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A Global Perspective on Our Identity

united kingdom
Written by Hugo de Burgh

It took a member of the CCP Central Committee to remind me that the British Empire was a WISE [Welsh-Irish-Scots-English] endeavour, in which the four nations spread enlightened ideas throughout the world. He predicted that, in time, the four nations will come back together, not to celebrate the past but to reaffirm their solidarity in a great endeavour of human civilisation, the sharing of our insights with the world.

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Before we realised his lifelong dream of visiting Scotland, Leng Rong talked up Kew Gardens to me, which he described as a wonder of the world. He admired our explorers, botanists and naturalists for helping other peoples to understand and appreciate the natural world. Walking through the plants, flowers and trees, reading how this or that species had been identified by some WISE visitor to Asia or Africa or Latin America and that the country in question now had its own botanic gardens with which Kew specialists worked, I came across the name William Roxburgh. Roxburgh was a surgeon from Edinburgh who joined the Madras Medical Service in 1776. He became East India Company botanist in Madras in 1879 and over the following years published many illustrated books on Indian botany. He is known as the ‘father of Indian botany’.

Roxburgh’s life reminds us, not only of the innumerable positive achievements of the British Empire, even while it was under commercial, rather than state, control, but also of how all four of our nations can share the glory.

The Chinese politician and the Scots botanist

Roxburgh was a late product of the most fecund period of Scots history and the only time when the tiny country has been so significant, the Scottish Enlightenment. From 1707, its ideas spread well beyond Scotland across the British Empire and Continental Europe. The political ideas influenced the founding fathers of the USA. The Scottish School of Common Sense – opposing French theorising – swept north America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

My Chinese guest, Professor Leng, specified that he wanted to go to Scotland to see the birthplace of Adam Smith and the tomb of David Hume, ‘who are still among the most widely cited thinkers in the world’[1] and ‘because, through your Empire, Scotland was so important in the diffusion of modern ideas.’

The spirit of inquiry, enterprise and observation that the Enlightenment fostered, infused Scots with zeal better to understand the world and introduce it to reason. David Livingstone (1813-73), the explorer and opponent of slavery, initiated education and healthcare in Africa. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) used the wealth earned from his creation of the US steel industry in philanthropy throughout the empire. He was one of the several million Scots who emigrated. In the 18th century the British presence in India was overwhelmingly Scots. Their influence was particularly in medicine, environmental sciences, education and evangelism. When, in my twenties, I went to Tennessee to visit my grandmother’s second cousins, whose forbears had emigrated from rural Aberdeenshire in the 19th century, I found that they had all been chemists, physicists and physicians, products of the Scots zeal for education.

Glasgow developed as second city of the Empire thanks to imperial free trade, its exports helping to turn Scotland from one of the very poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. Scotland not only took, it also gave. It has a long history of investing and providing credit abroad, in gold and silver mining, sheep and cattle farming, and land reclamation and development.

Competition with Wales

Until they started to cringe to the hostile views of the British Empire that became fashionable with rise of Marxist histography in the 1960s, Scottish scholars claimed that ‘it was the specific character of the Scots that helped to build the Empire, as well as the fact that far greater numbers of them were involved in the Empire than were the other three nations.’ [2] The other

three nations might demur. For its size and population, Wales was a disproportionate participant in the Empire, perhaps even the first, if you

count the Welsh-Norman colonies in 12th century Ireland as imperialism.

From 1650, thousands of Welsh emigrated to the Americas and the Caribbean. Missionaries left for India, Syria and North Africa. It is likely that the primary motivation for Welsh involvement in the empire was moral and religious. Of the tens of thousands of District Officers, missionaries, health workers, engineers, many were Welsh[3]. ‘They dedicated – and often lost – their lives to bringing law and order, education, medicine, sanitation, and railways, among many other benefits, to distant peoples who needed them, with little or no hope of personal reward, at least in this life.’[4]

Ireland as spearhead of Empire

As to Ireland, antagonists of empire have suggested that Ireland was the empire’s first colony and aligned their country with the subjects of empire rather than its pioneers. Yet the Irish contribution to the imperial achievement is so great as to justify calling it the spearhead. Irishmen have been leading British statesmen – Shelburne, Wellington, Castlereagh, O’Connell, Palmerston and John Hume among them. Edmund Burke MP, arguably our greatest political philosopher, campaigned to clean up imperial administration and crusaded against slavery.

