Paisley, birthplace of Ian Hamilton
If it be true that we walk backwards into the future with only the past to guide us then the 20th century shows how we must fall over our own feet. Take the Battle of Omdurman. In 1898 the British army machine-gunned rank upon rank of charging Dervishes. The conclusion drawn was that the British Empire was invincible. 'The valiant blacks,' wrote Winston Churchill, 'prepared themselves to meet the shock.' Eighteen years later, on 1st July 1916, his delight changed to a lament. 'There must be better ways to fight a war,' he said gloomily, 'than to pit the breasts of brave men against machine gun bullets.'
Step forward three years from Omdurman and we find Boer soldiers who would not stand to be shot down. They warred by hit-and-run. Kitchener defeated them by putting their civilians into concentration camps, where 25,000 women and children died. The lesson of the new century repeated that of the old. Empire was invincible. None thought that the spectre of the concentration camp would cast the most terrible shadow on the century just begun. The 20th century was born to the sound of machine guns and baptised in barbed wire.
If this is an unduly gloomy view, don't blame me. It wasn't my fault. I didn't come on the scene until 1925. By that time the century had formed its character. Lenin was dead and any faint idealism died with him. The end now justified the means. Famine was to be used as a political weapon. The Weimar republic was twitching to an end. The Friekorps had been formed. The capitalist system was in grave decline. All in all it was an interesting time to be born. Indeed, if I vary between elation and despair and a sort of comic gasping-with-laughter, then understand that these emotions were the oxygen of my century. Think what had happened before I was out of my teens.
Of World War I, I only heard. Some say eight million died. Some say more. As the war ended plague took over and 40 or 60 million died of influenza. No one knows how many. Starvation and the gulags took millions more, and in the German gas camps countless millions perished. A strategic bombing campaign, in which I was just too young to take part, devastated German cities. Then two atom bombs were dropped. Millions more died in battle. At the going down of the sun and in the morning it seemed that European civilisation was among the dead.
Yet it wasn't. It flickered from time to time but the light still burned. What else do you do when Germany sits on your neighbour's land but try to help your neighbour? Few doubt that World War II was just a war. Yet in mid-January 2003 as I write these words, the tanks rattle louder than sabres, and it seems that my century has said its farewell by spawning another age of imperial barbarism. Let it never be forgotten when we look on the excesses of Cambodia or of sub-Sahara Africa that we Europeans set the four horsemen loose in their wildest gallop ever. More people died in my century from war, famine and plague than in the whole previous history of our race. We Europeans have shown that the natural state of humankind is barbarity.
I first took my place in humankind as a schoolboy. I come of decent unremarkable stock, tailors and weavers and small time self-employed people from southern Lanarkshire. The only thing remarkable about my boyhood home was my father. He owned many books and listened without criticism to anything my brother and I said about them. About God he had such firm views that neither of us challenged him. My brother simply left home at an early age as he found presbyterianism too heavy a cross to carry. I agree with him. After long and painful cogitation I abolished God. The God of the gulag and the gas chamber is not for me. If He exists I am against him. Shortly I shall go to meet Him, and I shall tell him so.
My views began to diverge from those of my father when I was 10 or 12. The Spanish Civil War was the great enlightener. I discovered with childish amazement that people actually volunteered to fight in Spain. Any fighting that I had heard of before had been between real soldiers, but these International Brigaders were ordinary people from Paisley who knew for what they fought. Think for a moment of the power of that thought on a 13 or 14 year old boy. Of course much more was to follow. Of Munich I remember only my father's cynicism. I did not know the word then, but I knew what I saw in his face.
To people who didn't experience the event it is impossible to explain what Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain felt like, but I will try. It was enhanced living. I lived more thoroughly and more comprehensively than ever before or since. Do not think that life was unthinking patriotism. It was not. In 1940 the king and queen paid a sudden visit to Clydeside, and we school kids were marshalled to line the streets to cheer them by. I refused. I got onto my bike and went home. I was 14 years of age, and the only child in the school to act in this fashion. I think I represented something that was just beginning to be felt in Scotland.
The Windsors were nothing to Paisley, nor Paisley to the Windsors. I resented the assumption, as I have always resented such an assumption, that I would think in the way everyone else was thinking. I believed then, as I believe now, that in my childish way I was making a statement about the human spirit for which wars were properly fought. My teachers didn't see it in that fashion. They had hard words to say, but they didn't dare to punish me. My father, who ran his tailoring business for the Paisley toffs, might reasonably have been annoyed. I think secretly he was rather proud.
