As an historian, you can sometimes feel that history is repeating itself without it being aware of it. Watching politicians and commentators anatomise the impact of Scotland's referendum, I was struck by the realisation that we are (seemingly unknowingly) grappling with issues that were discussed long before the phrase 'West Lothian Question' was coined.
In 1886, Prime Minister William Gladstone proposed the restoration of an Irish parliament, separate from but subordinate to Westminster. His actions unleashed a debate far more acrimonious than the one we have just experienced, with one of the main bones of contention being the right of Irish MPs to sit and vote in the House of Commons. Gladstonian Home Rule came to define a political generation; will Cameron's devolution do the same?
Joseph Banks, patron of the natural sciences and a president of the Royal Society, did not approve of tattoos. As a young man on Captain Cook’s first great voyage into the Pacific, he was baffled by the sight of the illustrated peoples of Polynesia. Musing on the reasons for their tattoos, he observed in 1769 that:
possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.
Though tattoos had an aristocratic moment during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods – Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother, had a snake etched on her wrist, which she would cover up discreetly with a diamond bracelet – they were long associated in the West with criminals and sailors. At the beginning of the 20th century around 90 per cent of men serving in the Royal Navy were tattooed, usually with symbols that marked – literally – a particular rite of passage: a turtle for having passed the Equator, an anchor for crossing the Atlantic, a dragon symbolising a posting on a China station. One could track the arc of a sailor’s service from his tattoos. Yet outside of ports and prisons the tattoo, in Britain at least, was a rare sighting.