In the 17th century Ireland was the chief source of migration to the West Indies. Younger sons of Irish Catholic families, without prospects in Ireland, migrated there and set up as merchants and planters. Many owned African slaves[5]. In the 18th century Irish men and women migrating from Ireland outnumbered the total English and Scottish migrants combined. Irish migration totalled 6 million between 1820 and 1920.

Irish Catholics served as soldiers and administrators, policemen, doctors, engineers, lawyers, journalists or businessmen throughout the Empire, but most of all in India. In the mid 19th century 24% of appointees to the Indian Civil Service were Irish. [6]

Although the romantic Wild Geese, Irishmen who fought for continental kingdoms after 1690, are eulogised, from the 18th century onwards, Irish catholic soldiers typically served the British Empire, rather than its competitors. 50% of East India Company soldiers were Irish. In 1830, 42% of all British soldiers were Irish born. In the First World War, despite the campaign by priests and upper class malcontents to leave the UK, 200,000 Irish served.

The Roman Catholic church established itself in all the Irish communities in North America and Australasia. The Irish Christian Brothers became the leading teaching order in India, among many Irish missionary initiatives. ‘Catholic Ireland left lasting impact on African culture: especially healthcare, education, politics and the English Language. The idea of the missionary, characterised by heroic self-sacrifice, helped to reinforce Irish identity as a land of saints and scholars; this was reflected in the tone and mood of the 1916 Easter Rising.’[7]

While missionary work has been, rightly, criticised as subversive and authoritarian, it could also be egalitarian and anti-racist. It included medical services and education. There is a paradox: Despite the holy aims, Irishmen participated in the moments of which we are now ashamed: they were actively involved in slavery when it was still permissible; the two generals, held responsible for an infamous massacre at Amritsar, were both Irish; a Scotsman and an Irishman were guilty of the maltreatment of Mau Mau guerrillas in 1950s Kenya.

Yet, like the English, Welsh and Scots, the Irish helped to populate, organise

and raise standards in the empire. Many died doing so. This was a great contribution to human progress of a small nation on the edge of the known world, made possible because of the unity of the offshore islands under the British crown. Recognition of this is occluded by a pernicious myth.

Irish myths and modern enlightenment

The myth of Ireland as victim and perpetual enemy of the United Kingdom was promulgated through the school system dominated by religious organisations, in particular the Christian Brothers. It inspired the seven poets, jingoists and zealots who, in what was subsequently extolled as the Easter Rising of 1916, started a terrorist campaign to force Ireland out of the UK[8]. The electorate had endorsed Home Rule but the seven were impatient with democracy. They sought support from Germany, at a time when many Irishmen were defending Britain from Germany’s stated desire to destroy democracy.[9]  With fewer than 1800 supporters, the seven had no conceivable justification for initiating the death and destruction which would defile Ireland for decades. They were no different, in their selfish cruelty, from today’s Jihadi terrorists and suicide bombers, seeking martyrdom for themselves in sacrificing the innocent.

‘The rising was a catastrophe that poisoned Irish veins with a toxin of political violence’. [10] No wonder that, by the 1930s, Nazi Germany and the heirs of the Easter Rising had close links, although, ironically, Hitler planned to abolish Ireland. Influential members of the Irish political class were sympathetic to Nazism[11], so that during WW2 the Irish state remained neutral. Demonstrating the gulf, which had been clear already in 1916, between that political class and the people, is the fact that, although only two Irishmen are known to have joined the German forces, at least 80,000 Irish volunteered to fight for Britain.

Once, due to circumstances beyond their control, the Nazis could no longer help, the extremists were refreshed with arms and money from the USA.  This was supplied by American enthusiasts for ignoring the will of the Irish people and killing as many of them as they could.

Few Irish politicians have had the courage to renounce the myth of the Easter Rising. But today, with the widespread repudiation of religion and revulsion at the crimes of religious, the staunchest propagandists of the myth are on the way out. It may, before long, be possible, publicly to reconsider Ireland’s identity and acknowledge the achievements, as well as the suffering, in the collaboration between Ireland and the other three nations.

