Nothing ‘Priti’ about Patel’s ignorance

A yellowing front page of Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal", which reads: "A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from becoming a burthen (sic) to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the Publick (sic)".In an interview for today’s Times, the Brexiteer Tory MP for Witham in Essex said that a government report, leaked to the Times, which said that the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit could be worse for the Irish republic than for the UK and could lead to food shortages there should have been used in negotiations to get the Irish government to drop the demands for a ‘backstop’ (a customs arrangement that avoids a physical border between the Irish republic, which is and will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which for now is part of the UK and thus would not remain in the EU). The suggestion has been widely criticised because under British rule, Ireland suffered a famine in the mid 19th century, during which the potato crop that the Irish relied on failed because of a fungal blight but other crops, which were unaffected, were shipped out. Like most famines, it was man-made.

What is less well-known in Britain, however, but surely should be known among British people of Indian origin, is that under British rule, India suffered numerous devastating famines, the most recent of which was the Bengal famine of 1943-4. Most of these were exacerbated if not caused by British policies; the Bengal famine, for example, was largely caused by British “denial policies” intended to impede any Japanese invasion after the occupation of neighbouring Burma, but in fact resulted in the seizure of grain and means of transport from local people who as a result had no means of feeding themselves. Another famine, at the end of the 19th century, took place against a backdrop of farmers being forced off their land in huge numbers after falling into debt to usurers who lent small amounts in relief to peasants in distress but charged exorbitant interest rates; the same class exported grain out of areas where there was scarcity. As in Ireland, the British did not intervene because they were under the sway of free-market thinkers such as Adam Smith — to do so would have been to go against the “invisible hand”. As a result, the usurer class had a free hand to hoard grain and charge whatever interest they liked.

There are, of course, debates about how much of the blame for the Indian famines lies with the British or indeed to what extent they were man-made, but there has been no famine in India, despite all its problems, in the post-independence era. Perhaps the class Patel came from was not badly affected by any of the famines, but like the Irish famine they were important in inspiring the independence movement; Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement was founded during the Bengal famine. That she is willing to use food as a weapon against Ireland shows how ignorant Priti Patel about her own history.

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