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Those who lead the clamour for Britain to leave the EU sometimes utter the strangest of remarks, betraying their complete lack of knowledge or understanding of their own nation’s history. One such recently came from Lord Lilley in an interview on BBC Television. When expressing his incomprehension at the length of time taken to negotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement he opined that it didn’t take that long to negotiate Indian independence. The remark set me thinking about Britain’s complicity in drawing up borders that have either been the cause of, or have failed to end, a great deal of bloodshed, Indian independence being a case in point.
The movement for independence in India spanned 90 years, so hardly happened overnight as Lord Lilley seemed to be suggesting.
Britain’s response, in 1905, was to establish a border separating Bengal from the rest of the sub-continent, a move that served to increase the clamour for independence for all India. Despite this, India and its people played a vital role in support of Britain during World War I and were rewarded by the Government of India Act in 1919, but it would be almost 30 years before India finally gained independence.
It is true that the final settlement achieved in a couple of months in the summer of 1947 between drafting of a Bill and the implementation of independence. But it came at the end of a long period during which numerous options were tried without success and was accompanied by another arbitrary drawing of borders that created a Pakistan that consisted of two areas separated by almost 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Violent clashes between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs followed, with up to 2 million deaths attributable to them. Parts of the border, notably the portion that defines Kashmir, remain in dispute to this day, 70 years after Indian and Pakistani independence. In the meantime East Pakistan saw a bloody civil war that ended with the creation of Bangladesh. Famine, widespread poverty and a series of military coups followed.
I could continue with a litany of similar examples, such as in the Middle East, where war over borders drawn by the victorious allies of both World Wars, of which Britain was a leading member, continue to this day, or in parts of Africa and in Cyprus. But the one that matters in the context of Brexit is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Established in 1921 by the United Kingdom to create an enclave for the minority of Irish people who had no wish to leave the UK, in no sense is this “the Irish border”.
Irish independence came at the end of a century and more of campaigning which began the moment Ireland was annexed to the UK in 1800. The final years of that campaign were a bloody war of independence. The creation of the border as a condition of independence for the rest of the island led to a mercifully short, but bloody, civil war in Ireland
and to years of unofficial conflict involving paramilitary organisations on both sides. But the fact is that from the outset there was freedom of trade and travel between Ireland and the UK, across the Irish Sea as well as the land border, except during the years of greatest paramilitary activity and occupation by the British army in Northern Ireland.
Despite claims that there is no intention on the part of the UK to see a “hard border on the island of Ireland”, the fact is that the primary rationale of Brexit is to “take back control of our borders”.
Not only does the phraseology imply there will be a hard border at points of entry on mainland Britain, the airports and seaports, it is hard to see how this can not include the only land border between the UK and the EU.
Unless, that is, it is accepted that a different regulatory regime pertains in Northern Ireland to that in the rest of the UK. In truth, there is nothing strange about such a concept. The province has always had greater autonomy than any other part of the UK, as, indeed, did the whole of Ireland before 1922. Northern Ireland, for example, remains the only part of the UK where same sex marriage is forbidden. It is the only part of the UK where politics is defined by religious extremism.
Thursday 3rd. March the writers’ group set this prompt: The soil yielded effortlessly to the spade. The following Tuesday, 8th March, I planted a tree. Whilst I was doing that I began to think about the prompt. This is the result. I changed only the tense.
The soil yields easily to the spade. I’m planting a tree. I decided a while back that the garden needed another. I didn’t want it in the lawn, it would be too difficult to maneuver the mower around. Instead, I would enlarge the flower bed at the bottom of the lawn. Later I will plant perennials around the new tree. I marked it out yesterday. Now I’m pushing the spade into the turf at intervals along the curved line of the mark.
I slide the spade under the turf and roll it up in sections which I place on a woven plastic tarpaulin on the adjacent section of lawn. With the turf cleared from the new section of flower bed, I position the tree, still in its container, and walk back to a point close to the window from which it will be seen. I do this several times in order to establish the best position. Then I push the spade into the ground again, marking a circle about twice the diameter of the container.
I move the tree to one side and begin excavating the circle. I go deep. Once through the layer of top soil, I reach a seam of sandy sub-soil which I break up and lift out. I wonder if I have reached soil that our ancestors might have walked on. Celts, Vikings, Normans: did any of them pass this way? And, suddenly, the thought strikes me that we remember these ancestors much more for the hate-filled battles they fought with each other, than for the struggles they had with nature and which produced pretty much everything we see around us today.
Whether farmers and horticulturalists who developed new strains of plants; scientists and engineers who learned how to smelt, alloy and shape metals; builders who developed new ways of strengthening clay so as to make sturdier buildings, we owe them all a debt of gratitude. And yet the vast majority are anonymous. We celebrate, instead, the warriors and leaders of armies: Alexander, Nelson, Wellington, Grant, Churchill, Eisenhower.
Admittedly, some of us also celebrate Darwin, Flemming and Pasteur. But not to the same extent. We commemorate the anniversaries of great victories, revolutions, and the battles that became the turning points in our political history. The important scientific discoveries that made possible so many of the things we appreciate, whether for their beauty or their usefulness, go largely unmarked.
I think about hybrids of flowering species, bred for colour, form or scent, or any combination of those three. Varieties of grains and vegetables whose increased productivity and disease resistance enable many millions more to be fed than was ever the case in years gone by. Where are the commemorations of these important milestones? Are the men and women behind these developments not at least as important as the political leaders and victorious generals we revere?
With the hole dug, I place several of the pieces of turf, grass side down, in the bottom of the hole. I lower the tree into the hole to check for depth. There is room for a second layer of turf. I sprinkle a handful of pelleted chicken manure into the hole and onto the pile of soil. I pour in a gallon of water drawn from my rain-water butt. Now, it is time to remove the tree from the confines of its pot and tease out the roots that have encircled the root ball. I position the tree in the hole and back-fill with soil from the pile, firming it down with my boot as I go.
My thoughts move on from history to the present and the future. And it comes to me that it is not just that we fail to recognise the achievements of those people whose only motivation was the well-being of future generations. Not content merely to take these things for granted, we abuse their legacy. Instead of conserving and improving the natural environment, as they did, we pillage and pollute it with no thought for those who come after.
I know my tree will give me pleasure for the few years I have left in this life. But I also know the tree will continue to give pleasure to the next occupant of the garden. Or it will, if the next generation, or the one after, is not destroyed by a combination of continuing hate-filled battles with each other, and the pillaging and polluting of soil, sea and sky that, I am ashamed to admit, my generation began.