This is no place for a history of the war. Yet I am the author of this piece, and it is how I feel that counts. I never doubted that we would win. I never met anyone who thought differently. The Americans like to think that they won the war. Let them. When they get too bumptious remind them that in the 20th century they never won a war unless we were there to help them. Of course I'm prejudiced. It was my generation who coined the phrases, over-paid, over-sexed, and over here. On one thing let history speak. The Americans think they saved democracy. They did not.
In 1940 when democracy was in its greatest peril they coined the phrase, 'Cash and Carry'. Our Cash, Our Carriage, for 40 of their clapped-out old destroyers. When our money ran out they coined another phase, 'Lease Lend'. We leased. They lent. They bled us white. They say they came into the war to help us defeat Germany. They did not. In December 1941 Germany declared war on America. Had Hitler not done so the Americans might have fought in the Pacific and left us alone. America bled democracy and in 1945 emerged immeasurably richer than any other country had ever been. We emerged bankrupt. Americans love to be loved. They make it difficult.
Unlike America I volunteered. I was still a schoolboy in 1943, and it was a close thing with me. I had been sent to Allan Glen's in Glasgow, and passing through Townhead I had seen children with rickets. In case you don't know, rickets is a disease of malnutrition which causes bones to grow soft and fuse. Kids walk on the sides of their feet. Their legs and arms bend at the bone. I knew the cause, and believed that in a rich country like Scotland rickets was a disease of wickedness not of malnutrition, a view from which I never swerved. I thought of being a conscientious objector, but in the end the war won.
Choice was in the air when the war ended, and in 1945 the electorate chose a Labour government. This was the worst government in British history. It betrayed the ideals of us all. This is not the conventional view, but I was there and I remember the joy which soon turned to shattering disappointment as promise after promise was betrayed. Scotland has always been a radical country, even if we cringe in the shadow of our big neighbour. It's as though we were servants at heart. Somewhere it is written that about the same number of people are now employed as servants of the state as were employed as servants in the big houses. Abolish government by the great Whigs, and you get government by civil servants. The housemaid cringes for a crust; the civil servant for a knighthood. These people became our governors in 1945, and have never let up. Of course we got the health service. Of course we got a pittance in welfare when we were down and out, but that was all.
And down and out we remained as a result of Attlee's government. The rebuilding of Germany is still called the German miracle. What nonsense! It was no miracle. It was hard work. We took no such step. We were still under the curse of the British Empire. Instead of regrouping we prodigally kept forces east of Suez, and scattered them elsewhere across the globe. India of course we had to give up, but the sun still never set on the Union Jack. More people were under arms than at any other time in our history. I was one of them. I lay in a barrack hut for three years doing nothing. All orders to the Empire and to Scotland came from London. Every function from road transport to your health was controlled from the south. 'Put your coat on, it's raining in London,' I wrote bitterly. Imperialism was again rampant.
When writing about the Boer War I did not mention one great green sprout of hope. A country with no history has difficulty in surviving. In 1901 the first professor of Scottish history in any university took his chair. It was at Edinburgh University, and his name was Hume Brown. By the coincidence that saves nations, his first student was the great medievalist A O Anderson. They worked like yeast, but it was 60 years before the mixture started to seethe. Even in 1949, when I was a student, the only Scottish history text-book was Hume Brown's. The second half of the century has produced so many that you cannot imagine what it was like to study Scottish history 60 years ago. The middle classes, the only ones who were even half educated, had brought up their children to believe that we were a conquered country. To discover our long and proud history was itself an epiphany.
No wonder we took the Stone of Destiny. No wonder the ordinary people of Scotland cheered. But before that event something much more important had happened, something which is half forgotten, and which I'll now tell you about. The fire of it smoulders yet.
In 1948 six men of Knoydart came out of the forces and staked a claim to a small amount of land on the Knoydart peninsula. This land was owned by a beer baron called Lord Brocket, a pro-German fascist who would have been at home in the SS. He took an interdict in the Court of Session where the judges cravenly ordered the six men to go away. They went, but they had lit a fire in Scotland which has never quite gone out. I, and others, made speeches. The corner of Wellington Street and Sauchiehall Street was then given over to us radicals. I advocated armed revolt, but no one listened. And in the House of Commons, dominated by a socialist majority, not one voice was raised in support of the six men. That was the Attlee government that I despise.
My century had now reached its halfway mark. No doubt influenced by Ghandi's opinions I have always loathed the British Empire. Empire bleaches worth from the imperialist, and sucks character from the subjected. I know the Brits believed that they carried the blacks on their backs, but they rifled their pockets as they did so. We never taught them honesty. How could we when we were there as imperialists? The Empire only enriched the toffs. Tucked away in the eaves of its memory, nearly every big house in Scotland holds a history of enrichment through selling slaves in the Carribean, or opium to the Chinese. Now the wheel has turned and we suffer under heroin as the Chinese suffered under the Empire's poppy.
