Give the Union its Due
The historical debate over the United Kingdom has been led by those who wish to bring the Union to an end. David Torrance believes the public deserves a more balanced discussion.
Anybody who enters into even a casual discussion with a US citizen about their country’s constitution will be struck by the ease with which they reference names, dates and significant events in the creation – and subsequent amendment – of that 225-year-old document. The detail of the more recent 211-year-old Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland, by contrast, does not exercise a similar hold on the minds of most Britons.
Yet that constitutional event produced the nation state that still exists (albeit substantially amended in 1922) in the early 21st century. It built upon the 1707 Union of the Scottish and English parliaments which, in turn, had emerged from the 1603 Union of the Scottish and English monarchies. Historically the point is that what is now known as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ has a complex backstory.
But it is one that has been served poorly by historians. Recent constitutional literature bulges with tomes on the birth and (apparent) death of both the 1707 and 1801 Unions, but there is little that examines their relative longevity. There are numerous studies of the Scottish National Party (SNP), together with Scottish and Irish nationalism, but nothing on Scotland’s most successful political party, the now superseded Scottish Unionist Party (1912-65) or indeed more general studies of Unionism.
A spate of historical studies published to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the 1707 Union illustrates the point: Michael Fry’s The Union: England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707 (2006) concluded that it ought to be repealed; Douglas Watt’s The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations (2007) focused on a key event in its formation; while Paul Henderson Scott’s The Union of 1707: Why and How (2007) viewed it from an impeccably nationalist perspective. Only Christopher Whatley’s The Scots and the Union (2006) offered a more nuanced analysis, rejecting the idea that the Scots had been ‘bought and sold for English gold’.
The first modern attempt to look at the UK and Unionism was Richard Rose’s Understanding the United Kingdom: The Territorial Dimension in Government (1982). Writing shortly after the failure of devolution referendums in Wales and Scotland, Rose characterised it as a ‘multinational Crown’, the Queen presiding over a ‘multi-national kingdom’ as the Habsburg monarchs once did in Vienna, the tsar in St Petersburg and the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople.
Rose’s book was unusual in that it examined what he called ‘majority opinion’ – the views of political Unionists (Labour, Conservatives and Liberals), who in 1982 were, in electoral terms, the overwhelming majority, rather than the myriad of studies analysing the relatively modest SNP vote, a product of that party’s sporadic electoral success in the late 1960s and again between 1973 and 1978. When the SNP, after 1990 led by the charismatic Alex Salmond, again appeared to be in the ascendancy, Scottish bookshelves once more filled up with studies of that party and its ‘big idea’.
But while the 1707 Union is firmly fixed in most Scottish, if not English, minds, the 1801 Union continues to be ignored. Neither the Irish nor UK governments, for obvious reasons, marked its 2001 bicentenary. Next year, meanwhile, marks 90 years since the Irish Free State (as then named) seceded from that Union. ‘The English in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the UK began in 1922, and will probably continue,’ observed Norman Davies in his Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011). ‘Hence, if the end does come, it will come as a surprise.’
To his credit Davies has done much – not least in The Isles: A History (1999) – to nudge ‘British’ history away from Anglocentric accounts of ‘English’ kings and queens, although, disappointingly, three recent histories by John Julius Norwich, Simon Jenkins and Peter Ackroyd largely ignored contemporary scholarship taking account of more complex interactions between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The ‘Little Englander’ perspective on more than 300 years of British history reigns supreme.
There are, however, some who have looked beyond perfidious Albion. Linda Colley’s seminal Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992) charted the invention of a common national identity, while in 2008 Colin Kidd, Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Political Thought at Queen’s University, Belfast, published Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland, 1500-2000, an important study of Unionism, nationalism and Kidd’s thesis that those two ‘isms’ have more in common than either would care to admit. Nationalism is a neglected, yet crucial, aspect of Scottish Unionism.
Likewise with Alvin Jackson’s The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland, and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007 (2011), which ponders the UK’s ‘lengthy survival’ rather than its alleged decline. ‘The political historiography of modern Scotland, like its Irish counterpart’, writes Jackson, ‘often seems much more concerned with illuminating the making of the Union, as well as those national forces tending towards its unmaking, than with its obvious longevity.’
It is tempting to conclude that Unionists, unlike nationalists (Irish or Scottish), have never been good at selling themselves. Jackson highlights the paradox that those who have been keenest to reduce the dimensions of the state have often been strongest in their professed Unionism, from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron and – perhaps – beyond.
Cameron benefited from the expertise of a constitutional scholar, Vernon Bogdanor, while studying at Oxford in the 1980s, yet betrays a less than sure-footed grasp of the history of the nation he governs. Many Conservatives believe the Unionist portion of their party name alludes to Scotland and England, rather than Ireland and Great Britain, while Scottish Nationalists appear to believe the term ‘United Kingdom’ refers to the 1603 Union of the Crowns or indeed the 1707 Act of Union, rather than the more pertinent 1801 Union.
Both sides also underestimate the flexibility, or rather adaptability, of the famously uncodified (arguably, it is ‘written’) British constitution, which waved a slow farewell to most of Ireland after 1922 and initiated an ad hoc system of devolution in 1999 while remaining relatively intact. Nationalism, too, has learned to accommodate aspects of Unionism, be they monarchical, fiscal, European or social. Could the two sides meet amicably in the middle with a constitutional compromise?
Even when it comes to reformulating the United Kingdom, history is full of failed schemes and quixotic desires. William Gladstone’s original ‘Home Rule’ scheme for Ireland gradually evolved into the more holistic ‘Home Rule all Round’, while in the 1920s a Speaker’s conference recommended what amounted to a federal system of government. More recently the old Stormont Parliament enjoyed something akin to what is now called full fiscal autonomy.
Today the UK government argues that fiscal autonomy, or ‘devo-max’, is ‘incompatible’ with 21st-century Unionism, demonstrating a remarkably short historical memory. Unionism, understood in its most nuanced sense, is more imaginative than that. Whatever happens in the autumn of 2014 historians will be kept busy charting either the death throes or last gasp of the United Kingdom. But at the moment the historical literature – at least – still favours those who want to kill it off.
David Torrance is a commentator for the Scotsman. His latest book is Salmond Against the Odds (Birlinn, 2011).
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