Posts tagged ‘history’

November 27, 2016

Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami

Guest post by Textor

Fidel is dead.
The Leader has gone. The tyrant has perished.
Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami.
And so the story goes on.


To listen to the commentators and read the headlines it all comes across so easily. At best the consensus allows that Cuban health care was good, the spread of literacy and education in Fidel’s fifty years of power was good; but all done at a terrible cost. Physical violence by the secret police, suppression of dissent, lack of a free state, a cult of leadership and countless executions were all blights of such a magnitude that the gains pale into virtual insignificance. The revolt of the late 1950s might well have started from a high idealistic point, they say, the removal of Batista was needed but not at any cost. If decent moral men had only got together things could have been so different. This takes us to the nub of the problem, a liberal dilemma which centres on the sense that if only idealists and revolutionaries could be a bit more like “us” and allow a broad spectrum of opinion, a “free press”, political opposition etc. If only they would let people get on with their daily lives. Toleration they say is all that is required.

What the liberal spirit fails to answer is the question what is a state to do if in seeking to change fundamental political relations with both internal and external powers it comes up against deep-seated opposition which uses military and economic strength to stop change. Will openness to liberal values advance a cause? Will, as would have been the case in Cuba, having a “balanced” debate with greater financial powers of Batista and his backers be helpful? Or should the new proto-state not only arm itself against enemies but use extreme force to root out all who would destroy it? The same problem faced the French Revolution when reaction of the 1790s threatened to roll back gains. Was the “Terror” wrong, would it have been better if a re-born Ancien Regime had gained the upper hand, which we might speculate would have been equally bloody? And when the Bolsheviks instituted bloody force during the Civil War would it have been better for them to relinquish power or compromise with the Whites and the intervening powers, find a “middle way” with high moral values and respect for the individual? In situations of radical political change, where fundamental property and economic structures are being re-made is there really a half-way house, where we can all agree and no one is harmed or is this a lie which first obscures, then denies and finally reintroduces the injustices and inequalities of the regime under attack?


What liberal opinion in the west fails to acknowledge is the extent to which its freedoms and material well-being have been and are dependent upon a bloody and brutal swathe cut across history. Yes there have been huge gains in material well-being in western societies but at what cost? Ignoring the impending global devastation of Climate Change the history of the modern material world (the surpluses necessary for capital accumulation) was generated via slavery, devastated urban and rural populations, famines, genocides and wars. But that, they say, was then, this is now. We know better. However, the comforts, now rapidly shrinking for millions, were born of this brutality and history marches on. High liberal values of the west have not stopped wars. Capital in its various forms ceaselessly searches the world for opportunity; labour is there to be exploited brutally or otherwise depending upon circumstances. Nation states arm themselves to the teeth to defend their interests. These, as well as the liberal values of the free press, right of political dissent are components which make up the worlds we inhabit.


 Fairness will not carry the day. Can we expect economic power to be relinquished through a gentle Socratic dialogue? Was there no brutality marching on in 18th century France? Was the opposition of Louis XVI and his class simply based on a misunderstanding? And the Tsar if only he had sat round the table with moderate men in a convivial atmosphere then the Soviet regime, and even Hitler some say, would not have happened. Then Fidel, surely Batista with the backing of the USA could have shared a cigar, had a decent coffee and worked out a deal to make everybody happy.

What if?
What if history had not happened.
What if we could start before the Fall and have our Maker use a different Road Map.

November 11, 2014

A Highland soldier’s letters to his cousin from the trenches in 1916 & 1917

A young man from the Black Isle  serving with the Seaforth Highlanders wrote to his young cousin Bella back home in Ross and Cromarty. The letters are fragile and very faded now as they were written in pencil on flimsy paper almost 100 years ago. At the bottom of the first letter is a signature of Gemmell whose job it was to censor outgoing mail to make sure no information that might have been regarded as useful to the enemy leaked out. Roddie Bisset’s letters are all about friends and family. We can just imagine how much he longed to be back home with them, farming on the beautiful Black Isle instead of being stuck in the nightmare existence of the trenches. Trenches letter 1916 Highland soldier    December 13th 1916 Dear Cousin I received your most welcome letter and Parcel. I don’t know how to thank you for the parcel. We have fair good weather out here as yet. I believe you had a bad time of it at home. Tell John I will look after the turnip seed bag alright. He will get it if I will be ever able to see him. I had a letter from Whitebog they tell me that Frank is called up. If so, they will miss him very much. This is my address now 40422 Pte Bisset.R A Company 3 Platoon 7th Seaforth Highlanders B.E.F. France We all heard out here that Dan was to get married at the term. Have nothing to tell you as the news are scarce. Hoping this finds you all well, As I could not be in better health. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. I Remain Your Loving Cousin Roddie   John Gemmell trenches letter 2 1916 Highland soldier  


