Thursday 19 May 2022

The problem with the 'I' word


Whilst ‘independence’ is the best word to describe the status of free nations, the word is not without its problems. One of the reasons why Plaid avoided using the word for many years is because there are reasonable grounds for arguing that no nation is truly ‘independent’ in the modern world; in one way or another all countries are interdependent in a global economy. There’s another problem, though, and in a roundabout way it was flagged up by Peter Hitchens in his call for England to declare its independence from the UK. This one is more of an etymological problem than a practical one, and it stems from the fact that in English, as well as in other languages, when considered in the abstract the opposite of independence is dependence. It’s a feature of language which provokes the unconscious conclusion that any country which is not independent must therefore be dependent.

It is, however, a nonsense. If we consider the host of countries which have achieved their independence from colonial powers, they were not generally ‘dependent’ on the colonial power. Indeed, if anything, the colonial powers which stripped out natural resources and enslaved populations were actually dependent on their colonies. It is certainly the case that much of the accumulated wealth of the former colonial powers is the direct result of this exploitation of those countries over which they ruled. And almost all of those newly independent countries have become significantly richer as a result of shedding their alleged ‘dependence’ on their ex-colonialists, even if past asset-stripping and residual unbalanced power relationships mean that many haven’t yet been able to catch up.

As part of his call for English independence, Hitchens said that “England had never been dependent on the rest of the UK”, implicitly repeating the assumption that, conversely, the rest of the UK is dependent on England. It’s an assertion which ignores the history of unequal economic relationships in which wealth and talent have been sucked from the periphery into the centre (and not overlooking the fact that much of England is in that periphery along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The fact that England is, on average, better off than the rest of the UK is not down to any special ability or talent uniquely possessed by people considering themselves English, it is as a result of flows of wealth over decades and centuries. And averages hide many sins; even within England there are huge regional disparities as a result of the same process. Claiming that ‘England’ is richer than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is a distortion; it would be more accurate to say that a part of England (largely the south east) is richer than Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and most of England. And that wealth has been acquired as a result of a process of transferring it from elsewhere.

In the real world, dependence is usually the wrong word to describe the opposite of independence. Subjugation, control by another country, colonisation, and exploitation are all better and more accurate alternatives. There are, though, rare exceptions to the rule, in which dependence really is the opposite of independence. And England is one of those exceptions, as a country whose wealth is historically almost entirely dependent on others. I hope that they take up Hitchens’ call to seize their independence; it’s about time that they stopped depending on extracting wealth and talent from their few remaining possessions.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Not really a cry for English independence from rest of UK is it ? It's just another variation on the old theme of English supremacy, how they are burdened by carrying the rest of the UK ad nauseam. It would be a sight more honest if he and others like him backed all this bullshit up with detailed assessments of how and where revenue is generated and how and where cost is incurred. Do away with fake accounting like the recent jiggery pokery over Wales sharing the burden of HS2 and the arbitrary decisions like spending a fortune on the Palace of Westminster while our homeless wallow in the mire. Hitchens makes for some good entertainment but as a source of meaningful critical thinking I think he fell out of that category a long time ago.