What does it mean to be British in 2012?

July 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m thinking about this question in the context of reading some articles in the Guardian about the opening ceremony for the London Olympics 2012. Designed and coordinated by Danny Boyle (British director of the 2008 feature film Slumdog Millionaire), one article notes that

If the jubilee weekend was a festival of pageantry and heritage, it already appears that Boyle’s opening ceremony will be a more playful and anarchic treatment of British culture.

“You’re bound to fail, that’s built in. But you hope that on the journey, you hope people will find enough in it to feel that it is representative of us,” said Boyle.

He said there would be British humour and that the country’s history would be represented but “not in a box-ticking way”, and the show would reflect “parts of our heritage but looking forward as well”. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jun/12/london-2012-olympic-opening-ceremony, see also http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jun/12/london-2012-opening-ceremony-spectacle?intcmp=239)

While reading about Boyle’s event I am also pondering the fact that in the central Indian city of Bhopal, the opening of the 2012 London Olympics will be marked with a protest against Dow Chemical, one of the corporate sponsors of the Olympics and the company facing legal cases charging it with responsibility for what has been widely recognised as the world’s worst industrial disaster, which took place here in 1984. This protest is part of the ongoing Drop Dow Campaign, which has been demanding that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) end sponsorship deals with Dow.

On the night of December 3, 1984, Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal released over 40 tonnes of toxic gas into the atmosphere. The number killed in the immediate aftermath remains debated, ranging from two to fifteen thousand. Reliable estimates indicate that 10 000 people died within the first few days. The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) estimates that in the years since then the total death toll increased to 20-30,000 due to gas-related illness, and over 120,000 people now live with chronic health problems. Deaths and injuries continue to affect the people living near the abandoned factory, because they are obliged to drink water heavily polluted with waste from the factory that has still not been cleaned up by Dow.

In March 2012 British Prime Minister David Cameron intervened for the first time in the row over Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the wrap that will surround the main Olympic stadium in London, backing the deal in the face of protest from the Indian government and human-rights campaigners. Cameron has followed the line adopted by the International Olympic Committee and London 2012 chairman, Lord Coe, arguing that Dow was not the owner of Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster. This position flies in the face of arguments made by campaigners, that Cameron, Coe and co. have chosen to disregard completely.

Inspired by the “Green and Pleasant” theme of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, which focuses on all things the British can be proud of, the Bhopal protest event – conceptualised as the “Bhopal Special Olympics” – will focus on all things the British can be ashamed of. In particular, the protest will focus on the most shameful moments in of the colonial period in India, such as the role of colonial policy in the severity of the many famines that occurred between 1765 and 1947 (see below), the atrocities committed by British soldiers against Indian civilians in the aftermath of India’s First War of Independence (otherwise known as the Indian Uprising of 1857), and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 (otherwise known as the Amritsar massacre).

In thinking about these two events, I am pondering the nature of individual and collective choice in the construction of national identity. The position adopted by John Steinbeck in East of Eden is fresh in my mind, having recently finished reading the book: Timshel – thou mayest. Or as Led Zeppelin put it (in a line from “Stairway to Heaven” that Boyle could, conceivably, choose to feature in the opening ceremony): “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

John Pilger has just published an article on http://www.globalresearch.ca, based around the idea of “two letters and two Britains.” The first part of the article starts with a discussion of a letter Lord Coe sent in response to John Pilger’s questioning of the decision to accept Dow as a sponsor for the London Olympics. The second part of the article begins with a discussion of a letter sent to John Pilger:

In March 2003, Josh [Richards] and four others set out to disable an American B-52 bomber based at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, before it could bomb Iraq. So did four other people. It was a non-violent action faithful to the Nuremberg principles that a war of aggression was the “paramount war crime”. Josh was arrested and charged with planning to lay explosives. “This was based on the ludicrous idea,” he wrote, “that some peanut butter I had on me was actually a bomb component. The charge was later abandoned after the Ministry of Defence performed extensive tests on my Tesco crunchy nut peanut butter.”

