Daily Archives: December 30, 2014


Missy M’s Sin of Omission

Ambitious SNP Westminster hopeful Gillian Martin seeks to bolster her standing within the party by a peculiarly snide attack on me, in which she continually reiterates how much she likes me but…

Among the buts is this story about the Yes campaign meeting Gillian and I both addressed in Insch:

One thing that jarred very much with me as we took questions from our very mixed audience of Yesses Nos and Undecideds on that night of the panel we shared, was the way Craig responded to a genuine question from an undecided person in the audience. He effectively called her and her question ignorant. She left straight afterwards. I know this because she is a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in ages and had wanted to say hello after. But she was gone. She had been rubbished and presumably left angry and humiliated. Given a kinder response she may have stayed and may even have been persuaded to vote yes. I don’t know if she did, but no matter.

I actually recall the incident very well. The questioner asked how an independent Scotland could possibly afford all the infrastructure of central government that currently existed in London, by way of ministries etc.

I replied that Scotland was already paying for 10% of all that infrastructure in London. With that same money, we could pay for the infrastructure of central government in Edinburgh, the difference being that the net drain on the economy as our taxes left for London would be stopped, and that this money would now be spent in Scotland. Undoubtedly there would be initial start-up costs on infrastructure but these should be seen as capital spending stimulating demand in the economy, not as loss. The view that such spending was a loss was the ridiculous Thatcherite fallacy of economics.

Gillian Martin may consider that “I effectively called her and her question ignorant”, and I suppose that is one possible analysis. But I promise you the question and answer were as I just related. I had no doubt the question was asked as a unionist sneer and if my answer rubbished it, so be it.

But here is the important point. As the young lady did indeed rather ostentatiously leave the meeting after my response, I asked some of the meeting organisers what that had been about. They told me that she was very well known in the community as an active Conservative and that an immediate family member of hers held some position in the Tories.

Now Gillian Martin claims the woman was a friend of hers whom she had wanted to greet. In which case Gillian Martin must know that she was a Tory. In which case, her omission of this most relevant of facts from her account of the event is a deliberate ploy aimed at discrediting me.

I don’t think I have met Gillian Martin apart from that meeting, and she struck me as perfectly nice. But ambition does unfortunate things to people. I do hope the brownie points were worth it, Gillian.

May I offer as an antidote this conversation I had yesterday with that most thoughtful and perceptive of Scottish interviewers, Derek Bateman.

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The Depth of Anti-Scottish Racism

An obnoxious D list celebrity seeks publicity by jibes about “sweaty little jocks” bringing ebola to England, in response to the plight of a selfless healthcare worker. Beneath our notice. But what is not only notable but cries out to be most carefully considered is the existence of thousands of readers in the Daily Mail comments section piling in to register their support, not for the stricken nurse but for the racist “celeb”. Look at the comments here and sort them by “best rated”. The result is staggering.

The comment “I’m not surprised, sounds like she’s speaking the truth” has 3,619 recommends and is the most popular comment.

It is an appalling reflection of English society today. Just as the kowtowing of the mainstream media and political parties to the UKIP agenda has returned “respectability” to casual racism, so the unionist referendum victory has emboldened popular anti-Scottish racism, which manifests itself in even the most tasteless of imaginable circumstances.

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The Myth of the Last Man

As the UK completes another military and political retreat from Afghanistan, it is time to revisit one of the most potent myths of the British Empire: the arrival at Jalalabad of Surgeon Brydon, wounded and on a shot-up dying nag, as the sole survivor of the Army of the Indus. It is a romantic scene that has been lovingly painted by scores of historians – and of course in a famous painting by Lady Butler.

The Remnants of an Army 1879 by Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933

But behind the myth, and never properly recorded by historians, is a disgraceful story of British officers leaving their men to die.

