Gladstone's Plan for a United Kingdom

Gladstone and his Victorian Liberals still offer a great insight into the UK's divisions.

Almost half the Scottish electorate voted to leave the Union on September 18th. As Britons debate their constitution in the wake of that referendum, the visions and failures of the late Victorian era offer clues to what the UK might become in the 21st century. 

The muscular tartanry of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was an ironic prelude to the referendum: Glasgow was one of two Scottish cities that voted ‘Yes’ to independence. Yet this British take on the Olympics was founded as the Empire Games in 1924, when imperialism gave the Scots and English a common purpose. The end of Empire, together with the decline of Protestantism and, to a lesser extent, monarchism, weakened the economic and cultural bonds forged since the 18th century to hold together a Union based more on self-interest than mutual affection.  

Yet the movement for Scottish autonomy goes back to the age of Empire. Radical Liberals first placed Scottish autonomy on the political agenda during the Irish Home Rule debates of the late 19th century, as part of a federal reconstitution of the UK. This led indirectly to the setting up of the Scottish Office in 1885 and to a raft of cultural devolution: the Scottish Football Association, for example, banned its teams from playing in the English FA Cup from 1887 onwards.  

An all-Party Scottish Home Rule Association was formed in 1886 but it lacked both a leader of Charles Stewart Parnell’s quality and the popular swell of discontent with the Union that kept the Irish Question alive. While other small European nations, from Norway to Czechoslovakia, were mobilised by liberal nationalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, winning independence from their dominant neighbours, the Scots remained content with the Union because it offered partnership rather than subjugation and an international standing much harder for Scotland to attain alone. 

During his time as Home Secretary in Asquith’s government, from 1910-11, Winston Churchill proposed parliaments for Ireland, Scotland, Wales and seven English regions, with equal legislative powers. But the outbreak of war in 1914 left such proposals dead in the icy waters that surrounded an ever more united mainland. Horror at the violent campaigns for Irish Home Rule also marginalised those seeking a peaceful re-constitution of the Union. 

When Labour replaced the Liberals as the dominant force in progressive politics, one of the Liberal policies that socialists adopted was the idea of ‘Home Rule All Round’. The 1929 General Election was the first Labour fought with that commitment in its manifesto. But by 1945 Labour leaders, sensing the immense victory to come, went off the idea in favour of a more centralised polity that would deliver the Welfare State. This was ironic, given that during the unifying patriotism of the Second World War, Churchill had appointed the Labour Home Ruler, Tom Johnston, as Secretary of State for Scotland, giving him unprecedented powers to mobilise the Scottish people; so much so that he sardonically referred to Johnston as ‘the King of Scotland’. 

The modern nationalist movement began in the early postwar period, just a year after the National Health Service was added to the pantheon of British institutions to which the Scots gave their allegiance. On October 29th, 1949 John MacCormick, a former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, launched a new Home Rule campaign. Within days, queues had formed in the streets of Scotland’s cities to sign the ‘Scottish Covenant’, calling for a parliament with tax-raising powers and control over domestic affairs. By 1950 around two million Scots, two thirds of the electorate, had signed. 

Like today’s SNP, the Covenanters wanted to keep the Crown, but in 1952, as the country was preparing for the Coronation, postboxes bearing the insignia ‘EIIR’ were set alight across the country, because the new queen was only Elizabeth I of Scotland. Postboxes were a major symbol of Britishness; the creation of the postal service in 1840 was a Victorian improvement in communications that had brought the people of Britain closer together. 

Winston Churchill, now Conservative prime minister, could not understand why Anglo-Scottish wartime unity had not quelled discontent with the Union, telling the press:

If I think of the greatness and splendour of Scotland and her wonderful part in the history not only of this island but of the whole world, I really think they ought to keep their silliest people in order.

But Churchill was concerned enough to set up a Royal Commission on the Union, which reported in 1954. Known as the ‘Balfour Report’ after its chairman, it achieved little except a modest increase in the powers of the Scottish Office. But Robert Balfour gave this warning: ‘A harmonious relationship does not depend only upon efficient administration’; there is in Scotland an ‘emotional dissatisfaction’ due to the ‘thoughtlessness, lack of tact and disregard of sentiment’ of the English, with the result that:

The Treaty of 1707 is no longer remembered as the voluntary union of two proud people each with their own distinctive cultural characteristics and traditions but rather as the absorption of Scotland by England. 

Such was the indifference at Westminster that few MPs – and not a single Cabinet minister or shadow minister – attended the Commons debate on the report. Observing English indifference, shortly before his death in 1950, George Orwell wrote:

Many Scottish people, often quite moderate in outlook, are beginning to think about autonomy and to feel that they are pushed into an inferior position. I think we should pay more attention to the small separatist movements that now exist within our own island. They may look very unimportant now but, after all, the Communist Manifesto was once a very obscure document.

While Home Rule campaigns between the 1880s and 1950s revealed underlying discontent with the Union, it was in the period 1960-90 that Scotland’s economic problems turned cultural pride into political nationalism and the English began to pay more attention. 

The loss of Empire was compounded by the decline of Scotland’s industrial base in the 1960s and 70s and by the Thatcher governments’ painful restructuring of the British economy in the 1980s. Despite Thatcher’s regard for Adam Smith, monetarism hastened the reformation of Scottish identity, from the 18th-century idea of being entrepreneurial ‘North Britons’ into that of being a fairer, more equitable, people than the English. 

The SNP, founded by intellectuals in 1934, became a mass political movement (its breakthrough came in the October 1974 election, when it gained 30 per cent of the Scottish vote). A post-imperial espousal of ‘civic nationalism’ also gained the SNP support from Asian Scots, the main ethnic minority north of the border. When two thirds of Scottish voters said ‘Yes’ to a new parliament in 1997, devolution became a concerted cross-party strategy to hold the Union together.  

Yet the Edinburgh parliament, opened in 1999, also prompted an English reaction that formed part of a long-term decline of British national identity. By 1997 one study found that the people whose Britishness was described by themselves as weak or non-existent had risen from a minority in each country: to 66 per cent of Scots, 43 per cent of the Welsh and 26 per cent of the English. 

There is no simple solution to the erosion of Britishness. National identities are forms of culture that, like rock formations, take centuries to evolve. Empire, the Nazis and God are not coming back to reunite the British. Yet the Westminster politicians scrambling to come up with a constitutional solution to the divisions in Britain could learn much from those Victorian Liberals. The ghost of Thatcher may hover over the rise of Scottish nationalism but it is that of Gladstone which hovers over the future of the Union.

Richard Weight is the author of Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and re-issued as an ebook by Macmillan in 2013.