Some notes on the American election and imperialism

It’s impossible to escape the American presidential election. In most of the circles I move in, people worry about Hillary Clinton (especially her foreign policies, and in particular how they relate to the Middle East), but that worry is usually trumped (sorry!) by the far greater worry about Donald Trump’s candidacy.

That is hardly a surprise: when even a Republican like Caroline McCain (granddaughter of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain), says she will vote for Clinton this year, and leading conservatives think the Republican party is dying, you know something really is awry in Republican politics.

But I’m particularly interested in non-Americans’ comments – and one I feel I hear quite regularly is “I wish WE could vote in the American elections – they affect us too!” As a writer on British imperialism, I find this a fascinating comment.

Of course, in some ways it’s not a surprise that people think this: I remember wondering why, if America was the leading country in the West against the Soviet-led bloc in the East, people throughout the West couldn’t vote in the 1980 Jimmy Carter/Ronald Reagan election. I was just 12 years old and even though I didn’t really have much of an idea of what ‘the West’ was, I did know that momentous global events were taking place and the Cold War seemed an epic battle of great ideologies, though as someone with family members (that I’d never met) in East Germany, I certainly wasn’t keen on the idea of nuclear weapons being used for defeating ‘the East’. To this 12 year old, Carter seemed less belligerent than Reagan, and my imaginary/real family were in danger – so of course we (well, the adults) should be able to vote for Carter and save the Americans from Reagan!

But I’m still sort of surprised when I hear this kind of thing from people in Britain now, and from people who should know better. It’s not really said with seriousness (I think people do understand the system!), but I do hear a certain wistfulness, as if the Clinton/Trump problem could be sorted if only we sensible Brits were allowed a proper say in the matter.

This kind of comment therefore tells us something interesting about Britain. We can all applaud Michelle Obama’s excellent DNC speech with her comment about the White House: ‘I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent, black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.’

Many of us readily condemn the racist reactions she’s had. Of course we all know that America was built using black bodies: black women, black men and black children were bought, sold, transported wherever their white owners wanted them to work, and then exploited, whipped, and often murdered. When we think about ‘old money’ in America, it is generally money that has been passed down by white people that originated with black people’s labour. American slavery is often seen as black history, but it is just as much white history. Events such as Black History Month highlight some of these issues in Britain and many schools also appear to engage in some level of teaching of Atlantic slavery and Britain’s role in it (though the abolitionists often seem to feature more than the hundreds and thousands who profited from slavery – there is embarrassment about our key role in the slave trade).

But whilst we applaud Obama and condemn the racism directed at her, I can’t help thinking that the stereotypical British superiority over America communicated in the sentiment that we should have a say in American politics is in part a way of denying our own history, so closely related to America’s, not only in relation to slavery, but also wider imperial domination. “I wish WE could vote in the American elections” communicates at least two key things:

  1. a recognition that we are relatively insignificant in the current American imperial dynamic;
  2. a lack of agency that we know we once had: America now does significant things on the world stage that affect us and we have no say in the matter, whereas not that long ago, say, in the 19th century, it was Britain that did significant things on the world stage (that affected its colonies and they had no say in the matter).

Regarding the first point, of course Britain is relatively insignificant in relation to America, including American power abroad. The vote for Brexit on 23.6. diminished that further – England and Wales essentially voted to make Britain less important on the world stage, a pretty unprecedented move for any country.

The second point is just as interesting, however. The British Empire, at its height the largest empire the world had ever seen, was primarily about Britain doing things to others, though often indirectly. For example, look at the 1842 budget, which argued for moving ‘the country along the path to free trade‘ – this innocent-sounding phrase was actually a carefully constructed method of imperial control:

The apostles of the ‘free trade’ creed in the mid-nineteenth century favoured a more subtle kind of empire, a method by which (said a free trader in 1846) ‘foreign nations would become valuable Colonies to us, without imposing on us the responsibility of governing them’. The method was to dominate the world by means of a natural superiority in industry and commerce. (Bernard Porter, ‘The Lion’s Share’ (2nd ed. 1984): p3)

Porter’s 2004 book The Absent-Minded Imperialists argued that most British people in the 19th century were largely ignorant of and not necessarily very interested in the Empire. I don’t find his argument as convincing as Edward W. Said’s in Orientalism (1978), that empire was such an integral part of British (and European) society that it was often barely explicitly acknowledged but rather was woven into wider societal understandings (e.g. in literature and art) and that this normalised imperial control (Exeter’s Imperial and Global Forum has teaching podcasts discussing both of these scholars’ work).

