Last year while he was on a visit to China, Prime Minister David Cameron was involved in a diplomatic incident that had more than a casual connection with Scotland’s past.
Apparently, David Cameron spent some time in November, the period around Remembrance Day, in the Chinese capital of Beijing and had decided to walk through its streets and attend various functions with a poppy decorating his lapel. His hosts and Chinese government officials had asked him to remove it. The Prime Minister refused to do this, dismissing the request out of hand. It was a decision that won him the praise of the likes of the Daily Mail, a newspaper which declared he was “backing Britain” during his visit to foreign parts, refusing to accept any insults to this country’s war-dead during his time there. Now, whatever one might think about this year’s perennial quarrel about poppies, it seems to me that the Daily Mail response last year to Cameron’s actions was – to coin a phrase – complete and utter poppycock. When Cameron pinned a poppy in his lapel, he was, in fact, behaving in an incredibly insensitive way. He was undermining the purpose of his visit, preventing Britain from gaining more trade and profit from that part of the world. For many reasons, the symbol of the British war-dead, part of that great, red harvest from the fields of Flanders, means something much more different to the people of Beijing and Shanghai than it does to those in London or Lerwick.
And the reason for this can be seen throughout Scotland, even my home town of Stornoway. It has its silent witness in the town’s main school, the Nicolson Institute, built partly from the results of a rather one-sided conflict Britain had with China in the 19th century. It can be seen, too, in the Lews Castle and its grounds that dominate the town. It was constructed from the wealth of Sir James Matheson, the founder of the great firm of Jardine and Matheson which still operates in Hong Kong and the Far East today.
In short, in Chinese eyes, the poppy means opium, a drug often inflicted upon its population by what can only be seen as the 19th century equivalent of the modern drug-pusher. This individual, largely Scottish in origin, was, however, not harried and hassled by members of the local constabulary as he might be if operating today. Instead, he was backed by the military might of the British Empire, a force that waged two wars (in 1839-42 and 1856-62) in order to ensure that, in the name of free trade, the Chinese population had the right and duty to become permanently stoned on a product fine, upstanding Scotsmen brought openly to their ports. This was all part of what came to be known as China’s “Century of Humiliation”, a time when that country’s territory was threatened and imposed upon by foreign forces, especially those of the British Empire. It left tens of thousands of Chinese people dead, that country’s women brutalised and raped, its buildings burnt and smouldering. Even the sea that washed upon its shoreline was blackened by corpses. It was all this that David William Donald Cameron was so tactfully reminding his hosts about as he insisted on wearing the poppy in his lapel while he swaggered and sashayed his way around diplomatic receptions in Beijing. However, it seems to me that this form of historical blindness does not only afflict Prime Minister Cameron. It is also apparent to me that it has affected many of my fellow Scots in recent years. Throughout my life, it seems to me that I have met too many beer-sodden individuals from the Highlands and Islands who will shake their heads and proclaim: “Everyone hates the English for what they’ve done …”
If this is true, one can only conclude that “everyone” must be suffering from a weird, alcohol-induced form of amnesia. The Scots themselves were guilty of similar, if not worse, horrors than their southern counterparts. (In fact, there were some periods in history when they were hated much more than the English.) Thousands of native North Americans and Aborigines were put to the claymore as well as the sword. Men with surnames like Matheson and Nicolson made vast sums from the miseries of those in the East.
Yet far from acknowledging this, Scots have done the opposite. For too long, Scots have seen themselves purely as the cruel victims of British Imperialism. “Wicked English proprietors cleared us from our crofts and glens,” some of my fellow-countrymen argue, “They made us suffer. They caused us sorrow. Our people left these shores on a flood of grief caused again and again by our neighbours to the south.”
Much of this is simply not true. The worst of the evictions were brought about by those with thoroughly Scottish names, like Colonel Gordon of Cluny in South Uist and Barra, or the Duke of Sutherland on his vast estates. The worst effects of capitalism within the British mainland were seen in the slums of Glasgow and its adjoining towns – all brought about by those whose bloodstreams were thoroughly Scottish. We do not have to look outside our country’s borders for villains. They have always existed – just like Fred Goodwin – within the boundaries of this, our native land. It is time we grew up and began to recognise this.
Donald S Murray