By John Fullerton
It’s a sunny Saturday at Newlands rugby ground in Cape Town. We’re back in the 1960s. Squatting on my heels behind the touch line along with my schoolfellows, I’m watching the all-white Springboks play the British Lions.
Every time the ‘boks score, the white spectators behind me in the whites-only stand roar their delight, while at the far end the smaller non-white stand stays silent, the spectators staring at their feet, arms crossed in sullen fury.
When the Lions score a try, the white stands are silent, and it’s the turn of the spectators in the non-white stand to leap up, waving their arms and cheering wildly, deliriously happy at the former colonial ruler’s success on the playing field.
Sport – long before the anti-apartheid boycott became fashionable – was always political along with just about everything else. Rugby was the preserve of the ruling white Afrikaner nationalists. The lesson, at least for me as a 14-year-old, was that the British – my people, as I saw it then – were the good guys, the anti-racists, the liberals on the side of freedom from tyranny.
A closer reading of the history of South Africa’s colonial past might have helped me and those spectators see things more objectively. The 1902 Treaty of Vereeniging, for example, ended the Second Boer War, but it did so at the price of the political rights of the majority of the population – South Africa’s black, mixed-race and Asian communities.
At the stroke of a pen, the British signed over the majority’s future, placing them in the hands of successive generations of Boers – the Afrikaner settlers of Dutch and French descent with their Old Testament view of race – who were supposed to have lost the war but had, with a few thousand mounted irregulars, humbled in spectacular fashion an empire’s badly-led army of half a million.
Inevitably, once the treaty was signed, the Afrikaners steadily stripped the majority of their rights – of all their rights, in fact, stealing most of the land and all the country’s immense resources for themselves, international corporations and the City of London.
That was Britain’s price for peace. The poor majority paid, often with their lives.
I still didn’t see the truth of it. At prep school I had written plays and short stories extolling British values – whatever they might be – and denigrating those of the Boers. I was a proud, pushy little imperialist. I really did believe the British empire and its legacy were of benefit to humanity.
Ignorant of the way in which the British had benefitted from the slave trade, how they had mistreated the Irish and the Chinese, allowed millions to starve to death in Bengal to say nothing of the pillaging of Burma, I continued to fool myself into thinking that somehow the British were altogether a superior lot born to rule. Back then I didn’t know, for example, that in the early 18th century India represented 23 percent of global wealth and that by the time the Raj ended in a welter of sectarian bloodshed in 1947, that figure had dwindled to three percent – largely because the British had systematically demolished Indian industry, from textiles to steel and shipbuilding.
I watched the Queen’s Christmas address without fail. The sight of the Union flag was always a thrill, ditto the white ensign of the Royal Navy in which my father had served not without distinction. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the end of the Proms brought tears to my eyes. I grew up with Boy’s Own magazine stories praising the heroism of British warriors.
It followed that I was only too eager to do my bit as a ‘contract labourer’ for the Secret Intelligence Service when the opportunity came. Just as my parents had fought the Nazis, so too I was ready to combat the Soviets. The latter were simply an extension of the former, another iteration of evil.
These experiences as a spy form the basis of my latest novel, ‘Spy Game’.
Unlike the main character, Brodick, I enjoyed every minute of my role. I had few if any qualms about what I was doing. A solitary life suited me, and I never felt lonely or paranoid. It was fun. I was more than willing to lend a hand in the business of bleeding the Soviets by exploiting Afghans. The latter would have fought anyway, I told myself.
So what has changed?
The Cold War ended, of course, but it soon became apparent to me as a foreign correspondent that the political entity called ‘Britain’ – a term embracing both Westminster politicians and the Whitehall civil service – could no longer make a clear distinction between the UK’s true national interest from that of the United States. The UK establishment no longer had the means to change things for the better even if they had the will to do so, but their meddling succeeded in making matters a great deal worse, from Afghanistan and Venezuela to Yemen.
Out of the vanity of trying to ‘punch above our weight’ the UK has caused immense suffering among civilians, whether in Palestine, Iraq or Syria – and that continues today.
And to what end – maximising shareholder value for British Aerospace?
At home children go hungry, the low paid are evicted from their homes when they can’t meet the exorbitant rent, contracts worth millions are handed out to the Tories’ friends, Labour looks the other way, the rich get tax breaks and the taxpayer picks up tab for another fleet of strategic nuclear missile submarines already obsolete before they’re even built.
What finally marked my own personal rupture in allegiance to the British state was the Iraq debacle. I watched it unfold at Reuters. Like so many others I and my family turned out for the gigantic protest in central London. I couldn’t believe that the then prime minister, Tony Blair, would do anything so stupid, so destructive, so criminal and that he and his henchmen would even go so far as to falsify intelligence in order to deceive our own citizens – let alone help the Americans spy on the U.N. Security Council member-states.
It was especially galling back then because I was reliably informed by an intelligence officer that the UK had had the means to remove Saddam Hussein without going to war. There was a team trained and ready, with access to the target and there was, briefly, a window of opportunity.
I was told that Blair refused to authorise an assassination – apparently because there was a convention that we don’t knock off foreign heads of government in case they try to do the same to us.
Quite how that convention stands up in an era of so-called terrorism I really don’t know.
While still abroad, I started to read up about my family’s ancestral home, Scotland, its culture and above all its history, about which I shamefully knew all too little.
Finally making my home there, I began to realise something of what it means to live under the Crown in the margins of an unequal Union, to be scorned, ignored, lied to, to be repeatedly told by corrupt Westminster politicians and the state broadcaster – a broadcaster both wilfully biased and ignorant – that the Scots are not good enough, that they’re too few, too wee and too poor to make it on their own.
Nowadays I do at least recognise a bloody great lie when I hear one.
Spy again for HMG?
I’ll pass, thanks very much.
How about for an independent Scotland?
Well, that’s a different matter entirely.