The United Kingdom: Four nations or one?

Can the UK’s politicians offer lasting, inclusive solutions to the constitutional fall-out from last year’s referendum on Scottish independence? The historical precedents are not encouraging, warns Naomi Lloyd-Jones.

In April 1886 the Whig leader Lord Hartington posed a question that resonates today: ‘What is the meaning of “United Kingdom”?’ For Hartington and his fellow Unionists the United Kingdom was the product of the 1800 Act of Union, the ‘distinguishing feature’ of which was the establishment of a ‘sole Legislative Body for the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland’. The ‘creation’ Hartington knew has long since disappeared: Ireland was partitioned in 1922 and successive devolution agreements have resulted in the formation of three new legislatures within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yet, as we continue to anatomise the fall-out from last September’s Scottish independence referendum, it becomes apparent that Hartington’s question is as relevant now as it was when he opposed William Gladstone’s proposal for the restoration of an Irish parliament in 1886. Indeed, the term most closely associated with Gladstone’s scheme, ‘Home Rule’, has re-entered mainstream political discourse. Initially employed as short-hand for the allocation of greater powers to Holyrood, since the Scottish ‘No’ vote it has appeared in incarnations as seemingly diverse as ‘Home Rule All Round’ and ‘English Home Rule’. The Radical politician Henry Labouchere’s 1882 maxim still rings clear: 

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The United Kingdom: Four nations or one?

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