As the British Empire was being wound up much was happening at home. I knew and remember the old urban communities that had existed since the early days of the industrial revolution. Some were foul slums, yet they had something which no civil servant could understand. They had a sense of community, and from that sense of community came a sense of responsibility. Weans could safely play in the streets. It was still something of a shame to get lifted. None went to prison without a backward glance and a shrug. Society still worked. Then came the planners. I saw it happen in the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh. Nearby I had started a small printing business while I was waiting for my practice to develop down the road at the Parliament House. The centre of the community was Tommy Mowatt's Bar, now the Ensign Ewart. Even as a stranger I knew everyone and they knew me. Then they were decanted. Family by family they were shipped off to Craiglockhart while their old homes were gentised. To begin with they came back, just to be at home. Then so-and-so was missed, and someone else found they couldn't afford the bus fares, and a community died.
Life was never quite the same in Craiglockhart. I still have friends there. Helen Crummy’s wonderful book on the regeneration of Craiglockhart is under the elbow as I write. It is called 'Let the People Sing'. People try for regeneration but the communities should never have been destroyed, and the use of the word 'decant' says it all. To use such a word about people says more about the brutal servants who employed it than it does about the victims. You cannot decant people like claret. I despise those civil servants who have tried.
I have just mentioned the name of a woman and of a glorious woman at that. The 20th century saw the species emancipate themselves. I wonder why they waited so long. Contraception gave them freedom from the tyranny of their own bodies, the typewriter gave them little jobs that led to economic freedom, and the bicycle gave them freedom in space. It beats common sense that they invented a phrase like 'the glass ceiling' to exempt them from trying to be upwardly mobile. There was empty air above them. We have only three women judges out of more than 30, and the disparity is not because they cannot do the job. Being a judge is easy. I know. I've been one. There is no reason why the hand that rocks the cradle shouldn't write the law. I suspect that, like us Scots, women live under the shadow of generations of subjection. If all this sounds very patronising, then I'm being patronising. Women have been so busy being feminist that their agitation exhausts their ambition. Maybe another generation will see them taking their place beside us as our equals. I would not take time to write of them if I did not think they were worth it.
To the idle clamour of women's voices the century rolled on. The cold war was fought and won, and in Europe no one was killed. As one who lived through it I never thought that would be otherwise. I used to advocate the Russian spies, when caught, should be given a pension and the OBE. I pointed out that if they reported back accurately Russia would see that in the west no one was daft enough to want to attack them. I suspected that on the other side of the Iron Curtain the same view prevailed. Now I have been proved right. Spies are called weapons inspectors, and even if they don't get OBEs they’re damned well paid.
From spies I turn to Scottish nationalism. For much of the 20th century nationalism was a bad word. In some places it still is, unless it's English nationalism. 'Land of Hope and Glory' is allowed, and I once saw a group of blue-rinsed Scotswomen try it. When they saw my sardonic eye on them they became uneasy. At 'wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set' I grinned and they faltered. At 'God who made the mighty make thee mightier yet' only one was still singing. Then they gave up, and looked for their gloves and handbags, and went home without meeting anyone's eye.
I cannot take that sort of nationalism seriously. However there is no other word in the language to describe that love of a common heritage which for historical and geographical reasons makes a people feel that they belong to one another and are responsible for each other's wellbeing. This sentiment should be based on love, although if we are truthful an amiable sort of hate comes into it. The English hate the French, and it is reciprocated. The English patronise the Scots, and we grind our teeth. I now come out quite openly and say that the southern English gar me grue. Their superior airs and their flat yah yah voices make me want to caw the feet frae them. I know that this is a base feeling, but it is a very human one.
The English are about to abolish xenophobia by act of Parliament. Soon it will be a crime to shout, 'Down with the English,' so I'll have to stop. Just see me! Like lust, xenophobia is bad, but it's also fun. Like lust, so long as it's kept within reasonable bounds, it doesn't do much harm. Hugh MacDiarmid used to conclude his 'Who's Who' entry by listing anglophobia as his only hobby. Let me leave this shadowy side alone and make a simple affirmation. Scotland is a nation. Nations should govern themselves. Until we do so we have no right to say we are hard done to.
As for the Holyrood parliament, I suspected that it would turn out the way it has. We must make ourselves ungovernable from Westminster before we can come into our own again. It is typical of the cringing Scots that the SNP MSPs swore allegiance to the titular head of the Union they claim to intend to smash. I put it on record that when I was called to the bar I refused to take that offensive oath. I was a youngster, totally alone when I made my stand. There were 35 SNP members who foreswore themselves. Symbols matter. That is why there are such things as flags and queens and oaths.