Either way, absent-minded or wilful ignorance about the effects of their imperial adventures marked 19th century British thinking. Comments such as “I wish WE could vote in the American elections” suggest not very much has changed in our self-awareness – whilst Americans generally don’t acknowledge their present empire and its deleterious effects on the rest of the world, we still generally refuse to acknowledge our historical legacy of empire and the trauma Britain inflicted on others. Those affected have not forgotten, whether this be the 1970s Chagos islanders, the 1950s Mau Mau rebels, or the 1917 Balfour Declaration or… or… or… – our Empire has had long-lasting effects on many people.

As with America, much of Britain’s wealth derives from empire. In the same way ‘old American money’ is often based on slavery, many of our great city centres derive from empire and slavery. Whilst they may not have been built directly by slaves, they were built using wealth generated from slavery and other forms of imperial expansion. It’s great to see projects such as the Scotland Slavery Map offering new ways of engaging with the architecture of slavery in Edinburgh, for example.

So quite aside from thinking we British might be more sensible than the Americans in choosing their president (one word: Brexit!), let’s also not forget when condemning American racists attacking Obama that we are really just beginning to come to terms with, never mind rectify, the traumatic effects of our own imperial history around the world. Even starting to learn more about it would be a start, especially from the victims of our imperial ambitions, just as Shay Stewart-Bouley urges white Americans to hear black voices. We don’t have that much to be superior about, and should stop acting as if we do: no more wishing we could vote in American elections!


Is there any point in blogging? How this blog was used in Stirling Council

There are many people who (still!) wonder whether there is any point in blogging.  “Does it change anything?” they ask.  Well, apart from the number of readers that you might have (see below), even a little oft-neglected blog like this can have a role in wider circles than might be imagined.

Today my local paper, the Stirling Observer, published an article that mentioned me.  In fact, it did more than that.  It mentioned (though did not link to) this blog, and in particular the posting I wrote before this year’s Westminster elections about the different responses to my query to the SNP and Labour candidates on the question of indefinite detention of asylum seekers.  It’s worth going back to that posting and reading it again to see the generous response from Steven Paterson (SNP) and the racist response from Johanna Boyd (Labour): SNP and Labour on indefinite detention.  Of course, Mr Paterson won the election by a huge majority, and Ms Boyd was almost put into third place by the Conservatives.

Today’s Stirling Observer reported on a developing row in the city council over the current refugee crisis, and SNP councillors have picked up on my May blog posting and the way in which Labour’s Boyd now appears to have forgotten her racist track record.  Someone in the Stirling branch of the SNP has clearly kept a note of my blog posting, and used the comments Boyd made. Here is a scan of the article:

Stirling Observer, 11.9.15 (click for larger version)

Stirling Observer, 11.9.15 (click for larger version)

The SNP is picking up on Boyd’s racist comments from May, and contrasting them with her new-found concern for refugees now.  Of course, the SNP is calling this hypocrisy, and whilst she may have had a change of heart and moved away from her racist views, I see nothing in the article that really suggests the SNP is wrong in their assessment.

So next time you’re wondering if there’s any point to maintaining a blog and in particular whether it is really worth writing about politicians’ behaviour, remember this little incident.  Time will tell if Boyd’s racist comments can be countered by a change in attitude and behaviour, but her email to me now forms part of the public record, and even in that small way, this little blog has shown its worth.


Just how little is this little blog?

I started this blog after the referendum in September 2014, and this is the 52nd blog post.  Some posts have been by guest authors, and almost 60,000 people have visited and read something here.  I think that’s not bad, considering I sometimes neglect it for weeks at a time, post a link to new articles on my Facebook page, and tweet each one a few times.  Apart from seeking to write thoughtfully, it’s not a lot of effort, and yet it’s clearly attracting some attention.  It’s good to know it interests some people.

