Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Internal Empire: The Rise and Fall of English Imperialism (Hurst and Company 2023), 384pp. Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Internal Empire: The Rise and Fall of English Imperialism (Hurst and Company 2023), 384pp.

Bulmer-Thomas argues that the British Empire was essentially an English one, but the Scottish elite in particular had a large part to play in it, argues Chris Bambery

The central theses of this book are that the United Kingdom, incorporating England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (from 1801 until 1922 when 26 counties – today’s Irish Republic – won independence) and Northern Ireland (from 1921 until today), was dominated by English imperialism. England imposed its imperial domination by conquest in the cases of Wales and Ireland. And by Union in 1707 in Scotland’s.

For Bulmer-Thomas, the British Empire was an English one, even though the Scottish upper classes were allowed a look at the spoils to a greater extent than their Welsh and then their Irish counterparts. In arguing for this ‘English Empire’, Bulmer-Thomas accepts the point that from the eighteenth century until its end the Empire was always called the British Empire, not the English one, but for him that was just gloss.

After the Treaty of Union in 1707 between the English and Scottish Parliaments, Great Britain came into being. But for nearly half a century afterwards, Scots were largely excluded from its elite.

What changed was three things that unfolded in the course of the eighteenth century. Firstly, there was Scotland’s emergence from feudalism. Between 1707 and 1746, Scotland had remained a feudal society where nobles retained power of life and death over their tenants via Baronial Courts and could demand their military service. That was true not just in what today we call the Highlands and Islands but much of Lowland Scotland.

That is why the Jacobites could raise an army in 1745 to restore the Stuart dynasty, deposed in 1688 because of their Catholic faith and their attempts to restore autocratic rule in England. A feudal army marched on London, a majority of it Lowlanders, before sufficient regular British forces (and they were British because a British Army existed from the time of Oliver Cromwell onwards), could be brought back from fighting France to destroy the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden and then launch a military campaign to ‘pacify’ the north of Scotland, looting and killing accordingly.

Industry and Empire

After Culloden, Scotland entered agrarian and then industrial revolutions, both much more rapid than in England and top-down, directed by Enlightenment ‘improvers’. A British economy emerged in which Wales, particularly in the south, played a key role.

The second factor was that the Empire was expanding, particularly into India, and restrictions on Scottish involvement were lifted. The Scottish elite was poorer than its English counterpart and rushed to find riches. Scots came to dominate the semi-private East India company way out of proportion to their percentage of the British population. It was a similar story in the slave economies of the Caribbean, and later in Africa.

The Scottish elite was not a junior partner in Empire; it took a vanguard role. Similarly in terms of the new British ruling class, Scots were an integral and equal part, more so than their Welsh counterparts.

The third factor was the almost constant wars with France, which lasted throughout the eighteenth century and only ended in 1815 at Waterloo. Again, Scottish generals and admirals were to the fore, and Highland dress and the bagpipes, not long before identified with rebels and inferior people, now were adopted with gusto and became part of a new Scottish identity, which in the nineteenth century was married to Empire, militarism and the romanticism forged by Walter Scott (to be fair, Bulmer-Thomas does get this part).

Scotland could retain a strong national identity but one content within the wider British imperial one, while overall ‘British’ dominance was maintained. As imperial decline set in and accelerated, that would change from the 1960s onwards.

Scottish historian such as Neil Davidson and Angus Calder are not cited, despite the fact they, especially Calder, documented the huge extent to which the Scottish upper classes took to Empire in the Caribbean and in India.

Interestingly, as support for independence has grown, there has been a real attempt to deal with matters like Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade (long denied) and in the racist, imperial control of India, and how the money ‘earned’ was repatriated to Highland estates or to build stately homes; those who bought Highland estates would generally evict their tenants to make way for sheep, viewing these Gaelic-speaking peasants as little better than the former populations they lorded it over.

Late emergence of nation states

Bulmer-Thomas repeatedly describes the Kingdoms of Scotland and Wales and that based on Gwynedd in Wales as ‘nation states’. But they were not.

Nation states did not exist anywhere until the mid-eighteenth century when they begin to emerge in Western Europe with the creation of a truly united Great Britain after the defeat of the 1745-1746 Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden and the subsequent destruction of feudalism in Scotland, allowing a united capitalist economy to emerge. Subsequently, the 1789 French Revolution created a free-trade area within France by sweeping away feudal internal custom barriers, imposing the French language and introducing conscription.

A peasant fighting for Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 was there not because of patriotism as we know it, but because his feudal lord, to whom he had to give military and other services, in return for farming his lord’s land, demanded he come with him to battle. If he refused the lord had the power to execute him with or without trial in his own court of justice.

