Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Legacy of History

While I was away I read Robert Tombs masterwork "The English and their History". It has a number of themes but one of them undoubtedly is that, whether by coincidence or otherwise, the Union between England and Scotland was shortly thereafter followed by an unprecedented growth of what was to become the largest empire the world has ever seen.

The British Empire (for it never was and never will be called anything else) like any other great historical event had both its good and bad elements. When it was bad, most notoriously in its role in the transatlantic slave trade, it could be very bad indeed but equally, when it was good, most noticeably in its ultimate elimination of that trade not just within its boundaries but across the world, its power could be employed for great and good purpose.

And any suggestion that this was not an enterprise in which the Scots were fully engaged is nonsense. It was, I think, the nationalist historian Michael Fry who tellingly observed that the English conquered an Empire but the Scots actually ran it. There is some truth in that but we did our fair share of fighting too. Through the long "Second Hundred Years War" against France (as Tombs borrows the description) from the Heights of Abraham to the Scots Greys at Waterloo, Scottish troops were in the front of the action. As they were through the long imperial adventure of the 19th Century and throughout the long 20th Century departures which followed. Right up to Mad Mitch and the Argyll's in Aden, "Scotland the Brave" was never far away on any battlefield.

But, of course, the Empire is now in the past, fought over only for its reputation among historians of differing modern political persuasions. It has left a worldwide cultural legacy but most obviously a legacy here on the island from which it sprang.

But it also, and this is important, has left a continuing legacy on the modern economy of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is commonly understood to have four constituent parts: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. But in economic terms that's not actually true. In economic terms the country has five parts. The first three certainly, but more properly the final, largest, part should be divided into "Greater London" and "The rest of England".

I'm prompted to these thoughts not just by Professor Tombs' history but by a nagging unhappiness as to how last weeks GERS figures have been reported. It is certainly the case that Scotland's public spending is substantially subsidised by "elsewhere" and that an inevitable consequence of Independence would be a significant fall in living standards. But the economic reductionism of my own side's response has left me slightly uneasy. For there were two nationalist kickbacks to this. The first, the usual zoomer element who don't believe the figures published by their own nationalist government, can be treated with the contempt they deserve. But there was a second,more cerebral argument trying  to plant a tape worm in the gut of the Scottish polity. A worm we must be careful not to let flourish. "Alright, maybe we would be a bit worse off, but we would have the dignity of not living on handouts."

However, by that logic everywhere in the UK, not just us and the Welsh in the Northern Irish, but everywhere in England outwith London as well is "living on handouts".

For London, for all it is the Nation's capital, is in reality a thing apart from the nation. It is a world city, only truly rivalled in economic activity by New York and Hong Kong and boasting a cultural., architectural, historical and, yes, political legacy that puts even these other two contenders to shame. But this is not the only legacy that London enjoys. For although politically and militarily the British Empire is over, economically it still has a centre, a remaining imperial capital in a post imperial age. A centre that remains at the heart of commerce, trade, finance, simply influence, across a far wider reach than these small islands alone.  And it has a population to match, more than 50% born to at least one foreign born parent. It is a wonderful, vibrant, diverse place.

There are few people in the developed world who would not wish, given the opportunity, to visit it and many, many more, across the whole world, who have no higher ambition than but to actually live there.

But more importantly still, as that direct legacy of Empire, the post imperial capital generates wealth out of all proportion to even its substantial population. Much, much more than anywhere else in the country. And that wealth is then shared not just by those who live in London but across the country to which London itself belongs. For, and let this sink in, one pound in five earned in London, through the operation of taxation, is then spent elsewhere in the UK. But actually, that is as it should be. For, as I say, it is to the departed British Empire that London owes its modern pre-eminence.

Now, none of this is to say that this great wealth could not be more evenly distributed, across the UK or even within London itself. It certainly could and should be. Nor is it to say that such a concentration of wealth in one part of the country alone is a good thing. It certainly isn't, something recognised but never yet successfully overcome by government's of different political persuasions since at least the end of last war. Nor is it even, dare I say it, to say that, as GERS highlights, Scotland should continue, even within the UK, to be entitled to greater public spending than, frankly, more deprived parts of the country.

But it is to say this. It is not Londoners alone who are responsible for their great city's prosperity today. It is all of us. So the capital's great wealth being distributed across the Nation it belongs to is not on any view a subsidy. It is simply the benefit of being in a United Kingdom. And the legacy of history.

No comments:

Post a Comment