SNP and Labour on indefinite detention

There is an enormous amount being written about the forthcoming election, and I really didn’t think I had anything further to say about it.  In particular, I didn’t really want to write more about the self-destruction of the Labour in Scotland party, being so ably pursued by Jim Murphy.

However, this morning I received an email from my Labour candidate that has made me furious beyond measure, and I think her views deserve to be shared more widely.  This blog posting therefore reproduces several items of email correspondence.  It will become clear that it is not just Jim Murphy that is intent on destroying the Labour party in Scotland from within.

On 21.4. I wrote to the two candidates most likely, under the (rubbish) First Past The Post system, to win the Stirling seat: Labour in Scotland’s Johanna Boyd (current leader of the Labour-Tory Stirling council), and the SNP’s Stephen Paterson (currently a Stirling councillor).  My email to them was about the indefinite detention of asylum seekers; it was a proforma text from The Detention Forum that a friend had posted on Facebook or Twitter; I rarely use proforma emails, but they have their place:

As a voter in the constituency that you wish to represent in Parliament, I am writing to urge you to support the recommendations of the recent parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration. In particular, I would ask you to support the inquiry’s recommendation that the next government introduce a time limit of 28 days on detention.

The inquiry has found that the current system is ‘expensive, ineffective and unjust,’ concluding that ‘we cannot go on as we are.’ The inquiry was co-chaired by Sarah Teather MP and Paul Blomfield MP who chaired the APPGs on Refugees and Migration, respectively. It comprised an authoritative group of mainstream Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, including former ministers, a former high court judge and former Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Since the reports publication in March, the Labour Party has joined the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP) in vowing to end indefinite detention in the UK if elected.

The vast majority of developed countries limit the maximum period of immigration detention. The UK is unique in Europe in having no time limit and routinely detaining migrants for years. It has opted out of the EU Returns Directive, which sets a maximum time limit of 18 months. The UK should adopt this legislation and implement a time limit of one month.

As the inquiry concluded, ‘the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of upholding justice and the right to liberty. However, the continued use of indefinite detention puts this proud tradition at risk.’ Currently, over 30,000 migrants enter the detention estate every year. In one of the inquiry oral evidence sessions, one man who was detained over three years said “In prison, you count your days down, but in detention you count your days up.” This cannot go on in the UK.

I look forward to hearing from you your position on this urgent issue of civil liberties. I hope that you will join the parliamentary inquiry panel in calling on the next government to end indefinite immigration detention and adopt a time limit.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Michael Marten

Within three days I received a pretty clear reply from Mr Paterson, and I wrote and thanked him for it.  He said (my highlights):

Dear Michael, thank you for your email.

Some of the practices employed at the Dungavel detention centre in Scotland – from child detention to revelations earlier this year of some people being held for more than a year – have been absolutely shameful and show why we need a new direction when it comes to asylum and immigration policy.

Westminster has too often shown scant regard for the rights of people held at immigration detention centres – and is the only country in the EU which has no cap on how long people can be detained under immigration powers.  It is time for a new approach which prioritises compassion and fairness over punishment and isolation.

A strong team of SNP MPs will seek an early review of the current immigration detention system and regime by the UK government, in order to deliver a fairer and more effective system as we move forward.

Kind regards

Steven Paterson

Today, nine days later, I finally received a reply from Ms Boyd.  This is it (my highlights):

Dear Dr Marten

Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding immigration detention.

I believe it should always be the objective to reduce the length of time that any individual is in detention.

The Government needs to ensure that immigration detention is used proportionately and that appropriate safeguards are in place. Whilst the debate around a detention limit is important, I am concerned that currently this Government is letting thousands of people who shouldn’t be here spend years in detention paid for by the public when they could and should be on a plane home.