During two trials and two hung juries, Josh was finally acquitted. It was a landmark case in which he spoke in open court about the genocidal embargo imposed upon Iraq by the British and US governments prior to their invasion and the false justifications of the “war on terror”. His acquittal meant that he had acted in the name of the law and his intention had been to save lives.

The letter Josh wrote to me included a copy of my book, The New Rulers of the World, which, he pointed out, had provided him with the facts he needed for his defence. Meticulously page-marked and highlighted, it had accompanied Josh on a three-year journey through courtrooms and prison cells. Of all the letters I have received, Josh’s epitomises a decency, modesty and determination of moral purpose that represent another Britain and antidotes to poisonous Olympic sponsors and rehabilitated warmongers. During these extraordinary times, such an example ought to give others heart and inspiration to reclaim this receding democracy.

For those interested in Josh’s action, the EDO Decommissioners might also be of interest (as well as a more recent action by Smash EDO).

As against those who would describe the actions of Josh and the EDO Decommissioners as criminal and/or terrorist, I am reminded of a line from an Ani Difranco song: “I am a patriot/I have been fighting the good fight.” (This line is less likely to find its way into Boyle’s opening ceremony, partly because Ani is American). I am not suggesting that the actions of Josh and the EDO Decommissioners are the only ways to be a good Briton, and a patriot. But I like Pilger’s juxtaposition of the letters from Lord Coe and Josh Richards, implying, as it does, that there are different paths we might choose to follow as we decide, individually and collectively, what it means to be British in 2012 and beyond.

Further Reading/Action

Click here to sign a current Avaaz petition on Bhopal.

For latest news on Bhopal campaign, see Satinath Sarangi (2012) “The tragedy continues” Tehelka vol. 9 issue 28, 14 July 2012 http://www.tehelka.com/story_main53.asp?filename=Op140712SATINATH.asp

For details of an art exhibition on Bhopal that will be shown at Amnesty International UK, in New Inn Yard, see http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/metroplus/article3635160.ece

More on famines in British India:

As Amartya Sen has argued, famine is not caused by lack of food availability, but by lack of entitlements to available food. Through policies that made the Indian economy entirely subservient to imperial needs, Britain severely limited entitlements to available food, thereby contributing to 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule, as compared to 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millenia.[1] Between 1875–1900 – a period that included the worst famines in Indian history – annual grain exports increased from 3 to 10 million tons, equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25m people.[2] India was made to repay a huge public debt that included reimbursing the stockholders of the East India Company and paying the costs of the 1857 revolt, and was also made to finance British military supremacy in Asia, so that military expenditure was never less than a quarter of India’s annual budget.[3] By making their revenue demands too high and inflexibly fixing them to the estimated average produce of the land, with scant regard for climate variation, the British pushed large numbers of Indian farmers into indebtedness that cost them their land and sometimes their lives. In colonial Berar Province (now Vidarbha, the eastern region of Maharashtra state, which has frequently been in the media in recent years for a spate of farmer suicides related to the falling Minimum Support Price for cotton), for example, Berari society was reengineered into a specialised cotton monoculture entirely subservient to the needs of Lancashire’s cotton lobby. During the famine of 1899–1900, when 143 000 Beraris died directly from starvation, Berar Province exported not only thousands of bales of cotton but also 747 000 bushels of grain. Despite heavy labour immigration into Berar in the 1890s, the population fell by five percent and ‘life expectancy at birth’ twice dipped into the 15-years range before finally falling to less than ten years during the ‘extremely bad year’ of 1900.[4]


[1] C. Walford (1878) “The famines of the world: past and present” Journal of the Statistical Society 41 (13), pages 434-42, cited in M. Davis (2000) “The Origin of the Third World” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 32 (1), page 53.

[2] Davis 2000: 59.

[3] Davis 2000: 67.

[4] Davis 2000: 66.

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