In that great and now neglected source of much wisdom, the English 'Book of Common Prayer', repentance for the things that we have left undone comes before admission of things we ought not to have done. So it is even with mere regrets.
One minor regret is that I can’t trace on my increasingly ill-regulated bookshelves – there is a lot of double-parking – the best work of the notable Scottish journalist and gentle nationalist, William Power. He called it 'The World Unvisited' and I had a notion
to re-read it before using his title to sum up some more significant regrets. But it’s not a theft I could have carried through with a good conscience. I’ve probably visited as much of the world as anyone could risk (or hope for) without loosening my ties to Scotland.
What troubles me now, when my travel insurance would cost more than even a club-class fare and I worry about the risk of filling some corner of a foreign field, is that I left too many important places unvisited and in others concentrated on what was most attractive or congenial more than on what was perplexing or disconcerting.
I could offer a long list but I choose areas where my sins of omission may not merely indicate a private preference for soft options but serious weaknesses in the dominant cultures of post-imperial Britain, including an increasingly self-centred Scotland. And instead of stealing William Power’s title I merely adapt it, for it’s a matter of three Empires Unvisited – or insufficiently visited or understood.
The first is the continental empire of the United States, thrust during my lifetime into such trans-continental influence and responsibilities, rich in achievements and profuse in misjudgements. I’ve spent more time there than in any country except Britain but
nothing in my travels had prepared me for the stupidest and dirtiest presidential election campaign (on both sides) in living memory and probably recorded history.
In my younger days most of my American acquaintance and friendships were generally liberal and mainly Democrat; more recently they have been moderately conservative and largely Republican. But as I think back on my travels I now realise how much of the United States I missed, inadvertently or deliberately: much of the mid-West, some of
the Deeper South, most of the dull and troubled suburbs, almost all the industrial cities in decline or transition.
I headed for the most spectacular sights and congenial company in the USA and felt at home at various times with America’s better newspapers and universities (including a 'black' one) or with sections of society in which you can enjoy an anglophilia and scotophilia that may have no trace of British ancestry. But these are not the sectors of society which made Donald Trump possible as a presidential candidate or forced Hillary Clinton into such a drab campaign, first against the bizarre challenge of the eccentric Sanders in the primaries and then amid a media frenzy inspired by Trump’s absurdities, indelicacies, and appeal to the kinds of American whom I mainly met in passing. I should have spent more time is less attractive places and with people whom I wouldn’t quickly take to. And so too should most of our politicians and broadsheet journalists.
My second regret is about Russia and matters Russian, including the language, which I briefly wrestled with before a visit there which concentrated on artistic and architectural treasures. But here too I think my failures reflect more than a personal laziness. Churchill correctly called Russia 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma' and sought the key to the riddle in Russian perception of 'national interest'. As in Stalin’s day so now in Putin’s.
But for most of my lifetime the Russian Empire (then called the Soviet Union and 'people’s democracies') seemed inextricably entangled with Communism as expressed in Marxism-Leninism, hybrid issue of a ruthless Russian fanatic and a prosy German intellectual. In retrospect I fear that most of us – I mean the opinion-formers and value sharers of the West – often took the soft option of analysing the rise, decline, and
fall of the secular Communist religion rather than examining the mysteries of Russia. Of course there was some excuse for us. See any Soviet-era guide-book for a reminder of how hard it was to explore Russia. It was relatively easy – compared to Russia – to see a lot of Czechoslovakia or Hungary or even East Germany and to find common ground with people there, not just 'dissidents' but half-lapsed Communist believers and conformist careerists keeping their options open. We knew that Russia was different, but we didn’t equip ourselves, emotionally or linguistically, to understand all the
We read Solzhenitsyn in translation and allowed what we most admired or found in common to cloud over his refusal to identify with Western liberalism. We recognised the fragility of Communism where it been imposed by force and too readily assumed that Russia would adjust as congenially to its fall as did East Central Europe, repeating the
mistakes of liberals long ago who hoped for a brave new world once the tsarist autocracy was out of the way. No wonder we don’t quite know what to make of so much in contemporary Russia, from Putin to the Orthodox Church, now all but re-established but also largely restored to a new kind of subservient conformity.
But the last of my empires is the best and the one that I most failed to explore enough and in time: the British Empire. I should have seen more of it while it lasted or had only just been transformed. What as a child I took for granted I now struggle to understand. How was it possible that the four or five main tribes of the British Isles could achieve so much for so long and rule such vast territories with a relative handful of administrators and soldiers? And how in half a lifetime could modern Britain forget so much so quickly or (like many of today’s journalists and broadcasters) abandon all sense of critical
judgement and historical perspective when expected to repent of colonialism and imperialism?
There is a strange contrast between the way that so much of modern Britain, and so many media people, have achieved the great leap in attitude, imagination, and situation necessary to understand the mood of Britain (including Scotland) in joining and sustaining the first world war and the mixture of detachment and usually condemnatory
superficial assessment with which modern Britain looks back on a far more extended and perhaps even more influential national experience of empire. That experience included most of the human vices – avarice and arrogance prominent among them – but it also deployed extraordinary resources of devotion, integrity, initiative, high
purpose, and (often with limited resources) efficiency.
I have searched the internet in vain to find the panorama of empire-builders that I remember both from boyhood reading and on the wall of one of my primary classrooms. The Glasgow I grew up in was still proud to be the 'second city' of the empire and would have laughed to scorn today’s unconvincing and probably half-hearted Scotnat inclinations to project Scotland as a 'victim' of empire and not a proud, skilful, and prospering partner in it. See such evidence of Scottish heritage as the order-books of Clyde shipbuilders or the gravestones in Fife kirkyards of lads o’ pairts (and patronage) who survived their careers in India. And, if you think the philanthropic or 'missionary' Scottish role in the empire can be entirely separated from the colonial one, remember that David Livingstone enthusiastically urged a brother to take the great opportunities offered to white settlement in Natal.
Of course (as I have sung elsewhere) those days are past now and in the past they must remain. But it would be easier to understand them if I had taken the chance to see the relics of empire in Asia in the way I saw its last phase in parts of Africa. Even then, like most British journalists, I missed out on West Africa, where we are still to see how the different experience of British and French colonialism (and the consequent linguistic impact) affects the successor states in the long run.
But empire was relatively easily and belatedly imposed in undeveloped and thinly populated Africa. India was a different matter, in vastness of population, in ancient civilisation, and the length and variety of the British connections from the early company days to the long last phase of transition (so different from Africa’s) from the end of the first world war to the aftermath of the second. It would have been good to have seen even the last fading glow of the imperial sunset.
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