Under the 1667 Treaty of Breda that ended the second Anglo Dutch war, England kept Manhattan, which it had seized from the Netherlands three years earlier, while the Dutch gained the island of Run, which had been the only English outpost in the Indonesian Spice Islands. It seems crazy that the Dutch should have relinquished part-ownership of a continent in order to gain full control of a small island. However, at the time it was seen as a good deal, for it enabled the Dutch to realise their dream of a nutmeg monopoly, since the ten Banda Islands were home to all the world’s nutmeg trees. I don’t know how valuable the nutmeg crop is these days but, since I have had a jar of the spice in my cupboard for at least 20 years, I guess it is not the fastest-moving of commodities. Manhattan, on the other hand, has turned out to be a hot piece of real estate (despite being originally a swamp) and a global financial centre. It seems it is all about location after all.
Of course it is a pity for the Brits that they were unable to hold on to Manhattan long enough to get the real benefit of its subsequent development. They need not have lost it in 1783, since independence was not the preferred option of all colonists. However, their clumsy and unsympathetic governance led to a war they were bound to lose and, ever since, Manhattan and London have been rivals in the real-estate and finance sectors. It was small consolation, I suspect, that the British finally figured out how to cultivate nutmeg trees in Malaysia in the 19th century.
There is no doubt that Britain’s economic strength is a mere shadow of its former self, yet the fact seems to be taking a while to sink in to the consciousness of some natives, notably those who are cushioned by private wealth against the reality of public poverty. Speaking of whom, these last few days have seen central Manchester heavily guarded by police, as the governing Conservative Party holds its annual conference here. The city is a Labour Party stronghold, so the Conservatives’ choice of location is not easily explained: it could be a tactical – if vain – move to win the hearts and minds of Northerners; or it may be that they were offered cheap, off-season room rates; it could even be that Mancunians encouraged them to come here so that they could ridicule them at close-quarters; whatever the reason for their presence, it is tolerated rather than welcomed. Our severely depleted police force has drafted in reinforcements from around the region, making it a good time for burglars and other petty criminals to operate without fear of being nicked.
On Sunday there was a big rally organised by Trades Unions and associated organisations to demonstrate opposition to the Government’s policy of continuing austerity in the provision of public services. The speeches at the rally went down well – as may be expected when preaching to the converted – and everyone set off to march through the streets to the conference centre where they intended to make a great deal of noise so that the Conservatives would feel even more uncomfortable than they probably already did. The idea was a good one, except that the distance between the delegates in the hall and the police perimeter around it was so great as to nullify the effect.
Meanwhile, anti-Brexiteers were also demonstrating nearby in the hope of persuading their few Conservative sympathisers to pressure the Government into changing direction. However, while it attempts to “negotiate” its way out of thousands of laws, treaties and obligations and ignores the real business of government, we remain on course to ‘go Dutch’ and relinquish our part-share in a continent in order to gain full control of a small – and fragmenting – island.