By Jason Michael

SINCE COMING TO POWER in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party has implemented a number of savage economic austerity measures which have resulted in at least 130,000 preventable deaths in England and Wales alone. Frontline medical services in every part of the UK have been reporting a sharp increase in malnutrition and the return of hunger related diseases not seen in Britain since the 1930s. While the Conservatives refuse to listen and plough ahead with their plans to sell off what remains of the National Health Service, doctors and other healthcare professionals have consistently identified Tory policies as the root cause of these serious and growing issues.

Nothing of this is news, however. There is no denying the fact that the present British government is responsible for the misery caused by austerity. We are familiar with the casual indifference of England’s social and political elite to the suffering they have caused, and we have gotten used to their social Darwinism – their constant efforts to shift the blame to their victims for not working hard enough, for being lazy, for being aspirationless. ‘Individual responsibility’ has become the watchword of Tory neo-liberalism, a phrase which essentially absolves policymakers by blaming poverty on the poor for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.


Over the past few weeks I have been tripping over Ireland visiting places associated with the Great Famine of 1845-49. We were taught nothing about the Irish Famine – or An Gorta Mór – in school in Scotland. Only as a matter of British national pride is Ireland – any part of Ireland – ever considered an integral part of the United Kingdom. When it comes to the history of Ireland and the part Britain and British intervention played in that history, Ireland is quickly disowned; treated as a foreign country, as any other far-off former colony we would rather forget. Families of Irish Catholic descent may to a greater or lesser extent have a folk memory of the Hunger and their flight from Ireland, but in the main Britain’s memory of the Famine is tinged with Orange; the Irish starved because they were lazy, they chose to rely on the potato, and they were too drunk and feckless to have the good sense to work themselves out of abject poverty and starvation.

Some clown on Facebook said to me the other day that speaking about Irish history is “completely counterproductive,” adding that there is “no point in looking backwards.” Yet contemporary right-wing Tory opinions on the unemployed, the disadvantaged, and refugees are shockingly reminiscent of Tory opinion at the time of the Famine and the Highland Clearances. It strikes me that this is less about the past and history than it is about the attitudes of Britain’s ruling establishment and the political party that represents it. They blame unemployed families for unemployment. They demonise people in poverty for drinking too much, for taking drugs, and for having children. Refugees are blamed for killing their own children for stupidly taking them on dangerous sea crossings.

At Portumna in County Galway I had the privilege to explore the old workhouse, once the most feared institution in British controlled Ireland. During and after the Famine the British government reluctantly opened 163 workhouses in Ireland to manage the effects of hunger and disease. When Portumna workhouse opened its doors in 1852 County Galway had lost almost 409,000 people to starvation and disease, and the twenty-five townlands around the workhouse had been reduced from a population of 3,012 in 1841 to about a thousand. Yet Portumna workhouse was built to accommodate only 600 ‘inmates.’ It was far too little, far too late – and this was precisely how Britain wanted it. People were not to be given ‘hand-outs.’ Everyone who came to the workhouse was expected to work; either breaking stones or rope picking. They would not be given enough nutrition to fuel them for the work regime, and the quality of the food itself was enough to kill. These were death camps, and not until the Nazis opened their forced labour camps would a worse regime exist in Europe.


The cruelty and inhumanity of the Irish workhouse was not accidental. It was not the fault of bad management or local corruption. The cruelty of the workhouse was a calculated cruelty, calculated down to the ounce of stale bread and portion of rancid meat. The horror of the workhouse was British policy in Ireland. It was a early form of the shock doctrine, designed to exploit the catastrophic effects of the Famine – a famine caused by the government in London – to break the back of Ireland, further reduce its population by disease and emigration, and make what remained of the country more willing to be ruled as part of the British Empire.

Modern austerity – entirely designed by the British government – does not have the workhouse, but in many other respects it is the same. Austerity was implemented to exploit the effects of an economic collapse – again, entirely caused by the British state – to make the poorest pay for the excesses of the wealthy, to further reduce the working class, and to hammer a once mighty population into docility and fear. Austerity, like the workhouse in Ireland and the measures of the London government in Scotland during and after the Clearances, typifies the vindictive nature of the Westminster government. Calculated cruelty has been at the heart of the British imperial imagination and its methods of operation everywhere it has visited. Sure, it has moved from the brutality of the physical violence and genocide that it meted out in Tasmania, Kenya, South Africa, and India. But this only evolved into legal and bureaucratic murder such as it was in Ireland and Scotland.

The death of empire has not changed Britain’s modus operandi, it has simply focused its violence on its most colonised subjects – the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish in the six counties, and the poorest and most vulnerable people in England. This is as it always was, a colonial and a class war. Portumna and the entire workhouse system is a testimony to Ireland’s particular suffering at the hands of England, but, standing there in the freezing cold, I couldn’t help but see reminders of Auschwitz, and I couldn’t help but see the whole of Britain’s austerity programme written out in microcosm. We need the past if we want to truly understand the ugliness of Great Britain. It is a monster that likes to hide, and so if we want to destroy it, we must be prepared to look into the not-so-distant past to those moments where it has crawled out of its lair and exposed itself to daylight. When it does it again, we’ll know where to strike.


Irish Workhouse Centre – Portumna

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5 thoughts on “Vindictive Britain

  1. “Some clown on Facebook said to me the other day that speaking about Irish history is “completely counterproductive,” adding that there is “no point in looking backwards.” ”

    I couldn’t help considering what the British response would be if a German wrote that about German history.

    Liked by 3 people

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