As Ireland’s relationship with the EU deteriorates[12], her economic integration with the UK consolidates. As, also, the old myths lose their power,  is it inconceivable that Ireland and the UK might converge back together. A United States of the Four Nations would be an acknowledgment of cultural reality.

A global perspective on WISE identity

It shouldn’t take a Chinese politician to make us see our own identity in historical perspective. My visitor, Professor Leng, saw through the tergiversations of some Scots, like the Irish, trying to distance themselves

from what the WISE have in common.

The Irish are not the only people to have a tangled attitude to the Empire. Mahatma Gandhi, often cited as its opponent, was, in WW1, also its staunch advocate. The great anti-colonialist Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe praised British administration[13], compared it favourably with both before and after. As with Indians and Nigerians, it is not necessary for Irish or Scots to deny their part in the empire, or its benefits, in order to prove their patriotism.

The diversity of the WISE has been, is, and will be even more, enriching, stimulating and inspiring. Their contributions to humanity were made possible by their unity in diversity; yesterday, empire was the means by which those contributions were made; today, upholding our common values.

Hugo ‘Huge’ de Burgh is a Professor of Journalism and author of China’s Media in the Emerging World Order (2nd edition UBP 2020) and Investigative Journalism (3rd edition, Routledge 2021).

[1] These are the words of Professor Leng Rong, then Director of the Party Literature Research Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, ideological adviser to China’s leader, whom I accompanied in 2014 on a visit to ‘the land of Adam Smith and David Hume’. We also visited Balcaskie, seat of the (early 12th century) Norman-Scots House of Anstruther, so that he could see how a landed family had adapted to the democratic world. There he took tea with Toby and Kate Anstruther.

[2] MacKenzie, John M. (ed) (2016) Scotland and the British Empire Oxford OUP is the source for most of the points about Scots. The quotation is from Chapter 11, Finlay, Richard J:  National Identity, Union and Empire, c.1850-c.1970 (pp.280-316).

[3] Few of their names are widely remembered, but there are three Welshmen whose influence on these islands has been immense: Henry 7th who restored good governance and stability after the Wars of the Roses; Robert Owen, originator of socialism; Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS.

[4] Bowen, H.V. (ed) (2016) Wales and the British Overseas Empire, Manchester: MUP is the source of most of the points about Wales, but the quotation is from Wales: History, Myth and Empire, a lecture by John Winterson Richards, at the Institute of Welsh Affairs on 05/12/15


[5] Kenny, Kevin, ‘The Irish in the Empire’ p95 in Kenny, Kevin (ed) (2006) Ireland and the British Empire, Oxford: OUP

[6] The principal source on Ireland is Kenny, Kevin (ed) (2006) Ireland and the British Empire, Oxford: OUP

[7] Dudley Edwards, Ruth  (2016) The Seven:  the lives and legacies of the leaders of the Irish Republic London: Oneworld, P364. See also,  Kenny, Kevin, ‘The Irish in the Empire’ p112-21 in Kenny, Kevin (ed) (2006) Ireland and the British Empire, Oxford: OUP

[8] For an overview of the contribution of the (local) Catholic church to the myth, and references, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/nov/28/christian-brothers-ireland-child-abuse, accessed 011222

[9] Dudley Edwards, Ruth (2016) The Fading Myths of 1916, Prospect Magazine, 21st April 2016.

[10] Dudley Edwards, Ruth (2016) The Seven:  the lives and legacies of the leaders of the Irish Republic London: Oneworld, P 371

[11] The Republic’s Ambassador to Germany, Bewley, was an admirer of Nazism who rejected applications for visas from Jews trying to flee Germany and, living in Rome after WW2, wrote an admiring biography of Hermann Goering. Father Denis Fahey, a close friend of President de Valera, was a rabid antisemite and involved with several neo-Nazi or ultramontane organisations. Famously, President de Valera offered his condolences at the German Embassy on the death of Hitler, although by this time his crimes against humanity were well known.

[12] See The Case for an Irish Brexit is growing Stronger, at https://www.briefingsforbritain.co.uk/the-case-for-an-irish-brexit-is-growing-stronger/ accessed 011223

[13] https://web.pdx.edu/~gilleyb/Achebe_Final_AsPublished.pdf  accessed 161223

accessed 160123

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About the author

Hugo de Burgh