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The UK’s four nations can be reinvented and flourish

The Anglo-British belief in national self-government could forge a new path

“A union”, a friend of mine with much business experience informed me briskly, “is a merger. When the Union was formed, it should ideally have replaced England, Scotland and Wales with just Great Britain.” To which, I fear, the reply is that it wasn’t and that it didn’t. Instead of a simple British identity, the “Union” of 1707 has left us as well with the muddle of the Four Nations: England, Scotland, Wales and — since it too was incorporated into the United Kingdom by its own Act of Union in 1801 — Ireland. Each of them has its own separate histories and identities; each is in tension with the rest and with the over-arching (or perhaps not) history and identity of Britain itself.

Which is both a bad thing and a good thing. It is why, on the one hand, the most successful state in modern European history and the only one that (with the all-important exception of the War of American Independence) has won every war which it has fought; has never been invaded or conquered; has never experienced revolution or dictatorship; is now — after 300 years of unparalleled success — facing the prospect of rupture and fragmentation. 

That is the bad. On the other hand, the good is that if rupture does occur it will do so with none of the histrionics of, say, Catalan independence: no one will go to jail and no one will be called traitor. It is also to the good that our earlier experience of multi-layered identities has facilitated the relatively smooth integration of immigrant groups — or at least of those that wish to be integrated. 

The idea of a unitary Britain stretches back into the mists of time: to Britannia, the Roman name for Britain; or to the semi-mythical Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda-ship or overlordship of All Britain. The Norman conquest of England threw matters into sharper relief: John claimed the overlordship of Ireland; Edward I conquered Wales and, but for his sudden death, would have conquered Scotland also. To protect its hard-won independence, Scotland entered into the “Auld Alliance” with England’s hereditary enemy, France and moved decisively into the French sphere of influence. Indeed, in the mid-sixteenth century during the minority of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was married to the boy-king of France, Francis II, Scotland narrowly escaped being swallowed into the French monarchy. But absorption by France proved no more popular than conquest by England. The Reformation, which lowland Scotland experienced in the peculiarly virulent form of radical Presbyterianism, turned Protestant England into the friend and Catholic France into the enemy. 

The change was embodied in the Treaty of Edinburgh, the diplomatic masterstroke of Elizabeth I’s chief minister, William Cecil. With its signature in the summer of 1560, England became the protector of Scottish independence and Protestantism against Catholic France and the foundations were laid for Union. This took place when Mary, Queen of Scots’ son, James VI of Scotland, succeeded the childless Elizabeth I as James I of England as well in 1603. James’s great ambition was to transform the Union of the Anglo-Scottish Crowns into a genuine Union of Great Britain. He proclaimed himself “King of Great Britain, France and Ireland”; he commissioned the Union Jack; he even referred to England and Scotland as “South and North Britain”. 

But, despite James’s impassioned speech from the throne in which he argued that England and Scotland were united by language, customs and religion and that there was no visible frontier between them, the English parliament adamantly refused to incorporate England into the proposed Union of Great Britain. Then as now, the two countries differed too much in size and wealth for an easy equal relationship. On the English side, there were also fears for historically rooted English liberties in the “new” state of Great Britain. On the Scots’, it would become clear in the reign of James’s son, Charles I, there was an even deeper attachment to the radical religious forms of the Scottish Kirk.

Most striking is the way in which the monarchy played to and encouraged the separate nations

During the following decades, these tensions would boil up into the British civil wars and revolutions of the later seventeenth century. But they were settled, it was hoped “for ever”, by the Act of Union of 1707, effecting the legal union of Scotland and England into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The Scots lost their political independence and the Scottish crown, privy council and parliament were folded into the English. But the Scots gained the right to participate on equal terms in the much larger English state, economy and above all in the ever-expanding English — now British — Empire. And the Act protected the whole existing structure of Scottish civil society, with its separate systems of law, religion and education.