Although I was a candidate for that parliament I would never have taken that oath. Those who did remind me of the Jacobite rebels of the '45. They started their rebellion by burying their cannon, because they were too heavy to carry. Later they much missed them and wished they hadn't. I cannot help feeling that these misguided MSPs may feel the same. Principles are sometimes uncomfortable baggage, but a lack of them is even more of an encumbrance. Besides the English would have had to give in, as they gave in for me all those years before. World public opinion would never have countenanced 35 Scots being excluded from their own parliament because they refused to swear loyalty to an English queen. It would have been a notable victory, but lack of courage denied it to us. As for Scottish nationalists who take English titles, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!
Mention of the EIIR controversy makes me weep for my lost youth. I became an advocate with so many hopes for Scotland, yet by 1956 I was nearly conquered by that terrible enemy of all Scots who dare to aspire. The enemy is the Giant Despair. How right Bunyan was! In 1956, in my play, 'The Tinkers of the World', I wrote, 'The dam is burst, and we shall never give anything more.' I do not take that pessimistic view now, but then I was thinking of the world and how little influence we have in it. We still have little influence on events, but now perhaps we can make more significant comments on them.
Looking for significant events the most significant in my lifetime has been the migration of peoples. This has gone on from time immemorial but it has gathered pace in the last two decades. It must not be stopped. Hidden for centuries behind the bleak uplands that lie between us and the English border the Scottish gene pool is small and has needed constant replenishing. There is no such thing as a pure bred Scot. We are a mongrel race. In that lies our strength. The incomers whom the English try to turn away have crossed continents to reach us. They are the young and the enterprising, and the very people that we need to replenish our dying stock.
The Scottish peoples are suffering from a race sickness that will surely kill us all if we cannot welcome those who come among us. They are strangers for only a generation, and then strangers no more. It is our genius as a people to have accepted them in the past, and now our genius is being thwarted by the narrow nationalism of our English neighbours. Our common humanity calls to these strangers even across the barbed wire.
When I write about our common humanity, I cannot but think of the thin faint wailing of the Church of Scotland where I have found little sight of humanity at all. I was brought up in that church, and early learned to loath it. Where does it stand on immigration, or on any of the great issues which troubled and perplexed us in the 20th century? It stands nowhere. It passes by on the other side. My job takes me constantly to the criminal courts. There I meet the dispossessed, the weak, both of body and mind, the broken few, the weeping relatives of the victims of crime, the victims themselves, the witnesses, the abused children, the people who more than anyone else need help and counselling, and the consolations of religion, but where are the ministers? I will tell you where. They are in the fat middle-class suburbs, where life is warm and comfortable and agreeably quiet. Except to mouth a few platitudes at the start of a circuit, and then go away, I haven't seen a minister in any courthouse for 30 years. We hear much from these prelates about how the people have deserted the church, but nothing of how the church has deserted the people.
I started this piece of writing with references to barbed wire and barbarism. I started with fire in my heart, and I end it with the fire still burning. My century was kind to me, if bitterly unkind to humankind. It is no longer possible to walk into the future looking at the past. We have fallen down too often doing that. In this 21st century you must try to do better, even if privately I doubt if you will.
I remember when the Comintern was dissolved. It was much feared, and rightly so, yet for millions of wage slaves it flew a standard of hope. Two generations after its dissolution a new Comintern is the globalisation of venture capitalism. What hope for mankind does such an organisation hold? Not much I fear. Its first loyalty is to shareholders, a handful of American businesspeople. With six per cent of the world's population America owns 50 per cent of the world's wealth. Apart from trifling alms it gives nothing away. It grows richer every day, and sometimes it demands a terrible price. Was it 500 or 1,000 Indians who were killed by the release of toxic gases by Union Carbide in Bhopal? How many were blinded? Who cares? Not, it appears, Union Carbide or globalised capital. Power without responsibility is not the prerogative of the harlot, but of the businessman. Maybe there was hope at the heart of the Comintern. Maybe globalised business doesn't have a heart at all.
Whatever! I write this out for all who wish to read. 25,000 innocent women and children died in Earl Kitchener's terror camps in 1901. 3,000 innocent people died in Abu Bin Laden's terrorist attack on the twin towers in 2001.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. That is the terrible lesson I have learned in my 20th century journey. I pass it on to you.
Ian Hamilton QC was one of the leading figures in the Scottish Covenant movement. On Christmas Eve 1950 he and three other student nationalists removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and returned it to Scotland
. He was born in Paisley in 1925
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