The United Kingdom is under threat. Three-quarters of Ireland left decades ago and devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland loosened the seams further. Acts of Union and Disunion extends the scripts of a current 15-part BBC radio programme by Linda Colley, one of the country’s most distinguished historians. The programmes and the book are deliberately timed to explore historically the strengths and weaknesses of the UK in the context of the forthcoming Scottish independence vote.
Colley does an excellent job of making the reader think about the various political unions that made the UK. She reminds us, moreover, that the UK is not all that old. The Irish remained fully within its compass for just 120 years and the widest historical analysis militates against assumptions of permanence. Nor is the habit of questioning the union a new phenomenon – not even outside Ireland. More than a century ago, Welsh politicians, including David Lloyd George, sought support for a form of devolution for Wales, and in 1911 Winston Churchill proposed parliaments for Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the English regions.
The confidence and arrogance of the English, Colley thinks, are shaped partly by the country’s ancient provenance as a unitary state under a single monarch
Colley understands that union is a complex mixture of positive and negative forces. She challenges ideas of the longevity of the union, probes many preconceptions about what made the project work, and explores what currently undermines it. Those who view our island-dwelling, seagoing status as central to the identity of this archipelago might stop to consider that water-borne isolation looms far larger in visions of English identity than it does in the other countries, where such geographical ideals had a “mixed, invasive and variable” impact.
Take Ireland: since the creation of the UK was overwhelmingly a Protestant venture, it follows that the Catholic island would be perceived as a back door for invasions by Europe’s Catholic monarchies. Colonisation and oppression were the responses of both England and Scotland in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
The English lie at the heart of this book. Their confidence and arrogance, Colley thinks, are shaped partly by the country’s ancient provenance as a unitary state under a single monarch. Such a view seems to underscore the idea that the UK is nothing more than the expansion of England over its Celtic neighbours and across the world throughout its Empire.
However, England’s dominance applies pressures elsewhere, not least to the UK’s regions, since centralising tendencies have favoured London and the South for centuries. While the Industrial Revolution reduced this feeling by giving the North, Wales and Scotland economic power that held regional divisions and nationalist sentiments in check, subsequent post-industrial decline has cleared the way for a return to national sentiment.
On the other hand, the spread of the English language – a deliberate policy within the isles and also around the Empire beyond them – is in many ways the triumph that underpinned the creation of the UK and the British Empire. The increasing commonality of English gave all four nations strong opportunities to benefit from London’s metropolitan economy and society, and from the Empire’s jobs, commerce and resources.
Colley’s canvas is broad. She not only explores each constituent nation’s unity, and disunity, within the UK enterprise but also discusses the world that the British and Irish made beyond these shores. She is also good at narrating points through individual lives. Both elements are brought together here in the life of Thomas Pownall MP (1722-1805), who drew on his extensive pre-revolutionary colonial experiences in America to argue that such territories needed to be represented in Westminster because Britain must grow into a “grand marine dominion” to reflect the transatlantic realities of the homeland and its colonies.
Colley also describes Victorian visions for global federation, classically Charles Dilke’s idea of a “Greater Britain” binding the colonies to the motherland. This transnational theme shifted a little in the late 19th century, when committed campaigners, such as Churchill, strove to unite all the English-speaking peoples.
This enjoyable and readable book ends with a series of sensible conjectures. Colley correctly states that the devolution measures of the 1990s were poorly thought out; that the lack of a parliament solely for England makes Westminster appear to be an English institution; and that better federal governance must emerge, regardless of how this autumn’s Scottish independence vote goes.
The UK, she says, was made by violence, accident or luck. The unions that bind us “occurred in wartime, or in anticipation of war”, but that glue is no longer present. Colley favours a written constitution to provide clarity to relations on these isles. Certainly, fairer ways must be found to represent us all equally.
Acts of Union and Disunion: What has Held the UK Together and What is Dividing it?
By Linda Colley
Profile, 192pp, £8.99
Published 9 January 2014