland that was abolished in 1973. Given how the two entities are fundamentally different, however, and how the old Stormont parliament was a gerrymandered institution that maintained a one-party state where Catholics were systematically discriminated against, the entire system being sustained by the Westminster government, such that it’s hardly a model for how the UK is a successful union of respected peoples, I hope this isn’t what Prof. Biggar had in mind.

It’s rather strange too to read that “so flexibly successful has our union been that the thought of violent conflict erupting (again) between its constituent peoples is almost unimaginable” – it’s almost as though he’s not paying attention to how the Northern Irish peace process has been in trouble for the last couple of years or to the dangers Brexit poses to that process.

A peculiar take on the Troubles
His take on the ‘Troubles’ is most peculiar, not least in how he describes it as a case of how “history can sometimes roll alarmingly backwards”, and sums it up as something that happened when grievances of Catholic nationalists against discrimination “erupted into civil protest in the late 1960s and then, on the part of a republican minority, into physical violence in the early 1970s”, with the British government then seeking, “not only to contain and suppress the violence, but also to address the economic and social grievances”.

Reading this, one might almost think that Prof. Biggar is unaware of how anti-Catholic pogroms had long been part and parcel of the Northern Ireland experience, how the civil rights movement had been met by an intensification of these pogroms, attacks from the Royal Irish Constabulary, and of anti-Catholic violence in general, and how the British army was originally sent in not primarily to suppress violent Republicans but to protect Catholics from their Protestant neighbours.

(In fact, to read this, there’s not even a mention of how what would become Northern Ireland was carved out from Ireland at gunpoint over 1912-1914, how it was sustained by gerrymandering, discrimination, and the violence and intimidation of Catholics by Protestant, and how loyalist terrorism was a staple of the Troubles throughout, with the vast majority of civilians killed in that civil war being Catholics killed by the unionist terrorists simply for being Catholic.)

“After the IRA had been fought to a standstill, the republican leadership and most of their followers agreed to swap the bullet for the ballot in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998,” Prof. Biggar declares, in a Telegraph-Mail-Times-Spectator version of history that ignores firstly how effective the IRA was through the 1990s – one thinks of the 1991 mortar attack on Downing Street and the 1996 bombings of Canary Wharf and Manchester – and more importantly moves to swap the bullet for the ballot began for the Republican leadership in the 1980s, long before “the IRA had been fought to a standstill”, whatever that means.

This process actually began quite early in the 1980s, it’s worth noting, but began to get real teeth from 1987 on, with the Irish government and the priests of Clonard Monastery working with John Hume to get Gerry Adams to rein in the IRA and stop nationalist violence.

“In return, London agreed to cede Dublin a role in upholding the interests of Catholics in Northern Ireland,” Prof. Biggar says, apparently oblivious to how this had been the case since 1985’s Anglo-Irish Agreement, as well as “to establish a power-sharing constitution, to reform the police service, and to respect the result of any future popular referendum on Irish unification.”

This leaves out a lot, but rather than going into that, it’s worth looking at what he sees as the moral argument against Irish reunification: it’s an important part of his thesis, not least as it rests on points he’s made in the past against Ireland’s independence struggle a century ago and how it shares a common thesis with his argument against Scottish independence.


Against an independent Ireland?
Prof. Biggar lays out three moral tests, claiming that the risks that attend political divorce can only be justified if motivating grievances are serious, chronic, and current. “To enter upon the risks of divorce for grievances that are trivial, temporary, and in the past would,” he says, “be reckless and imprudent and therefore morally wrong.”

It’s worth remembering how in January 2016, speaking in one of Dublin’s Anglican cathedrals, Prof. Biggar laid out a similar test to claim that the Irish independence struggle that began at Easter 1916 would not have passed the test of being a just war since “the British-dominated government in Dublin, against which the rebels took up arms, was not persisting in grave injustice”.

It’s true that historians such as Roy Foster have made the case that the Irish of 1916 were not oppressed as their ancestors had been; this is clear. However, to say that the Westminster government was not persisting in grave injustice is a different matter.

In the first place, since the 1870s there had consistently been overwhelming democratic support across Ireland for autonomy within the UK – in a sense this was the revival of a movement that was derailed by the Famine – with this being obstructed in numerous ways from Britain.

It was only the Irish Parliamentary Party holding the balance of power that had forced the British Liberals to offer Home Rule to Ireland, with this in turn being derailed by the Conservative-backed militarisation of Ulster’s Protestant community, their threats of war being indulged by Westminster and with a reluctant plan to suppress them if need be being dropped when British army officers threatened to resign their commissions.

The upshot of all this, of course, is that Westminster decided in 1914 to treat Ireland as two separate polities, which it had not hitherto been, and to partition the country on largely confessional lines, retaining the wealthiest part of the country within the UK and ensuring it would have an enduring loyalist majority.