A report earlier this year by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration stated that the Government was not removing a number of foreign nationals with no right to stay in the UK despite securing travel documents. The report found that the Government was still keeping foreign criminals, who had completed their prison sentences, in immigration detention for months or even years, not only potentially a breach of their human rights, but poor value for money for the taxpayer as well. Such a situation is unacceptable.

A recent High Court judgment [sic] also found several serious failings within the Government’s fast-track detention system and particularly highlighted the unjustifiable delay in allocating lawyers. This ruling is an embarrassment for the Government who administer a system that is judged inherently unfair and has now lost credibility. We need strong borders with fair and effective decision making but this unfair policy putting at risk the UK’s history in providing shelter for those fleeing from rape, torture and oppression.

The Government needs to be far more efficient in dealing with deportation cases and at the same time do more to ensure that they are handled in a humane and professional manner.

If elected, I shall certainly look closely at the inquiry recommendations with a view to reducing time spent in detention.

Thank you once again for writing to me and for sharing your views.

Yours sincerely


Johanna Boyd

I could not help but write back to her, and I want to share that email too:

Dear Ms Boyd,

thank you for taking the time to write back to me.

I am absolutely astonished at your reply.

I asked whether you would commit to ending indefinite detention because the UK is one of the only countries in the world to do this and I, and many rights organisations and MPs, see this as a profound injustice (see this Guardian report, for example). Your email shows you completely fail to see this as a problem, since you simply mention ‘reducing’ detention time, not committing to ending indefinite detention. Instead, you prefer in most of your email to focus on a racist anti-immigration platform, presumably inspired by UKIP and your party’s pandering to the Conservatives.

This makes me very angry. I would never normally be this direct, but you are, quite frankly, an absolute disgrace to the once-proud heritage of a great party that was founded on a belief in righting injustices. I have voted Labour in most elections in my life, but you have done nothing to convince me that I should consider voting Labour again. Ever. I most sincerely hope you lose resoundingly in the forthcoming election against Mr Paterson (as I see the polls show is likely to happen). I strongly believe we need politicians with a sound moral compass – and your response (in contrast to the one I received from Mr Paterson) shows that is completely lacking.

Since you are seeking a high elected office, and many voters in this constituency will be unaware of your views, I will be sharing the text of your email on my website later today ( and sharing it on social media. Your views deserve to be widely known. Readers will be able to contrast your views with those of Mr Paterson.

Yours, in deep disappointment,

Michael Marten

No, I was not very restrained, but as most of her email is a racist rant that would make a UKIP candidate proud, I think she does need to be called out on this.  If you still thought voting Labour in Scotland was appropriate – think again!

I am NOT Charlie Hebdo, and other thoughts

There is much sanctimonious twaddle being written about the Charlie Hebdo attacks yesterday. I want to make three points here that hopefully don’t fall into that category.

Firstly: it is terrible that these journalists and the police officers were murdered. I hope the perpetrators are caught and put on trial.

We should not, however, confuse the journalists with the journal. I have on occasion read some of the content of Charlie Hebdo, and although that doesn’t qualify me to comment on it in detail, I have read enough to know that I am sceptical about whether it represents “good journalism” – much of what it seems to me to portray is simple old-fashioned prejudice, and in relation to the Middle East and Islam, this was based on racist and Orientalist stereotypes.

I believe it was Finley Peter Dunne, writing a century ago, who said that “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whilst I categorically condemn attacks on any journalist, I want to ask of Charlie Hebdo: who was being comforted by its journalism, and who was being afflicted? Prejudice, racism, Orientalism – these are not, to my mind, indicators that the magazine was getting the comforting and afflicting right.

Such a view does not detract from an intrinsic belief in the freedom of speech. Even if a publication espouses vile and repulsive views, that does not mean it should be banned.  I think it is our task in society, however, not to buy and support such publications and keep them afloat: the continued sales success of the Daily Mail and The Sun makes me despair of our society at times (I’d rather they went bankrupt because nobody bought (into) their sexism, racism, homophobia…).  So Charlie Hebdo can be as offensive as it likes, and whilst I will defend its right to be offensive and for its journalists to write and draw whatever they like, I will not support and identify myself with a journal that bases its success on simply exploiting prejudices.