There might be some understanding that the feudal lord in question had sworn loyalty to Bruce as King or Scotland or not. In fact, the feudal lord in question might have taken the field because his feudal superior, an Earl for instance, had ordered him to do so. Many Scottish nobles did not recognise Bruce as King of Scotland and took the field alongside the English King. And their feudal followers had to follow suit.

The line of monarchs which emerged, the Stewarts (later spelled Stuart), struggled to control their kingdom. They had little control in the border region, Galloway, and in what today we call the Highlands and Islands. But even in the feudal heartlands of the kingdom, power was exercised by the nobility, the bishops and heads of the great monastic houses. No Stewart monarch died in their bed until James VI came south to London in 1603. If they did not die in battle, or as a consequence of fighting the Kings of England, they were murdered by rebellious nobles. The Kings of England were stronger and richer but they too faced noble revolts, culminating in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century.

What did make England and Scotland unusual in medieval Europe was that their borders, from early on, roughly correspond to those of today; Wales’s less so but not far off. Ireland was an island and was divided into a patchwork of small kingdoms with a notional High King who usually had little power. The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1170 established their presence in Leinster (the area centred on Dublin) and Henry II of England took control. For the next four centuries the area under English control was often reduced to the immediate vicinity of Dublin, the Pale, until first Elizabeth I of England and then Oliver Cromwell, followed by William of Orange, enforced colonial rule on the island.

There were no internal borders until 1921 with partition and the creation of Northern Ireland based on a crude sectarian head count designed to underpin a one-party Unionist run state. Ireland was always a colony, even after being formally incorporated into the UK. It had a Viceroy and a Governor, and, as in India, the police were armed and until Catholic Emancipation in 1829, only Protestants could vote. An Anglo-Irish elite controlled the land and officered the state.

Wales had been conquered by England under Edward I and incorporated into the English kingdom in Tudor times. It retained a national identity, with difficulty, and the language did suffer oppression. That national identity has gathered strength since the 1960s, and particularly since the creation of the Senedd in 1999.

The Welsh elite also found easy access into the British one, but not on the scale of their Scots counterparts and the new national symbols created in the nineteenth century were not as popular as ‘The Thin Red Line at Balaclava’ or ‘The Charge of the Scots Greys’ (at Waterloo).

Contemporary independence politics

There is also an issue about the term imperialism – whether it simply means imperial rule as in the case of Ancient Rome or the creation of a hierarchy of nations in which the great powers, or power, exercises economic, military and financial dominance. When Edward I conquered Wales and ruled tracts of what is today south-west France, he might dream of ruling an Empire, but he was thinking in terms of Caesar or Charlemagne not in the way Joe Biden does, or as Woodrow Wilson or Franklin D. Roosevelt did.

Feudal kings in Europe did not rule clearly demarcated kingdoms, and often held discontinuous lands. Robert the Bruce, for instance, held lands in England for which he had to give homage to the King of England.

Internal Empire races through the narrative of the rise of the supposed English Empire and its fall to get to Brexit. Bulmer-Thomas is good on how that impacted on Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin was already set to overtake the Democratic Unionist Party. However, he doesn’t really explore the rise in support for independence in both Scotland and Wales prior to Brexit.

But the big problem is that he simply interprets the Leave vote in England (the one in Wales is reduced to the English population there) as being rooted in English, anti-migrant nationalism. There is obviously some truth to that, as represented by UKIP and Nigel Farage, but there is considerable evidence too that in much of Northern and Central England and South Wales, working-class people, after decades of neo-liberalism and defeat, seized the opportunity to get one back at the arrogant elite running Britain.

When I asked one retired taxi driver why he voted Leave, he told me he’d heard Richard Branson telling everyone to vote Remain and thought ‘there’s something in it for him, but not for me.’ The English middle class might hold onto a dream of imperial greatness and resent their globalised and socially liberal betters but that doesn’t explain why Hartlepool voted Leave.

Whatever the current travails of the Scottish National Party, the establishment’s party north of the border, the forces pulling the UK apart are growing. As I write, Sinn Féin are emerging as the largest party in the Northern Ireland local elections. Nothing is inevitable, but Irish unity is now a real possibility. In Scotland, support for independence has not been hurt in any substantial way by the financial scandal currently affecting the SNP. In Wales, support for independence hovers around 30%, a historic high, and support for greater powers for the Senedd has a strong majority. It has established itself, given that, back in 1999, the majority for devolution in the referendum to establish it had the smallest possible majority, scraping above 50% by a single percentage point.

Like the curate’s egg, Internal Empire is good in parts but it has not put down a marker. English nationalism does not run like the lettering in a stick of rock from Edward I or Elizabeth I to Winston Churchill and Rishi Sunak, nor was it the key force behind the British Empire. Any potential state reduced just to England would have been a very sickly infant.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.