Britain is not at ease with itself. The uncertainties and disquiet arising from the pandemic have parallels all over the world, but in Britain it is hard to disentangle them from those arising from Brexit, that very British phenomenon that dominated our politics during the past six years. The divides in the nation it brought to light were already there, but are now under the spotlight. There is much to suggest that, like a virus, our uncertainties and disquiet can take new forms, even as the Brexit decision begins to recede into the past.
It is possible – I do not say probable – that in the next decade Northern Ireland will reunite with the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland go its own way. If this were to happen, a new name would have to be found for what is left of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom of Southern Britain, perhaps? Or the United Kingdom of England and Wales? Few English people have spared a thought for the possibility that "Britain" might cease to exist. This would mean that "the British" will have gone the way of "the Ottomans" and "the Romans" – a name given to a proud imperial people whose traces are visible wherever we look, but who are no longer with us.
The English and Scots collaborated to build the British Empire. The other peoples of the British Isles joined in. Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, took part in the storming of Seringapatam (now Srirangapatna) before he beat Napoleon at Waterloo. He was Anglo-Irish, while soldiers from Wales famously sang Men of Harlech when fighting the Zulus at Rorke's Drift. Whether the United Kingdom splits or remains together, it has to come to terms with the history of its empire.
Little is taught about the empire in British schools because it is controversial. Opinion is divided over what should be done with statues of once esteemed men who devoted their lives to public service after making a fortune in dubious ways. Topical examples are Edward Colston, who made his money from slavery, and Cecil Rhodes, who used wealth acquired from diamond and gold mines in other peoples' countries to spread the British flag over swathes of Africa. People prefer to forget about the histories of Colston and Rhodes, and become sensitive over the re-writing of history. I often wonder if this reflects a sense of identity that has become shallow – a sign of a national malaise. My grandfather enlisted to fight in the Boer War because he wanted to impress my grandmother, who was then his sweetheart. Were they both swept up in the jingoism of the day? They must have been. For all of us, our history is part of our self.
The British Empire became entrenched in the Middle East during the last decades of the 19th century. After the First World War, it dominated the area. We in Britain cannot avoid our responsibility for the role we played. Nowhere is this more the case than in Palestine, which was administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate until 1948.
Today, the UAE recognises both Palestine and Israel. Britain recognises Israel, but not Palestine. Isn't that rather odd? Why can't Britain recognise Palestine like the UAE and 138 other UN members plus the Vatican? I believe the reason is our failure to confront our past. In 2017, our then prime minister Theresa May celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. The declaration promised British support for the establishment of "a national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine (without clarifying what that meant). This was subject to the caveat that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". Britain failed miserably to implement the promise in that caveat, the language of which was misleading. As JMN Jeffries, the Daily Mail's correspondent in the area put it, the wording suggested that "there had always been in Palestine mere clumps of Arabs dotting a basic carpet of Jews". Yet by accepting the Mandate over Palestine, Britain undertook "a sacred trust of civilisation" under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations for the well-being and development of Palestine's people, the obligation to lead them to independence.
Britain departed from Palestine in 1948 in a chaotic way almost uniquely shameful in the annals of the empire's decolonisation. It left Palestine to civil war, without even a pretence that there were sovereign institutions to hand over to its people. There was a UN partition plan, but it was never implemented. The better view among international lawyers is that Israel came into existence by secession from Palestine. This presupposed military action by the forces of the nascent state against the wishes of the majority of its native population, and led to a war in which Palestine was dismembered. The consequences are with us still.
I certainly do not ask that the clock be put back – that would be impossible, and an old wrong cannot be righted by committing another wrong. But the past must be acknowledged. By refusing to recognise Palestine as a state alongside Israel, with both entitled to live in security, Britain is showing it has not yet come to terms with that past.
But what if Scotland and England split apart? Arthur Balfour was born in Scotland and died in England. He is part of our "British" heritage. If the two nations part company – which, personally, I hope will not happen – I suspect Scotland will find it easier to come to terms with this aspect of its heritage than England will.
Fortunately, there is now a small Scottish charity called the Balfour Project, which devotes itself to spreading awareness of Britain's historic role. It urges the British government to live up to what happened in the past by campaigning for peace based on the rights of both parties in international law, as well as the principles of human rights and equality. In May, it held a conference entitled "Israel/Palestine – in search of the rule of law". It attracted such eminent speakers as Baroness Hale, the former president of the Supreme Court, Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, Philippe Sands QC, the prize-winning author of East West Street, Michael Lynk, the UN human rights rapporteur for the Occupied Territories, and expert speakers from Palestine and Israel.
The conference also launched a statement calling on the British government to heed five calls: to uphold equal rights for all in Palestine and Israel; to recognise Palestine alongside Israel on the pre-1967 lines; to reaffirm publicly that the systematic de facto annexation of Palestinian land is destroying the premise of British policy – the two-state solution; to affirm that international law must be applied in deed as well as word. This includes treating the closure of Gaza as a collective punishment, sponsoring an independent fact-finding mission on the treatment of children in Israeli military detention, pressing the Palestinian Authority to create an independent judiciary and incorporate crimes against humanity into Palestinian law, supporting the International Criminal Court and ensuring that its work is free from interference, and supplying information to the UN database on foreign companies trading with settlements; to put into British domestic law the principle that Israel must not benefit economically from its de facto annexation of Palestinian land so as to end the access to UK markets for settlement produce and economic dealings with the settlements and those who sustain them.
So far the British government's reply has been stony silence. Yet the Balfour Project's work to inform public opinion and advocate action by our government is becoming more widely known. Over time, it will make a difference.
The views expressed in this article are John McHugo's alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Balfour Project