It was, it’s worth pointing out, British unwillingness to accede to the popular will in Ireland over the 1912-1914 period that saw the Home Rule-supporting Patrick Pearse become a violent republican, and that caused the Irish hierarchy to become disenchanted with the Home Rule project, such that the Church would be broadly on board with calls for a national independence movement as the First World War progressed.

With 1920’s Government of Ireland Act, Britain’s willingness to split Ireland was realised, with two Catholic-majority counties being included in the new ‘Northern Ireland’ and with treaty talks only beginning with Nationalist rebels when the Northern parliament had begun to sit. The state that is now known as Ireland is, in reality, what was left after Westminster had given the Ulster Protestants their own gerrymandered statelet.

Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path is superb on this whole period, and really brings home  the extent to which Ireland was in many ways a mere pawn in the games of British party politics that busied people in Westminster; comparisons with Brexit are, if we’re paying attention, unavoidable.

(Neither does Prof. Biggar seem willing to countenance whether Irish farmers paying the British government annuities for land the British had confiscated from the Irish was itself fundamentally unfair, or whether the condemning of Ireland to provincial irrelevance through the 1800 Acts of Union had denied the bulk of the country an industrial revolution, leaving it impoverished and bereft of investment even into the 20th Century.)

Against a reunited Ireland?
Still, for Prof. Biggar, who at least has recognised that under the Good Friday Agreement a referendum could see Ireland reunified, voting for this to happen is only morally justifiable if his tests are met.

“Whether or not it is right that Northern Ireland should secede from the UK should not be determined by the political exploitation of historic, self-romanticising Irish nationalist hostility to the British,” he says. “Rather, it should depend on whether the UK government has in fact shown itself willing and able to right the wrongs that Catholic nationalists have suffered, whether the one million-strong Protestant unionist population consent to be absorbed into the Irish republic, and whether that republic is ready to pay the costs of absorbing them.”

None of these tests are met, he says, but whatever about the last one, the first two are pretty spurious. What does he mean by saying that reunification would only be moral with the consent of the Protestant population? Does he mean all of them? Or does he mean most of them? And is he including as Protestants the people who claim to be of no religion, because if not his figures are very wrong – 2011 figures point to there being three quarters of a million non-Catholic Christians in Northern Ireland, with there only being 14,500 more non-Catholics than Catholics. The Good Friday Agreement simply requires a majority of people in Northern Ireland to be on board for reunification to happen, so it would be quite a shifting of goalposts to demand that that majority also include a majority of Protestant unionists.

The first one still remains very much in doubt: it ignores the question of whether the sundering of Ireland was itself a historical injustice perpetuated and sustained by Britain, it ignores the question of whether by pursuing its current Brexit campaign the British government is perpetuating fresh wrongs against the Irish on both sides of the border, and it ignores British government reluctance to investigate seriously widespread and well-substantiated allegations of collusion between loyalist terrorists and the British state apparatus throughout the troubles along with a reluctance to compensate properly the victims of such violence or to prosecute its perpetrators.

As for Scotland?
It’s worth turning again to Prof. Biggar’s criteria for whether the Scots, say, would be justified in seeking independence. The motivating grievances for independence, he maintains, must be serious rather than trivial, chronic not temporary, and current not historic.

The first criterion is a subjective one, of course; what the Scots might consider serious, the English might think trivial, or vice versa.

The second criterion is a better one, I think, but at what point should a grievance be deemed to be chronic rather than temporary? By this basis, a terrible injustice could be shrugged off as a once-off: Prof. Biggar seems to be suggesting that terrible injustices should be suffered until they’re clearly a chronic phenomenon rather than a passing one.

As for the third one, it’s worth considering how these would work at a micro level, with reference to the old line about ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ Should a beaten wife stay with a husband who has stopped beating her? Would it be immoral for her to leave?

Not that I think Scotland’s situation is remotely comparable to this, of course, but the fact remains: Prof. Biggar seems to be saying that independence should only be sought by countries at their weakest, suffering serious hardships that they have suffered for generations, but it should be obvious that countries at their weakest are rarely capable of seeking independence.

The Ireland that lost as much as a fifth of its population in the famine of the mid-18th Century and the Ireland that lost a quarter of its population in the famines of the mid-19th Century were, after all, in no position to seek independence. It took generations before it had the strength to do that, and by that point, by Prof. Biggar’s analysis, they had no case to make.

I’m not entirely sure – I’m open to persuasion on this – that a country needs to have ‘grievances’, in any case, if it’s to justify its own independence. It could simply be that a country might think it would do better if it could plough its own furrow, and this is where discussions of the Scottish economy come into play.

Sure, the economic arguments deployed in the 2014 Scottish referendum were rubbish, and I think it should be very clear to us all that an economy based on fluctuating oil prices is not a sustainable economy. However, I wouldn’t blame Scots for looking to a bigger picture.

Back when Ireland – and here I mean the 26 counties of the then Free State, of course – left the UK, it was an economic basket case, an impoverished place with no industry to speak of, an agricultural economy that had been developed to serve the British market, and notoriously high infant mortality rates in Dublin.

