:: Article

An anti-imperialist theme park

By Max Dunbar.


The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism, Tom Gallagher, Hurst and Company 2009

One of the most successful Scots writers of literary fiction, Irvine Welsh explored the effects on Scotland of imperialism and colonisation. Yet he was also wary of the post-colonial narrative. He knew that the flag of anti-imperialism was waved by dictators as well as revolutionaries and that history was more complex than the standard post-colonial narrative would suggest. In The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, his doomed antihero Danny Skinner attends an orgy at which he is asked how he feels about the ‘national question’:

I think we Scots have done okay out of the Union… We give everybody the sob story about how we’re the last colony of the British Empire, but we played a big part in it with the development of slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s the wrong answer, and Skinner pays for it. Welsh himself was delighted at the prospect of Scottish devolution, but nevertheless expressed reservations:

You always get an oligarchy that creams it off for themselves. There is such a moribund infrastructure of deadbeats and conmen in the Labour Party that has dominated politics in central Scotland for so long. I’d be absolutely astonished if these people didn’t manage to push their noses in the trough and dominate. Hopefully not. But as someone who has worked for local authorities in Scotland, you always live in fear that will happen.

Welsh was wrong in one detail. Ten years on and the Labour Party has long since gone smash in Scotland. Its continuation – and sometimes extension – of doctrinaire freemarket policies did not endear it to Scottish voters. Tom Gallagher, in this thoughtful study of Scottish nationalism, summed up Labour’s failures on both sides of the border: ‘Too often Labour has preferred a dependent support base which should know its place and be grateful for what it receives. Resentment inevitably bubbles up especially when the possessors of such an arrogant mindset are revealed as people sometimes devoid of talent and integrity.’

Instead pissed-off Scottish voters elected the Scottish National Party, which combined leftish-sounding policies with a powerful pro-independence kick. Its stylish leader Alex Salmond enjoyed strong name recognition even outside Scotland, but who were, exactly, the people in control at Holyrood? Gallagher writes:

[A] close look at its parliamentary benches indicates they are dominated by solicitors, and management, media, and marketing figures as well as ex-councillors and numerous others who have spent nearly all their adult lives as political activists. As has been shown with New Labour, these are not the types of politicians who are natural pluralists, but rather ones who prefer to husband power.

The Illusion of Freedom is a engaging study and expose of the SNP and Salmond in particular. Gallagher argues that, like a bad general blinding his soldiers with patriotism, Salmond uses great, expansive anti-imperial gestures as a means to direct attention from his disastrous policies and love of power. The SNP leader emerges as a Ken Livingstone with a whole country to run.

His first job was at the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Salmond defended the bank’s moronic executives as late as October 2008. It had an entire UK division dedicated to tax avoidance, yet Salmond justified Fred Goodwin’s calamitous stewardship: ‘… let the people in charge guide these institutions into safer times and let’s get behind that effort.’ The farsighted Lib Dem Vince Cable pointed out that if Salmond had his way, ‘Scotland would be an independent country attached to a large bank.’

Yet the SNP seemed comfortable with boom era junk economics. Salmond’s ally Jim Mather said in 2003 that: ‘We want more millionaires, and any notion that an independent Scotland would be left wing is delusional nonsense.’ Salmond himself supported Donald Trump’s bid to build a golf resort on a coastal conservation area in Aberdeen, and appeared on a chat show on a day that he should have been in a crisis meeting about the loss of 900 jobs at a whisky plant.

Another characteristic Salmond shares with Livingstone is his enthusiasm for religious communalism. In a country with one of the youngest and most secular Muslim populations in the developed world, Salmond chose to work with and fund the Scottish Islamic Foundation, an Islamist-friendly group run by the bigoted Caliphate enthusiast Osama Saeed, who is also an SNP candidate. This is a particularly tragic alliance in a country that has suffered from brutal religious sectarianism.

It’s Gallagher’s contention that an independent Scotland under Salmond’s SNP could end up as a self-contained version of the top-down exploitation the country suffered under empire. The lesson goes beyond Scotland. Too often an anti-imperialist position ignores the gulf of power within a country, which can be as wide as that between conqueror and conquered. It doesn’t always recognise that anti-imperialism can provide a cover for the poor to become enslaved to the rich and the weak enslaved to the strong.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 4th, 2009.