Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 9 News List

British history in India might repeat
with China as the beneficiary

Large parts of India’s economy were destroyed by the technological strength of northern Britain in the early 1800s and by investment deals that hugely favored British shareholders, but today it is China that holds that kind of power

By Ian Jack  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

According to an editorial published in Chinese newspaper the Global Times to coincide with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s (李克強) trip to London last week, the British live in “an old, declining empire” that, like a drooling elderly relative, needs the patience and understanding of rising nations such as China.

Last year, during British Prime Minister David Cameron’s trip to Beijing, the same paper announced that Britain was “just an old European country apt [that is, suitable] for travel and study.”

Since the Global Times is an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, one can assume that its blunt diagnosis reflects the government’s view. The present tense used to describe the UK — “declining” rather than “former” or “sunken” — suggests an overestimate of the country’s status on the part of the writer, but perhaps only in the negative sense that its downward journey is not yet quite complete.

Britons have been preparing for such moments for more than a century, since that July morning in 1897, at the height of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, when readers of the London Times found on its leader page Rudyard Kipling’s admonitory poem Recessional, which called for British humility and God’s mercy in the light of no empire lasting forever.

“Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” the poem read, and yet for most of its post-war history Britain managed to compensate for — and even disguise — its downward global trajectory by spreading its wealth more equally, putting on magnificent royal pageants and embracing the cult of youth, arguably more so than any other nation.

An inquisitive teenager in the 1960s might fret with his parents over the shedding of fleets and factories, but he was much more likely to be lost in a J.R.R. Tolkien book or a new Beatles album.

It has taken 50 years of economic impotence and political missteps for the eventual consequence to emerge in the landscape: The run-down, post-industrial settlements that have had their public funding cut; where town halls, shops, courts, police stations, post offices and local newspapers are closed or closing, stripping the place — as Labour Party MP Jamie Reed wrote last week — of every symbol of permanence, community strength and civic identity, and forcing the more able individuals to get out.

However, the fate of Nineveh and Tyre, the ancient cities of the Assyrians and Phoenicians, does not seem quite the right historical precedent for towns such as Burnley and Paisley. A closer parallel is the British India province of Bengal, whose economy was destroyed by the technological strength of northern Britain in what writer Jeremy Seabrook has called “the first great deindustrialization of the modern world.”

For at least two centuries, the handloom weavers of Bengal produced some of the world’s most desirable fabrics, especially fine muslins dubbed light as “woven air” that were in such demand for dressmaking and so cheap that British cloth manufacturers conspired to cut off the fingers of Bengali weavers and break their looms. However, the import of muslins was ended by the imposition of duties and a flood of cheap fabric — cheaper even than poorly paid Bengali artisans could provide — from the new steam mills of northern England and lowland Scotland that conquered the Indian and the British market. India still grew cotton, but Bengal no longer spun or wove much of it.

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