Now, though, Ireland’s pretty much the only place in these islands outside London and the English southeast where the economy is healthy. The UK is a notoriously imbalanced economy, such that it would not be an unreasonable lesson for the Scots to draw that Ireland has well because Ireland has broken away from the UK and deliberately adopted economic strategies based around weaning itself off its dependency on England.

This might not be the right lesson to draw, of course, but it is a reasonable one.  

I’d be wary too, for what it’s worth, by Prof. Biggar’s line that Scottish independence might provoke a resentment among the English towards the Scots that they have never before had reason to feel, especially given his acknowledgment that there is a “traditional resentment” towards England in Scotland, though at no point does he show an ounce of interest in why such a resentment might be there.

“Maybe the mutual alienation caused by the dissolution of the Union would have lasted only two or three generations—as in the case of Ireland,” he says. “Maybe, unlike Ireland, no blood would have been shed.”

The thesis seems to be that as long as the Scots keep their heads down, the English are fine with them, and his raising of the spectre of war seems rather at odds with the aim of ‘These Islands’ to put forward a positive case for the continued union of England and Scotland.

And the purposes of the UK?
For Prof. Biggar, the UK is good for three things, which he lists as “the greater external security of liberal democracy, a depth of multinational solidarity of which the European Union can still only dream, and the upholding of a humane international order”.

None of these withstand a huge amount of scrutiny, at least as he outlines them.

His thesis about liberal democracy is based on a handful of historically dubious whiggish bullet points, and ignores how, for instance, the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system has a habit of returning parliaments are far from representative and governments that arguably lack genuinely democratic legitimacy. That’s not to say that it’s not a system with advantages, but it’s certainly not one that gets held up nowadays as a model for the world.

His point about multinational solidarity might have some merit were it not for how in the Brexit vote an English majority has shown a shameless contempt for the concerns, interests, and simple realities of Scotland, Wales, and especially Northern Ireland.  

In particular, his contrast between London taxpayers subsidising poorer people in those areas with Germans bailing out the crippled Greek and Italian economies following the financial crisis is utterly mendacious. An honest comparison would entail comparing London subsidising the other parts of the UK with the likes of Germany subsidising other parts of the EU through structural funds, the Common Agricultural Policy, and other regular subsidy systems, rather than to massive and exceptional bailouts designed to address crises caused by fiscal irresponsibility and being sought without convincing plans for tackling the crises.

And then there’s the line about a humane international order. Sure, that’s a plausible argument as long as it focuses on, say, Kosovo, sets up straw men about the UN, and doesn’t address things like the invasion of Iraq that has led to countless deaths and the annihilation of Christianity across large swathes of the Middle East.

Praising this, as Prof. Biggar does – and in line with his previous defences of Cecil Rhodes, say –  as “the legacy of Empire” is particularly odious, especially when he trots out clichés about how the British Empire wasn’t so bad, since while it presided over a couple of massacres, “it also pioneered the suppression of the slave trade throughout the 19th Century and was the only major opponent of European fascism in the field from May 1940 until June 1941”, such that its record is simply “morally mixed”, like any nation state.

People need to stop wheeling out this line about how great it was that British Empire pioneered the suppression of the slave trade, given how before it decided to stop it – an effective way of hurting Britain’s French rivals, it’s worth adding – the slave trade had been central to the British economy, with about 40% of all slaves destined for the Atlantic between the 1670s and 1800 being transported on British ships.

As for the rest, things like Amritsar and the Black and Tans weren’t anomalies; in Ireland, just look at the 20th-Century history of North King Street, Dublin’s Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, and Derry’s Bloody Sunday, and look at how the perpetrators of such events were protected while the man responsible for Amritsar became a national hero. Look at the Opium Wars. Look at the concentration camps used in the Boer Wars and Kenya, how torture was used in Aden and Cyprus, the Chinese resettlement camps in Malaysia. Look at the wiping out of the Australian aborigines, or the carving up of the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottomans. Look at how agricultural taxes and diversion of supplies exacerbated famines in India with at least 12 million people being thought to have died there because of British policies.

Look, I don’t think the British Empire was uniquely evil as empires go – that’s clearly not true. “Powers will be powers,” as A.J.P Taylor says, and in any case, it’s not as if my own family didn’t play their part in the imperial project, serving as they’ve done in India, the Boer War, the Western Front, Kenya, and Northern Ireland.

But this doesn’t change the fact that the British Empire was a uniquely vast and assiduously exploitative machine for enriching British people at a massive cost to others, and one that was justified time and again by self-serving claims that Britain had a civilizing mission, that the peoples of the colonies simply weren’t ready to rule themselves, and needed British guidance, a claim that enabled Britain to withhold freedom as distant promise and which Prof. Biggar implicitly pushes now with his line that “The United Kingdom shouldn’t kick its post-imperial habit; it should keep it—for the world’s sake.”

No, the United Kingdom needs to find a better way of justifying its continued existence if it wants to persuade those who would leave it. 

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