Swimming against the tide of lost identity

April 20, 2007

Centuries-old pitfalls befall Brown and Blair in their bid to reinvent the Union, says Michael Lynch

The present Government seems to be one that, more than any other in recent times, is conscious of history as well as of its own place in it. The extended defence of the benefits of the Union of 1707 and the parallel effort to foster a cult of Britishness are only the latest examples of the interest our rulers have taken in historical anniversaries.

Tony Blair has apologised for both the Irish famine and the slave trade. He and the Scottish Executive chorused a celebration of the quatercentenary of the Union of the Crowns in 2003 as well as hailing the "Union dividend" that followed the Union of Parliaments in 1707. Theirs is a view of history driven by "anniversaryism" and the notion that such events can readily be labelled as a "good" or a "bad" thing.

Yet there are pitfalls in this approach to the past. The slave trade in the British Empire was not abolished in 1807, as the elaborate website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister eventually concedes in the small print.

That came in 1833 or 1838, depending on what definition you use. The celebrations to mark 1603 were muted since, on closer inspection, there seemed little to celebrate in the century that followed.

The 17th century was arguably the worst in the history of Britain with its potent mix of civil war, regicide, massacres and state terrorism. But Messrs Brown and Blair, the former holding a PhD in history in which a central role was given to the very old Labour figure of James Maxton, seem more certain of the benefits, both economic and political, of the Union of 1707. It has brought stability and mutual prosperity. It has even, according to the Chancellor, produced the international reputation of the ancient Scottish universities, a claim that stretches credulity to its limits.

Oddly, the £2 commemorative coin issued under the auspices of Brown as Master of the Mint, with its coded message extolling the virtues of Britishness, is the most defensible of the Government's anniversary postures. In part, it echoes Chris Whatley's findings of a core of committed Unionists among members of the Scottish parliament before 1707 and a miniature wave of British propaganda at the time. Whatley's is mostly a case for the state of opinion in 1706-07 rather than about the disillusionment that hung over its aftermath for almost two generations.

Yet it is the only point of connection between current academic debate and the Government's claims to ownership of historical processes.

Anniversaryism is a view that seems to regard historical phenomena as somehow frozen in aspic. In reality, the nature of the Union and of unionist politics have changed many times in the past 300 years. The only institution worth considering as British in the 18th century was the Army, with an officer corps after 1750 largely made up of Scots and Irish.

Arguably, most Scots felt themselves to be British only after the collapse of the first Empire in the 1770s and the establishment of a replacement, primarily based in India, in which the Scots felt they played a role out of all proportion to their numbers. The shrinking of Empire, in turn, has led to a redefining of that concept of Britishness and a retreat from moral certainties. As a result, the ability of Scots simultaneously to think of themselves as both British and Scots has been on the wane for more than half a century. Mr Brown, like Canute, seems to be swimming against a tide of lost identity. Ironically, the elements of society most attuned to feeling British are new immigrants, for whom "Englishness" poses too great a barrier.

Is it not odd, though, that the bicentenary of the Union of 1801, which in a very real sense was the last building block in the construction of a United Kingdom by the addition of Ireland, was completely ignored by this Government? In truth, both the 1603 and 1707 pacts were but half a union, with Ireland left as an offshore anomaly until 1801. But the UK, in the fullest sense, lasted little more than a century, with the result that the Union and unionist politics had again to reinvent themselves after 1922.

If the Union is viewed as a work in progress - or as a working experiment that has over time regularly experienced losses as well as dividends - the interpretations of it held by both unionists and the Scottish National Party, which are equally out of touch with current historical debate, hit rough water. The idea of centenaries, like the Government's general emphasis on the need to educate its citizens about what it sees as the "unifying features" within British history, reduces history to the level of the memoirs of an amnesiac.

Michael Lynch is a research fellow at Edinburgh University.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments