This  is a slightly edited version of an article by Allan Armstrong, first posted by bella caledonia.


P&O, or what became the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company, was established in 1822. One of its co-founders, Brodie McGhie Willcox, was a London ship broker. When he died in 1862, he was buried in the same London Highgate cemetery that Karl Marx was to be buried in twenty-one years later. P&O’s other co-founder was Arthur Anderson, a sailor from Shetland. In 1835, Captain Richard Bourne from Dublin joined the company. Thus, P&O was very much a creature of the Union of England, Scotland and Ireland cemented in 1801. But Union and Empire have been inextricably linked. P&O began as the Peninsular Steam Navigation sailing to the Iberian Peninsula. Both Portugal and Spain had been drawn into the UK’s still largely mercantile imperial embrace. But their political independence remained when mercantile imperialism gave way to free trade imperialism. Although Gibraltar remained as a reminder as to who ruled the waves. However, as the Empire took on an increasingly colonial form, P&O extended its operations from the Mediterranean to India, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, and beyond to China and Australia. The ‘and Orient’ was added to its name. P&O ships became what Freda Harcourt and Sarah Palmer have termed the “flagships of imperialism.” (1)

P&O gained the lucrative Royal Mail contract. It also became involved in the India China opium trade. P&O contributed to the establishing the class hierarchy brought about by the burgeoning British imperial order. The Indian colonial service top brass travelled in PO’s best cabins on their trips to India – port out, starboard home. This has given us the word ‘posh’. Meanwhile far below, some of the first migrant workers to come to the UK slept in hammocks, after an arduous day’s work. Lascar and Chinese seamen made it to British port communities in London’s Limehouse, Liverpool’s Toxteth, Cardiff’s Tiger Bay and Glasgow’s Gorbals. Their lives there were often precarious.

Later as the British Empire went into decline, P&O adjusted its activities. In the 1950s, P&O began to ship the ‘Ten Pound Poms’. They were subsidised British migrant workers who were welcomed to Australia under its ‘Whites only’ immigration policy. Not as favoured, many orphaned British children, were were also shipped there up to 1967. They were adopted often facing servile conditions and subjected to abuse. Gordon Brown thought that this was a “misguided programme” and that they should receive some £20,000 each in compensation.(2) The non-white victims of empire have not been so ‘fortunate’. In Africa, Brown said, “The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over”.(3) There had never been any such apologies, far less any compensation. That had been reserved for those still benefitting until 2015 from the payments originally made to British slaveowners in 1837.(4) But by 2015, money was required to compensate the banksters. Their criminal behaviour had contributed to the 2008 Financial Crash. – criminal that is when looked at from the point of view of justice, but not under British law, which is ‘the best that money can buy’.

But P&O became adept at keeping up with the changes as the British Empire declined. P&O removed itself from Britain’s former imperial seaways and switched its operations to Irish and European ferries. UK membership of the EU helped. But P&O also quickly signed up to Thatcher’s neo-liberalism. It built the Herald of Free Enterprise. This ferry sank off Zeebrugge on the 6th March 1987, drowning 193 people. The Crown Prosecuting Service (CPS) charged P&O with criminal manslaughter. But as on so many subsequent occasions, the CPS initials appeared to stand for the ‘Corporate Protection Service’. There were no convictions.(5)

But P&O was flagging, or rather unflagging, as it sold off many of its operations. It was taken over by Dubai Port World (DPW) in 2006. However, following the 2008 Crash, the new P&O owners picked up on the rise of Right authoritarian populism and its link with Brexit. London had attracted Arab sheikhs and Russian oligarchs to its opulent Londonistan and Londongrad enclaves. Fabulous properties, the City’s tax evasion opportunities and the ability to bribe Tory politicians, all provided an easy life. As with Boris Johnson, Nigel Lawson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, their other EU investments, properties and private jets meant that any Brexit ‘inconveniences’ would hardly affect them.  But Michael Gove was also able to point out the distinction between Nigel Farage’s Grassroots Out and the official Leave.EU campaigns. To Grassroot Out, ‘take back control’ meant ‘keeping out the bloody foreigners.’ But for the official Leave.EU ‘take back control’ was addressed to the British ruling class. It wasn’t necessarily fewer, but cheaper foreign workers that Leave.EU wanted.

Gove explained that non-EU, Ukrainian farmworkers would be cheaper than Bulgarian and Romanian farmworkers, as they were still protected under EU labour laws. Now, as it has turned out, Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s barbaric war have become the victims of the Tories’ over-riding ‘hostile environment’. In contrast, virtually every EU member country has welcomed them. But DPW could understand what Gove was getting at. They were quick to claim £10M Covid furlough money,(6) as funds were massively skewed in favour of major corporate claimants, or fly-by-night operators who had paid into Tory coffers. So, to celebrate P&O’s bicentenary, CEO Peter Hebblethwaite decided to sack 800 workers and replace them with agency labour from Colombia and India on £1.80 an hour. (7) And just as outrageous, men clad in balaclavas with handcuffs were used to evict the workers.(8) This at the same time as the government is in the process of passing its draconian Police and Crimes Bill. This bill targets protestors who ‘inconvenience the public’. But the owners of companies employing goon squads, who threaten the very bodies and livelihoods of workers, are left untouched.