It is now generally understood and widely recorded that the army was not wiped out as completely as myth represents. So the retreat from Kabul saw the destruction of the Kabul force, not the Army of the Indus. One third of even the Kabul force survived, including at least 118 Europeans (Allen’s 117 plus Dr Brydon). In addition to this at least two European survivors of the Kabul force were to be killed by the British, fighting on the Sikh side in the British annexation of the Punjab. Their stories are not known. The high casualties of the Kabul force were not the result of a deliberate policy of extermination by Akbar Khan, but of vicious cold and the attacks of local tribesmen. The massacre was not a complete extermination for precisely that reason; undisciplined forces rarely kill everyone on a battlefield left hors de combat; it is hard physical work. Really thorough massacres of survivors are carried out by forces with a very disciplined command structure, like Henry V at Agincourt in 1415, like the Hanoverians at Culloden in 1746, or the Uzbek army at Andijan in 2005.

But if we dig deeper into the confusion and squalor of the retreat from Kabul, we find a very dark episode indeed. The escape of Dr Brydon was the result of a considered decision on the evening of 12 December of the mounted officers to desert their infantrymen – who were still fighting – leaving them to die while they made a break for Jallalabad on horseback. That is not to say the group of mounted men who abandoned the rest were exclusively infantry officers – some were cavalry, including sowars, horse artillery or staff officers – but many were infantry officers. The eyewitness accounts of this make it plain that the mounted men rode off despite specific pleas from the infantry not to desert them.

This can be discerned from the account of Dr Brydon himself:

“The confusion now was terrible; all discipline was now at an end, and the shouts of “Halt!” and “Keep back the cavalry!” incessant. The only cavalry were the officers who were mounted, and a few sowars…Just getting clear of the pass, I with great difficulty made my way to the front, where I found a large body of men and officers who, finding it perfectly hopeless to remain with the men in such a state, had gone ahead to form a kind of advance guard; but was we moved steadily on, whilst the main body was halting every second, by the time that day dawned, we had lost all traces of those in our rear.”

Even Brydon’s rather self-serving account states that there were calls for the horsemen to halt. This is much more graphic in the account of Sergeant-Major Lissant of the 237th Native Infantry, who was of course one of those abandoned on foot.

“The rear kept calling on the men in front to halt, while the officers were urging the expediency of pushing on and losing no time, as they said could we reach Gandamack by daylight we should be safe.

This continued for some time, some of the men halting, others pushing on as requested, till the cries from the rear became more loud and frequent to halt in front. The men in front then said, “The officers seem to care but for themselves, let them push on if they like, we will halt till our comrades in the rear catch up.

From this point, some of the officers went on, as all regularity seemed at an end; every man determined to act for himself”

This puts a very different complexion indeed on Dr Brydon’s “heroic” ride to Jallalabad. The fact that the officers who tried to save their lives by abandoning their men mostly failed, does not make this any less a stain in the records of the British army.

It is a fascinating fact that the abandonment of their men by the mounted officers was observed by the Afghans, and the knowledge has survived down to modern times, forming part of the underlying Afghan tribal dislike for the British which caused so many difficulties in the current long occupation. In 1973, collecting folklore stories of the First Afghan War, the ethnographer Louis Dupree was told near Gandamack: “But they did not all die on the hill, because many of the officers on horseback rode away from their men.”

It is also worth noting that, despite his being adopted as a hero by Victorian politicians and media seeking to spin a glorious national myth, a pall of suspicion hung around Brydon in India for decades. His biographer John Cunnignham records that but fails to give the full facts as to why.

The Kabul retreat was not in reality unprecedented. Monson’s repeat before Holkar in 1804, with Brown’s related retreat to Agra, caused about the same number of casualties among British troops. In that retreat too the mounted British officers simply deserted their men. As James Skinner recorded:

“I saw about 1,500 men march into camp with colours flying under the command of a British sergeant, with a great number of soobhadars and jemadars of native corps. These heroes had kept their ground after all their officers had left them. The poor sergeant was never noticed.”

[I am currently going through the heartbreaking process of reducing Sikunder Burnes from 260,000 to 180,000 words for publication. I am posting some of the more interesting bits that have to be shed on to this blog. Skinner, Like Burnes, was from Montrose. William Brydon was from Fortrose].

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