Disunited kingdom – and all the better for it

Boris Johnson’s ‘one great indivisible United Kingdom’ is neither one, nor indivisible, nor united

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

“How would you like it,” Boris Johnson asked President Macron of France at the Cornwall summit apropos of the Northern Ireland sausage wars, “If the French courts stopped you moving Toulouse sausages to Paris?” That was “not a good comparison,” Macron snapped back, “because Paris and Toulouse are part of the same country.”

Cue much confected outrage from the likes of Dominic Raab, the crop-headed foreign secretary who always looks as though he is trying hard not to hit somebody, and the ineffable Edwin Poots, enjoying his fifteen minutes of modest fame as First Minister of Northern Ireland.

And cue most of all for Boris, the blusterer-in-chief, to burble expansively that “we are all part of one great indivisible United Kingdom.”

Yet of course Macron was right. As was an unnamed French official when he elaborated on the President’s remarks. “It was not possible,” the official said, “to compare the four nations that make up the United Kingdom with a unitary state such as France and its individual regions.”

Boris’s “one, great, indivisible United Kingdom” turns out to be like Voltaire’s Holy Roman Empire; neither one, indivisible, nor united

In other words Boris’s “one, great, indivisible United Kingdom” turns out on closer inspection to be rather like Voltaire’s Holy Roman Empire; it is neither one, nor indivisible, nor united.

Above all, in comparison with France and almost all other modern states, while it may be a kingdom it is barely a state at all. The UK has been through few of the post-eighteenth-century processes of state formation common not only to our European neighbours but also to the United States of America (the clue is in the name and the motto: e pluribus unum) and other overseas off-shoots of European imperial expansion. 

At first sight, this is troubling. Hence Raab’s bluff and Boris’s bluster. But we are all the better for it since the strange highways and byways of our history have made Britain — perhaps uniquely — a nation state relatively uncursed by the original sin of nationalism.

“Britain”, like “Italy” before its unification, was originally only a geographical term. But, even in Anglo-Saxon times there was a vague idea of the suzerainty of all Britain. Known as the “Bretwaldaship” it came nearest to political realisation when Edgar “King of All the English” was rowed, in token of submission, up the River Dee by a group of Celtic kinglets in 973 after his quasi-imperial coronation had taken place in the Roman ruins of Bath.

Whilst the Anglo-Saxon “conquest” of England had been the broad-based displacement of one culture and language by another, the Norman Conquest was different

Left to itself, Anglo-Saxon England would perhaps have completed the process of conquest by assimilation and produced a more or less homogenous “Germanic” Britain. But, far from being left to itself, Anglo-Saxon England was subject to the extreme rupture of the Norman Conquest. This transformed and reorientated not only the history of England but of the whole British Isles as well.

It did so because whilst the Anglo-Saxon “conquest” of England had been the broad-based displacement of one culture and language by another, the Norman Conquest was different. It was the sudden, violent imposition of a tiny alien elite, first on England and then, in succeeding decades, on much of Wales and Ireland as well.

In Wales and Ireland, “Normanisation” remained a thin veneer. However, in England there took place that extraordinary cultural and linguistic fusion which, by the late fourteenth century and at the hands largely of Chaucer, had blossomed into the new bastard tongue of English. This mongrel manifestation placed necessary limits on the notion of “purity” — always one of the most noxious elements in the nationalist brew.

But that did not stop Henry VIII and his jackal, Thomas Cromwell, from trying. Seen in this light, the English Reformation is less about religion and more an ambitious and precocious example of nation-building: the Universal Roman Church in England became the National Church of England. God, now speaking the English of Tyndale’s Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, became English also. Most importantly perhaps, England acquired a new and enduring national myth: an island nation under God, alone against a hostile, corrupt and Romish Europe. 

We think of this as Shakespeare. But Shakespeare only borrowed, sometimes word for word, from Henry VIII’s propagandists of the 1540s.But the religious element cannot be shunted aside so easily (though that was what a whole generation of historians, led by my own teacher, Sir Geoffrey Elton, tried to do). Henry VIII succeeded in (re-)inventing England. But he left the religion of England in profound contention. 

Over the following century and a half, there was a kind of religious war of all against all, in which Catholics fought Protestants and Protestants fought among themselves to seize control of the machinery of the Henrician church and state and use it to impose conformity to their particular religious vision on a reluctant nation. 

By the late seventeenth century the various factions had fought each other to a standstill and there was an agreement, reluctant and conditional at first, to differ. The result was the England which Voltaire characterised with bemused respect as a country of “forty-two religions and only two sauces”.

Even more idiosyncratic was the process by which religious toleration was implemented. Henry VIII’s Church of England wasn’t disestablished; instead the hitherto exclusive privileges of establishment were extended to Protestant Dissenters, Catholics and Jews, who were permitted one by one to set up their own churches, chapels, synagogues and schools and have their own customs governing births, marriages and deaths recognised in law.

Englishness had become what it remains — to the continuing bemusement of that good, Voltaireian Frenchman, President Macron — a diverse concept.

Henry VIII had been equally radical in trying to reimpose an Anglocentric “Bretwalda-ship” on the whole British Isles by force and conquest. But here his ambition far outran his resources. Instead what proved to be the decisive step was taken in the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I, by her chief minister, William Cecil. 

Ever since Edward I’s narrow failure to conquer Scotland in the thirteenth century, the Scots had protected their independence by the “Auld Alliance’’ with England’s enemy, France. But, with the Treaty of Edinburgh of 1560, Cecil exploited the new situation created by the Scottish Reformation to stand Anglo-Scottish relations on their head: instead of remaining the “auld” enemy, Protestant England became the guarantor of Scotland’s political and religious freedom against the threat of Catholic, absolutist France.

Cecil’s diplomatic coup was as much a milestone on the road to Union as the dynastic accident of James VI and I’s succession to the thrones of both Scotland and England. Indeed, the first paved the way to the second. But most important was the kind of Union it presaged: one based on co-operation and common interests; on similarities of language and customs, not imposed uniformity; on consent, and not on conquest. Above all, it was to be Union in diversity, in which the two countries preserved their different legal and educational systems; their different established churches; even their different senses of nationhood. 

The result was a paradox of power and weakness. The Act of Union of 1707 paved the way to making Great Britain the first world empire; it did little or nothing to people it with Great Britons.

The contrast with continental Europe is extreme. “We have made Italy,” declared one of the principal architects of Italian reunification, “now we must make Italians.” The French revolutionaries espoused the same doctrine, even more radically. And they succeeded while the Italians largely failed. 

Meanwhile England/Britain went on in its own way, letting time and circumstance give rise instead to complex networks of hyphenated identities: national (British and Scots), religious (British and Jewish) and latterly racial (British and Black).

The result is a characteristically Anglo-British muddle, which offends the tidy-minded at home and abroad. But it works. It offers the best way forward for a multi-racial society, avoiding the twin extremes of the new apartheid of American multiculturalism, on the one hand, and the enforced cultural conformity of Macron’s France, on the other. Above all, it is a product of our history.

“We are all part of England’s history,” Gareth Southgate dared declare to his multi-ethnic team. And Southgate is right, providing that history is understood in all its diversity.

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