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Lessons from the past...

Gordon Boyle

Former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis recently warned that bitter political divisions threaten American society, saying he views “tribalism” as a greater risk to the nation’s future than foreign adversaries. The retired Marine general, who resigned in December 2018 in a policy dispute with President Donald Trump, said he worries about the state of American politics and the administration’s treatment of their allies.

“We all know that we’re better than our current politics,” Mattis wrote in an essay adapted from his new book. “Unlike in the past, where we were unified and drew in allies, currently we seem to be breaking them apart.”

There seems to be in many parts of the world today an increasing move towards a sort of siege mentality with politicians adopting a strategy that is tearing us all apart. Trump has split the USA into two extreme tribal groups, Brexit is doing the same, Modi in India has increased tribal behaviour as a result of his pronouncements on Kashmir, in Brazil Bolsonaro has introduced tribal politics and in Russia Putin has been a political master of tribal politics since 2012.

The phrase “you’re either with us, or against us” is growing in importance polarising societies across the world. Since the 1980s,modern globalisation has spread rapidly through the expansion of capitalism allowing for the privatisation of public industry, deregulation of laws or policies that interfered with the free flow of the market, as well as cut-backs to governmental social services.

This has resulted in many being left behind who were once part of the workforce across the developed countries especially in North America and Europe. They are angry that the politicians have let them down especially the young who are facing a future of global warming and earning less than their parents.

This has all the hallmarks of a broken relationship between the tribal leaders and their followers. Longstanding established relationships have or are breaking down. This reminds me of tribal relationship that broke down in Scotland hundreds of years ago known as the Highland Clearances.

Historically, Scotland has in the north of the country operated under a clan system. This is derived from the Gaelic word Clann meaning child. A clan member who is loyal to the clan leader will in return be looked after with a job, a tied house and access to land to have a few cows and chickens and to grow some vegetables.

The Highland Clearances were driven by the needs of the estate owners to increase their income due to crippling debts. This resulted in the evictions of a significant number of their tenants in order that the land could be used to support sheep. There was good money raising sheep for the sale of wool.

Some of the families evicted were given jobs in the coastal areas where they made a basic living fishing and farming sea kelp. Others chose to leave for a new life in Canada or America. Many did not make it, dying from diseases and other illnesses on the hazardous sea journeys.

Today, hundreds of years later the wounds run deep in many communities across Scotland. The callous behaviour of the landowners in their self-centred desire to look after their interests at the expense of those they had a social contract with has never been forgiven.
Let’s hope the leaders of today do not ignore the lessons of the past.

Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at

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