Peter Hebblethwaite, P&O CEO

‘Opposition’ leader, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer’s first call was to see if P&O could be brought to court. This does not augur well given the ‘Corporate Protection Service’ record. Under mounting pressure, Starmer has stepped up his verbal demands, including a call for improved labour protection laws. But Labour did nothing about this when they were in power. Blair preferred to get exemptions from the EU’s labour protection laws. And Starmer’s role as Director of Prosecutions does not fill one with much confidence either. But Starmer must be kicking himself for being so late in recognising that the majority of the British ruling class had opted for a hard Brexit before the December 12th 2019, Westminster election. Sir Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, had already declared his support for Johnson’s Brexit deal on October 18th.(9) British employers could see the deregulation bonanza Brexit offered, as long as they made donations to the Tories.

But DPW don’t intend to stop at union busting and slashing pay and conditions on P&O ships. In a reversal of the nineteenth century heyday of the British Empire, DFW’s owners want to ‘annex’ some landed territories within the UK. These are termed freeports – free as the Orange Free State was ‘free’ for Black African workers. Free ports will have slashed pay, worsened working conditions and fewer environmental safeguards. And that goes for Scotland too whatever ‘greenwashing’ promises are made by the SNP government. And you can be fairly certain, following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which potentially places Clydeside in the nuclear frontline, that behind-the-scenes pressure is building up on the SNP leadership to hand over Faslane and Coulport as British sovereign territories. Although the UK will have as much control over its operations as it does over Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, with its US airbase. Alba supporting, Jim Sillars, has supported the idea of the UK maintaining Faslane in the past. And an increasingly cash-strapped Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, unlike her Cuban counterpart, could well take the money for ‘Guantanomac Bay’. Meanwhile her latest budget statement “is committed to maximising our COVID recovery support for businesses {including} the allocation of £276 million of Omicron business support funding for the current financial year”.(10)

And, of course, the SNP leadership’s ‘Indy-Lite’ Scotland would create the optimum conditions for corporate profitability, beginning with cuts in corporate taxation. Still under the Crown, the British High Command and the City of London, their ‘Scottish Free State’ would still have to find its place in what’s left of the Empire 2 bequeathed by Johnson (possibly to be inherited by Starmer). And the P&O scandal highlights in 2022 what a changed imperial world we now live in. The military shots have long been called by the US. Johnson’s and Starmer’s decision to continue with Trident spending merely provides the US government with free weapons. The British government has no control over their use. However, the monarchy, the Tory cabinet and perhaps Starmer, are likely to be the first evacuated to the USA, should the Pentagon decide to launch these nuclear missiles. But it would be a moot point if a call were to be made to Nicola to advise her to take refuge in in her majesty’s nearest bunker. Communications between 10, Downing Street and Bute House, or between her majesty’s government hub (or BOS – British Occupied Scotland) just off the High Street and St. Andrews House have not been good recently.

And major parts of the UK economy, including Scotland, are now controlled by corporations such as DPW. In the inverted world of Empire2, Johnson and his close cronies more resemble the subordinate maharajahs and nawabs under the Raj. And the vicious attack on P&O workers’ pay and conditions, along with DPWs threatened ‘freeports’, show the kind of world these new rulers want their ‘underlings’ to impose upon us. And in this world, Scotland’s leaders would be very minor peripheral ‘princes’ kept in line through imperial ‘missions.’ But Scotland could be praised for the valour of its own mercenary ‘Gurkhas’ wherever they are sent. Joanna Lumley, born in India in the last days of the Raj, could ensure they were properly paid!

To be effective in resisting such a future, we need to see beyond ‘British jobs for British workers.’ This was first raised by the fascist National Front and later taken up by Gordon Brown. But it was also resorted to by some trade union leaders, along with their use of ‘social dumping’ as if migrants were some kind of trash. ‘Left Brexit’ just provided cover for the Tories ‘to take control’ from us. One thing that DWP, the UK and Scottish governments have not anticipated is a serious attempt to reach out to those new migrant workers. Most will have little idea they are being used as ‘scabs.’. They are trying to escape conditions which few born in Scotland have ever experienced.

The foundation of P&O occurred just two years after the 1820 Radical Rising. This raised the call, ‘Scotland Free or a Desert. The defeat of the Radical Rising ensured Scotland’s subordination within the Union, with Empire becoming a major safety valve. Today Empire 2 is an impossibility; but the prospect ‘Scotland a desert’ is only too real, whether through nuclear annihilation or catastrophic environmental degradation. So, it’s time to extend that wider hand of ‘Freedom Come all Ye’ promised by the great Scottish internationalist, Hamish Henderson. It is less than a year since the Battle of Kenmure Street, with its defiance of the Crown’s immigration officers. This shows that many already want to live in a new Republic.


1. Freda Harcourt & Sarah Palmer, Flagships of Imperialism: The P&O Company and the Politics of Empire From Its Origins to 1867 (Manchester University pressm 2005)










Allan Armstrong, 28.3.22


also see:-

Solidarity with P&O workers, Michael Macleod, RMT