I am not Charlie Hebdo: none of this Je suis Charlie stuff for me.

Secondly: it is terrible that these journalists and the police officers were murdered. I hope the perpetrators are caught and put on trial.

Whether that can be a fair trial is another matter after the French President François Hollande immediately described the event as a “terrorist” act, rather than a “criminal” one. He is doing the same as those mad old warriors Bush and Blair, who preferred to use the pejorative language of “terrorism” rather than the more accurate but less politically useful language of “crime” – and doing so served their purposes well.

It is depressing that Hollande appears to be doing the same.  Would he have used that language had the gunmen been from some far-right movement, for example?  Or basically any non-Muslim group?  I would welcome corrections to this statement if appropriate, but: I don’t recall Hollande or anyone else using the word “terrorism” in relation to supporters of the Jewish Defence League trying to murder an anti-Zionist journalist in 2012.  Our language needs to be much more careful, even in, or especially in, times of great stress.  However, we can only be sensitive to language if we are used to using it correctly in the first place, and the great tide of Islamophobia in France and the rest of Europe that our politicians have done so little to counter mitigates against that.  We need actively to address such prejudices, or we will struggle to articulate what we should be doing in times of adversity such as these.

Thirdly: it is terrible that these journalists and the police officers were murdered. I hope the perpetrators are caught and put on trial.

Equally, all those who have carried out drone attacks in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in many other places should be brought to trial for the murder of the countless innocents who happened to be nearby when someone was being targeted for extra-judicial assassination (itself, of course, illegal). The stories of those murdered by invading armies – our armies – need to be told and justice needs to be done and seen to be done (for example, where the hell is the Chilcot Report?!). Yesterday the West was (rightly) grieving and marching and protesting about the deaths of the Parisian journalists, and yet at least 37 people were murdered in a suicide attack in Yemen (see here and here) – where are the thousands of Westerners grieving, marching and protesting for them?  Last night, commentator Habiba Hamid noted (apologies for the Daily Mail link…):

We in the West export war, either by invading and attacking other countries, or quite literally by exporting huge quantities of arms so that people can kill each other whilst our arms industry gets rich. Occasionally, just occasionally, some of the consequences of this horrific immorality reaches back to our shores and it’s our police officers and our journalists who are murdered, rather than police officers and journalists in countries that are (supposedly) far away like Yemen. My heart is heavy for the murdered Parisians, but equally for those that we, one way or another, have caused to die through our foreign policies, even though they don’t live in a pretty European capital; Lindsey German is worth reading in this regard.

Everything is connected – denying this and doing nothing about it means we will never stop things like yesterday’s Charlie Hebdo shooting, the 2005 London transport attack, the 2004 Madrid train bombing, the 2001 Washington and New York attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the…

UPDATE 9.1.15, evening: please note that I am closing comments on this blog posting.  I have tried to engage with as many perspectives as possible in the last two days, but I cannot devote yet more time to comments now.  Thank you for reading this, and I hope you find the comments below of interest.

Update 10.1.15, evening: this discussion, chaired by Cathy Newman, with Martin Rowson and Will Self, is from last night’s Channel 4 News, and is well worth watching on this issue; neither of them endear themselves to those who argue for Je suis Charlie.

The xenophobia at the heart of the UK affects everything, including our university system

On my academic blog, I have a new posting about xenophobia and racism in the UK that might be of interest to readers of this blog…

Dr Michael Marten FRHistS

Today I read a rather brilliant article about the American justice system by Albert Burneko: The American Justice System Is Not Broken.  Along the same lines, I would argue that neither, of course, is our immigration system in the UK broken, even though some claim it is: yes, it discriminates on the basis of race, but that is entirely deliberate. Xenophobia is an integral part of the system.  All the major Westminster parties are racist in this way: the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, and the opposition Labour party (see, for example, this interesting comment from the Spectator, which I, of course, read differently to the way they do!). The parties’ pandering to UKIP probably makes this worse, but we should be clear that none of the parties can legitimately use that as an excuse: they all espoused, and when in government operated, racist policies long before UKIP was…

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