As Linda Colley argued in her influential Britons, following Union many of the elites of the former Celtic fringe were integrated via the public schools and Oxbridge into a new, pan-British ruling class. Equally important was the creation of a new pan-British economy, in which Glasgow, Liverpool, and later Cardiff and Belfast (though not, strikingly, Dublin) joined London as key centres of Imperial/British commerce and manufacturing. 

The term “North British” enjoyed some currency as well throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the Royal Scots Greys were renamed the Royal North British Dragoons; the North British Railway operated from 1846 to 1923; its flagship hotel in Edinburgh, The North British, was only renamed The Balmoral in the 1980s; and the abbreviation “N.B.” (North Britain) was regularly used for postal addresses in Scotland throughout the Victorian period. 

But following the entrenchment of Scottish difference by the Act of Union, the general tendency ran overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. As one (Scottish) commentator put it, “National peculiarities are of great use in exciting a spirit of manly emulation. It is in the interest of the United Kingdom to keep alive those national, or what, perhaps, may now more properly be called local distinctions, of English, Scotch, Irish and Welsh.” And kept alive they were. The Irish Guards (1900) and Welsh Guards (1915) were added to the Scots Guards (1686). England played Scotland in the first football international in 1872, to be joined by Wales in 1879 and Ireland in 1882. The Home Nations rugby championship between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales was inaugurated in 1883. But most striking, perhaps, is the way in which the monarchy — itself the supreme supranational symbol of British unity — played to and encouraged the separate nations. All Hanoverian princes were given two or three national titles: an English one, a Scots one and an Irish one. There were three national orders of chivalry: the Garter in England, the Thistle in Scotland (revived by Queen Anne), and the Patrick in Ireland (invented in 1783, in the wake of American independence). 

Finally came the attempt to replace the fleur-de-lis of France (which had featured on the English crown since the reign of Henry V) with a new, multi-national floral iconography, consisting of the rose, the thistle, the shamrock and the daffodil, all of which appear in the magnificent diamond diadem made for George IV which the Queen wears in her postage-stamp profile. 

George IV also encouraged the Scottish Romantic revival with his Edinburgh visit of 1822, when he presided at a gathering of the clans as “chief of chiefs” and wore Highland dress (over corsets and tights). Victoria and Albert took the patronage much further with the building of the tartan fantasy of Balmoral Castle and their annual summer visits there, enabled by the new-fangled railways.

Wales, as a principality rather than a kingdom, had always been the Cinderella among the four nations. But, at the beginning of the twentieth century, she too found her prince in the shape of David Lloyd George. Cardiff was re-planned in grand Baroque style as the proto-capital, while the investiture of David, eldest son of George V as prince of Wales (the first such ceremony since the reign of James I) was reimagined and re-sited as a Welsh quasi-coronation at Caernarvon Castle. 

But the neat symmetry of the four nations concealed two very different sorts of national identities. Those of the Celtic fringe were typical Romantic-era, small-nation, cultural nationalisms: they featured national dress (Scottish kilts and Welsh hats); folk music (bagpipes and Welsh harps) and poetry (Rabbie Burns and Eisteddfods). They were scarcely, at least to begin with, political at all. English or perhaps better Anglo-British nationhood was and is to its fingertips. It had Shakespeare, of course. But otherwise it focused on political institutions — the crown, parliament, the common law — and on the conviction that they were the best. As was Britain, the workshop of the world, and the British Empire, on which the sun never set. Anglo-British nationalism was top-nation nationalism. So long as it was top nation, it could contain the other three. Once it ceased to be so, the process of fragmentation began.

That is the bad side. But the results of the Brexit referendum and the recent general election suggests a more optimistic outcome. Perhaps that core Anglo-British belief in national self-government survives. Perhaps it can be the foundation, with or without Scotland, of a new, multi-national Britain/England, that, enriched with its immigrant talent, will forge its own unique way in the world, just as the old United Kingdom once did.

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