BY HAMISH GOBSON
In 1910 the future President of the SNP wrote to a suffragette campaigning for women’s rights—an objective he strongly supported—saying: “Women should not forget that a ‘cause’ is the means whereby a politician is put into the position of being able to plunder the nation.” In 1936, when already President, he told a journalist that “politics is a matter of rich men seeking their own commodity under the style and title of the common weal.”
Robert Cunninghame Graham knew of what he was writing; he too had been a politician, serving as the Liberal MP for North-West Lanarkshire (almost Rutherglen and Hamilton) from 1886 to 1892. His words should be remembered by everyone today who is watching with horrified mystification as the British government sits passively by while the rest of us have to put up with the plunder of Scotland by the SNP.
However, the weakness of our Scottish Secretary of State, Alister Jack, and the passivity of the Scottish Police Service are old themes so I will concentrate on an indirectly related but important story: that of Lord Macartney’s visit to the Chinese Emperor in 1793 seeking a trade deal. If signed, it would have been the first time the ancient empire with the Mandate of Heaven to rule the world had done business with the rising power of the industrial revolution. It was a critical moment in world history. Globalisation, you might almost say, was conceived at that time.
“Contract”, in the form of an Irish peer aboard HMS Lion (illustrated) came to “status” in the form of the Emperor of the richest country in the world and tried to deal with it on the basis of equality, while status considered discussion of trade to be beneath its dignity. It seems to me that if our Unionist Jack understood more about Independence Yousaf’s craving for status he might have greater success in controlling the behaviour of the Emir of Bute House on behalf of the ordinary electors of Scotland.
Macartney and his negotiating team, plus a well armed military guard, spent nearly a year travelling from Portsmouth to Beijing and when they got there, found the Emperor was away hunting in his private reserve among the mountains of Manchuria. The Qing dynasty, of which the Qianlong Emperor was a member, came from inner Mongolia, north of the Great Wall.
The Emperors liked to make an annual hunting expedition into the wilds of what had once been Mongol territory. This was a ritual for show, to reinforce status. The Manchu autumn holiday had the subsidiary aim of reminding the senior Chinese officials who accompanied the Son of Heaven to his yurt in the wilds of Manchuria that they were serving a conquering dynasty with savage roots. Real status is ultimately based on successful violence—as Mr Putin is beginning to learn from his inability to emulate Stalin but which British imperialists knew all along.
Most of Macartney’s mission was parked in Beijing while a smaller party set out for the imperial yurt. They travelled on a road whose use was restricted to the Son of Heaven and his guests. Soldiers posted along the entire length kept the hoi polloi away from the imperial roadway. The British stayed in inns controlled by the Emperor and crossed the Great Wall to the sound of gunfire and fireworks.
“Six days after leaving Beijing the embassy caught their first glimpse of the vast expanse of palaces, gardens and temples spread out across the hills to the north… They arrived in a formal procession, with musicians playing, and Benjamin the slave from Batavia in a turban bringing up the rear… The emperor had seen the procession from the park and was pleased.”
That quotation is taken from the fascinating book about Macartney’s embassy (as it was called) that has recently been published by Henrietta Harrison, an Oxford-based scholar of China. It is called The Perils of Interpreting: the Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire.
Professor Harrison vividly describes the clash between atavistic status assertion and a more contemporary culture based on legal equality between free contracting parties. The high point of the story—which has much more to it than this, but space is limited—is the meeting between Lord Macartney, an emissary of William Pitt and Henry Dundas, and the Ruler of the World, an emissary of God.
In the early morning darkness of outer Manchuria, Macartney and his party were taken to a screened enclosure in a park outside the imperial reserve. There the climax of the ceremony from the Chinese point of view took place. With the British waiting in awed silence, “The emperor arrived at sunrise carried on a golden chair,” Harrison writes. “The emperor entered his great yurt, and Macartney was invited to follow him.”
The climax of the ceremony from the British point of view was the kowtow which ought to have followed. Macartney was expected to bow down in front of the Emperor and knock his head on the ground nine times in the way which all “slaves” of the Russian Tsar—i.e. everybody who was not “family”—had done from the time of the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century until the semi-contractual reforms of the seventeenth century. China had been occupied by the Mongols for a century in the time of Kubla Khan and still, even at the end of the eighteenth century, Chinese emperors still insisted on the kowtow.
All foreigners were referred to as “barbarians” and all visitors were allowed into the sacred presence only to pay tribute as vassals. They had to acknowledge their inferior status by prostrating themselves on the ground at the Emperor’s feet. Thereafter he might, if he was in the mood, listen to the pleas and petitions of the vassals. But then he might not. He never did business with anyone as an equal, only accepted tribute as their supreme lord.
The problem on this occasion was that Lord Macartney refused to kowtow, thinking it demeaning to the dignity of his sovereign, Geroge III, who considered himself the legal equal of the sovereign of the Chinese. I will not spoil the story for readers by revealing what happened. Suffice it to say, Macartney’s mission failed and no trade deal was negotiated. Status would not do business with contract, and contract would not acknowledge subservience to status. Impasse.
Given the impasse caused by Yousaf’s insubordinate behaviour in Scotland today, and his refusal to kowtow to the representative of the country that pays his wages, it is for Alister Jack to assert himself in terms of both status and contract. The judicious mingling of the two opposed principles is what has long given the British state its sinewy flexibility and ability to adapt to an ever-changing world. Humza would do well to learn from that.
My suggestion would be that Jack reach into his own past as Director of a company which rented out Laura Ashley yurts to fashionable families for the weddings of their gilded offspring. He could invite Yousaf down to Dumfriesshire and have him conveyed into the Galloway hills where the Scottish Secretary maintains a forward yurt for use in the stag season.
It might be carrying things a little too far in the twenty-first century for a man with Jack’s background in trade to be carried into a meeting on a golden chair at sunrise, but perhaps he could sit on a small dais above the kilted provincial and read him extracts for Sir Herny Maine’s Ancient Law. He might end with the Son of Kelso’s most famous pronouncement, which sums up his whole argument. The last sentence of Chapter 5 includes this magisterial generalisation about the history of all Western law: “We may say that the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.” (emphasis in original)
That was written in 1861, the year that Maine went out to India to help rationalise the land-holding situation in the Punjab, so Yousaf may have heard of him already. But if not, his host might care to present him with a facsimile edition of what is undoubtedly one of the most important books in Anglo-American legal history.
Sub-emperor Jack could then graciously excuse Yousaf the kowtow, and dismiss him from the presence, making sure of course that on the way out a flunkey hands him a clean fiver for the bus-fare home.
Republished by kind permission of Think Scotland. Hamish Gobson lives on the isle of Great Todday (Todaidh Mór) and features in Hating Tories: How Nicola Sturgeon Got into Government (1970-2007) – A Citizen’s Biography of a Driven Woman in a Drifting Parliament (Ian Mitchell, 2023) – available on Amazon.co.uk and also reviewed here by Tom Gallagher.