trenches letter 3 1917 - Highland soldier

18th March 1917 My Dear Cousin Just a note in answer to your letter and Parcel. Well I thank you very much as I was in the trenches at the time, we have very good weather just now, hoping you have the same and getting on with your work as the winter was so bad. I had a letter from Jhonnie, he says the same. How is Dan getting on. tell him that I told you, if he is wise to stop where he is. you will be all thinking long for the wedding and if it will be a big turnout, for he will not get Annie McIntyre Lambton, for they are a fellow here writing her steady. How is Dan -?-? Donald. I never seen his goodself since a while but I see Plenty of Rosemarkie & Fortrose boys. Willie Cameron Rosemarkie is home for his commision. He was seeing them at home. I believe they have a great – trenches letter 4 1917 Highland soldier This is where the letter ends. I don’t have the next page. I don’t know if Roddie made it back home to Scotland.

Discovered after blogging that Roddie was killed 3 weeks after writing to Bella. He was 26 years old and was never again to walk the beach at Rosemarkie, gaze out at the Souters at the Cromarty Firth or return the turnip seed bag to Bella’s husband John. Young Roddie lies buried in POINT du JOUR Military Cemetery (Athies) Pas de Calais, France. Whitebog was where some of the family rented a farm.

May 11, 2014

It’s Simple, Simon – a rejection of Schama’s vision of a fine mess of a union

The historian Simon Schama is the latest contributor to a series of essays in support of retaining the union published in the Financial Times. It has to be said they vary in quality.

While he describes himself as a British historian others might consider Schama to be an essentially English historian i.e. a historian who interprets the past from his perspective created out of shared relationships and experiences in England. He has never, to my knowledge, lived and worked in Scotland so is unfamiliar with life and culture here. Assumptions are not knowledge. His assumption that the Scots are a northern equivalent of the English leads him to conclude that whatever differences may exist between Scotland and England they are negligible and not sufficient to break up the Great British home.

He was criticised for his BBC series on the History of Britain. I didn’t watch it not least because I don’t find his work innovative or particularly interesting and expected to learn nothing new from it. I did read, however, that despite what I’m sure were his best efforts to be objective, Schama regurgitated the same old same old – Anglo-Saxons and their roles in the creation of England, Alfred the Great, Norman Conquests, Magna Carta and the like without comparable references to developments in Scotland to illustrate how bordering nations developed in different ways. In other words, Schama’s Britishness turned out in the end to be Englishness. How Scotland became the nation it is remains for the majority of ‘British’ historians an area outside their field of competency.


It’s an exaggerated claim that we have a shared history. Our pasts coincided and clashed from time to time but there’s much more to Scotland and England than these incidents usually related from a southern perspective.

Schama may think his approach is all-inclusive but he’s fooling himself if he thinks he is going beyond the Anglo-centric standard interpretation.

He certainly displays no sensitivity to Scotland’s distinctive cultural references, separate system of laws, variant attitudes to monarchy and hierarchies, separate religious groups, distinct languages and dialects instead he is eager to dismiss such differences as inconsequential set against what was shared. Of course what was/is shared is not those aspects of Scotland that are unique to it but what he sees as British, ie Englishness. England ready for war

In pursuit of his argument we are homogeneous  Britishers Schama cites our peoples’ shared involvement in the two world wars. It is all the more unacceptable then to read accounts of those times, and not just by past historians, where British is blithely replaced by English and Britain with England so cancelling out the sacrifices of Scots men and women with the stroke of a pen.

