Book review: Acts of Union, Acts of Disunion

Picture:  Ben Smith/REX
Picture: Ben Smith/REX
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Linda Colley is an Anglo-Welsh historian, with Irishness in her family background. She has spent most of her working life in American universities, and is best known for her book, Britons, which examined the development of a British identity, chiefly in the 18th century. This new little book, based on a series of 15-minute radio talks, examines the complex ideas of national identity that have evolved over the centuries, with particular attention being paid to the present constitutional uncertainties within the United Kingdom and its relationship with other member states of the European Union.



Profile Books. 159pp. £8.99

Its starting point may be held to be the statement that: “All countries are synthetic and imperfect creations and subject to change, and most have been the result of violent conflict at some stage.” There is rarely a seamless transition, whatever may be supposed at the time, or pretended later by historians. A good example is offered by the “Glorious” or “Bloodless” Revolution of 1688-9. Whig politicians such as Edmund Burke, and Whig historians such as Macaulay, presented this as a natural event in tune with the course of English political development. In fact, though answering the invitation of a small number of English grandees, William of Orange invaded England with an army of 21,000 men, mostly Dutch. If he met with little resistance, this was because his uncle (and father-in-law) James VII & II lost his nerve and fled to France. But the revolution was far from bloodless in Scotland and Ireland, where James’s supporters took to arms.

Though the Scottish historian and philosopher John Mair had advocated the Union of Scotland and England in the early 16th century, it was only by a dynastic accident that this Union was effected in 1603 when James VI inherited the English throne. Admittedly, for the previous half-century, Scotland had been in effect an English satellite, since the Protestant Reformers depended on English support for their religious revolution.

James VI styled himself King of Great Britain and sought for a closer union between his two kingdoms. The Estates (or Scottish parliament) obediently passed an Act of Union, but the English weren’t interested. It was another hundred years before a war with France and uncertainty about the succession to the throne brought about a change of mind. The result was the Treaty of Union of 1707, a union which, Colley remarks “was from the first a compromise, a stand-off even”. There was union, but never uniformity. For at least 200 years the benefits of union were felt more directly by the Scots than the English, though the latter benefited hugely from the indirect consequences.

Scottish Unionism could be nationalist. Colley offers this statement from a member of the National Association for the Vindication of the Rights of Scotland (founded in 1853): “The more union the better, provided the rights of all parties be respected. Union obviates war, encourages commerce, permits of free transit, abolishes national antipathy. Union – provided it be union and not domination – brings equals together for common benefit.” Probably nobody involved in today’s Better Together campaign would dissent.

Colley perceptively detects “not so much a rise in Scottish nationalism” – for this is arguably no stronger than it has ever been – but “the emergence of a different kind of Scottish nationalism.” On visits north she has been “struck by how many Scots complain about feeling colonised by the English and/or by London”. Historically, this is nonsense. “Scotland has never been a colony. But historical facts are not the point here. Nationalist movements always rewrite history.”

The sense of being a colony is “a way of arguing that Britishness is no longer a useful vehicle – an older form of Scottish national expression – but rather an encumbrance and an oppression. We shall see which mode of Scottish self-consciousness triumphs on September 18.”

She observes, however, that inasmuch as there is an identity crisis in the United Kingdom, it is a crisis of Englishness, and not only because the English are the only people denied a national 
assembly of their own. The English feel threatened because their inherited culture is being subjected to rapid and, in some cases, demoralising change. Moreover, if Scots feel oppressed by the weight and power of London, so also do the English provinces.

One reason for our present discontents is to be found in the centralisation of funding, which persists even in the devolved parts of the UK. “Between 1870 and 1914,” she writes, “local governments in the UK raised about half of all the money they spent through local taxation.” Now London 
often provides “over 80 per cent of local government funds, and “dictates” how this money is used. Here in Scotland, it’s a two-stage process. The money comes to the Scottish Parliament from the Treasury in London, and is passed on to councils with stringent conditions as to its use.

There is much food for thought in this little book, and numerous unexpected and illuminating pieces of information, much that cannot be dealt with in a brief review. Anyone interested in the background to today’s most pressing political arguments will find much of interest, and much to provoke thought and stimulate argument.

Colley has offered a brief and very useful contribution to our British-Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish and European debates; and she has done so in a commendably calm and reasonable tone of voice.