Tuesday 16 September 2014

A parcel o' rogues

Part II of Border History in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum (Part I).

In 1984, just after we returned to Europe from America, the British telecommunications monopoly was filleted out of the Post Office and launched onto the stock market in the biggest share flotation the world had ever seen.  The privatisation was orchestrated by the government of Margaret Thatcher as an early example of selling the family silver to family so that they could blow it on a holiday or a better car, feel much better and vote for more Thatcher. The flotation price was pegged so that everyone who took a plunge was generously rewarded when and if they sold their windfall on to a Pension Fund or an Investment Bank.

In 1999, the Irish state telecoms agency was privatised (me too me too): Ireland is often 10-15 years behind the UK in whatever you care to measure.  The Minister of Enterprise Mary O'Rourke exhorted us on the wireless with a mixture of guile and unfounded optimism to invest in the new entity. That message was received by the Irish public (bleh bleh) including me and The Beloved with a mix of cupidity and public spiritedness.  In any case, 500,000 of the plain people of Ireland obeyed the Minister and took out a "sure-fire" bet on the future, that would double their spare cash in quick-time. The share price was set so that, after a very brief spike upwards, ordinary people saw the value of the investment fall steadily and allowed Pension Funds and Investment Banks to pick up blocks of shares cheaply.  The family silver was thus sold to float a new company called Eircom which was then dismantled in a way that showed culpable negligence by the management team and/or a hopelessly inaccurate and backward-looking vision of what was going to happen in the the future of telecommunications.  They held onto the fixed line copper and fibre-optic infra-structure and sold the nascent mobile phone division off to Vodafone for one txt.  Bad call, lads!

Bad as it was for us in modern Ireland, it was far worse for Scotland exactly 300 years previously. From 1603 until 1707, Great Britain was (in) a peculiar political state, sharing a monarch but Scotland and England/Wales having their own separate parliaments and formally politically independent.  But you'd have to shout conflict of interest in a very loud voice at just about everything that happened on these islands during that century.  The major modern economies of Western Europe formed joint-stock companies to trade with the rest of the world and make shareholders and directors unimaginably rich. The English had floated the East India Company which received its Charter from QE.I in 1600.  Two years later across the North Sea, the Dutch States General chartered the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie VOC, usually called the Dutch East India Company to distinguish it from the parallel British EIC monopoly.  In 1698, a set of magnates and wannabe millionaires in Edinburgh, led by a financier called William Paterson, founded the "Company of Scotland" with me-too ambitions of fantastic profits in spices, gold, slaves and ivory.  Through a combination of chicanery, bullying and bluster, London prevented CoS from raising capital on the markets abroad. Paterson and his cronies were, accordingly, reduced to selling their aspirations of a modern and fabulously wealthy nation to anyone who would listen, so long as they had property North o' the Borrrrder.  And listen they did: everyone who had two shillings to rub together invested in the new venture which set its sights on forming a new colony "Caledonia" in Central America where the isthmus had its narrowest point between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is estimated that >25% of the total capital worth of Scotland was invested in those few sq.km. of mangrove swamp and insect-infested jungle. The cunning plan was called the Darien Scheme initially but within two years had been renamed the Darien Disaster after all the colonists (including Paterson's wife and child) had succumbed to dysentery, yellow fever or Spanish sword  . . . and the investors lost everything.

The fact that the country and many of its most notable and influential citizens were by 1700 bankrupt, very much strengthened the hand of those, primarily in London, who sought to merge the two countries into a political union under a decisively protestant monarch that we have since called the United Kingdom.  This was years before our current ideas of universal suffrage  and plebiscites or referendums to determine how things should be in the future.  The Union was agreed by a simple majority in the respective Parliaments. In the Scots case there were but 227 members of parliament, who followed their personal interest, or were suborned or bribed by an influx of English money allocated to indemnify those who had lost their shirts in Panama. It was the cheapest and most blood-free coup of early modern history.  Robbie Burns slagged off those magnates with sticky fingers as a Parcel o' Rogues who sold their country and its birthright for current currency.
O would or I had seen the day 
That Treason thus could sell us, 
My auld grey head had lien in clay, 
Wi' Bruce and loyal Wallace! 
But pith and power, till my last hour, 
I'll mak this declaration; 
We're bought and sold for English gold- 
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

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