In the spirit of Schama let me provide him with another reference to our shared British state but one he omitted. It was disappointing in 1953 that the monarch decided to be known as Elizabeth II despite there never being an Elizabeth I of Scotland, symptomatic of the Anglo-centrism that covers everything in this parcel of nations and gets regurgitated in a mess of mythology tarted up as historical fact and fed to us by historians and the BBC among others. We in Scotland don’t get our fair share of coverage or of respect as an equal partner. There is no equal partnership. That is part of the myth.

In his FT piece Schama condemns Scots’ re-writing history to glorify Robert the Bruce – creating a heroic figure behind which Yes voters will rally forth in September 18th. If Schama was more familiar with Scotland and Scottish history he would know that we are well aware of conflicting allegiances of the Bruces and others during the period of the Wars of Independence when opportunism and the accumulation of land and establishment of family dynasties took precedence over loyalty to any country or nation-state. It may come as a surprise to Schama that the name of Bruce is far from universally regarded in Scotland – where his drive for self-aggrandisement and vacillating allegiances has placed him far behind the much more revered figure of William Wallace.

Schama summarily dismisses Scottish protests against the bedroom tax and Trident which both in their ways expose something of that gulf between the two countries . At least the SNP government in Scotland is determined to tackle the iniquity of this attack on the poor which doesn’t seem to bother Schama. If the bedroom tax doesn’t impact on Schama then neither does Trident, stored as it is in the very part of the UK most eager to be rid of it.

So as not to complicate his argument Shama fails to explore what sets us apart – religion, language (the subtle differences between Scottish English and his English escapes him), legal systems developed through our differences and which in turn have retained those differences. Instead Schama is determined to keep us all cosying up together. Then he goes and makes a curious reference to the time England was invaded by the Scottish Jacobites.

How could England have been invaded when we were already in a political union as Great Britain? Sloppy thinking Mr Schama. Jacobitism was a movement aimed to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. Schama’s hint at it being a cross-border inter-clan skirmish demonstrate his muddled thinking and confusion over Scotland/England/Britain.

Running down his list of events in British history to demonstrate our togetherness Schama pauses at the Scottish Enlightenment long enough to place it within the wider context of Britain, which is true, but it would have been good to see him show he knew it extended beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow within Scotland too. He doesn’t say, or perhaps know, that the Scottish Enlightenment had more in common with mainland European Enlightenment than the English. He does however claim to know that Adam Smith and David Hume would have voted No. Maybe they would – in the 1740s Scotland was a different place. But so what? So would David Bowie but like him Smith and Hume don’t have a vote.

The ‘splendid mess’ of Schama’s understanding epitomises for some of us why we have lost patience with the British Establishment who superimpose their values, their experiences, their ambitions on us.

Like so many who support the No side Schama wallows in the past – this happened, that happened so nothing should change. A recipe for inertia, stagnation – we have achieved the best there is so shouldn’t strive for better.

Schama makes a nasty little aside comparing Alex Salmond with Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin – describing them as ‘die-stamp patriots’ ‘for whom similarity is identity’ A bit unseemly Mr Schama. Were the men who landed on the Normandy beaches ‘die-stamp patriots’ or Churchill? And isn’t it Schama pushing the line we are all British together? Didn’t patriotism come into the British state drumming up support when it came to going to war against Germany and its allies in 1914 and 1939 – and since? Was that die-stamp patriotism rearing its ugly head? And what was it that drove thousands of Scottish men into joining regiments to fight for the British crown after foreign Scotland invaded England in the Jacobite rising? Might Shama regard that as patriotism towards the British crown/British identity? or might it have been that those men discovered Britain under the union did not provide them with anything better than they had before, did not provide any means of living except the lean existence that came from accepting the king’s shilling and so enforced separation from their families, at the very least? england expects

Schama’s arguments expose his shaky grasp of what comprises Scotland, at ease with immigrants but which he regards as intolerant because it dares to criticise and reject the role of the inferior partner in a lopsided union, impatient with promises to tackle the UK’s concentration of wealth in the southeast of England, confident of applying Scottish solutions to Scottish problems – not as ‘die-hard patriots’ but as active participants in a democracy.


February 5, 2014


Scotland, how we are and what we are – or a 15 minute version of something of the kind.


Tens of thousands of years in the making

and here we are