Book review: Acts Of Union: Acts Of Disunion by Linda Colley

The Articles of the Union are presented to Queen Anne by the Duke of Queensberry in 1707. Picture: Getty
The Articles of the Union are presented to Queen Anne by the Duke of Queensberry in 1707. Picture: Getty
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IT’S Britishness, not Scottishness, that will decide the result of next year’s referendum. According to pollsters, the extent to which voters feel strongly Scottish isn’t directly reflected in the strength of their support for independence. With Britishness, it’s different: the more that Scots feel any degree of a British identity, the more they are likely to vote No.

Acts Of Union: Acts Of Disunion by Linda Colley

Profile Books, £8.99

Enter Linda Colley, whose Britons, persuasively analysed how Great Britain was forged together through war, Francophobia, Protestantism and commercial prosperity. Now, when prosperity is an increasingly distant memory, when there are more Muslims than Methodists (and millions more agnostics than both), and when it’s been ages since we had a crack at the French, it’s well worth getting her historical perspective on what kind of country Scots ought to aim at living in next.

The fact that Scotland only takes up one out of her 15 short chapters means that we won’t get too many answers. There are other limitations of form and content: her book is based on a series of 15-minute talks (Radio 4, next month) which avoid commenting directly on the independence referendum. Still, plenty of others are already doing that: what we need from historians is an ability to contextualise the debate, and in those terms, her book is a valuably pithy contribution.

A state-nation such as Britain is, she points out, an altogether different beast to a nation-state: “Whereas full-blown nation-states have often sought straightforwardly to assimilate, enforcing a single-language, say, or seeking to propagate, through compulsory schooling, a dominant understanding of the national past, or deliberately stamping out emblems and expressions of difference, state-nations have to operate on at least two levels.” At the same time as acknowledging the separate rights and different cultures of its constituent countries, a successful state-nation has also to successfully promote an identity of its own. It is Britain’s failure to do the latter that has pushed it to the verge of breaking up.

That balance between the state-nation’s two purposes is central to the British project. When it did not exist – as in the case of Ireland, victim of English-Scottish genocide before the Union of 1800, and callous neglect in the Great Famine – no amount of subsequent land reform or light industrialisation could right historical wrongs. But the Scottish experience was different. So completely was Scottish history absorbed into the mythos of the British state that, as Colley points out, in Victorian Britain, Wallace was adopted as “a kind of precursor of what was to become a joint British commitment to liberty”, the subject of popular plays and bestselling novels, such as GA Henty’s In Freedom’s Cause.

Colley notes a Scottish tendency to ignore such evidence of the interpenetrability of Scottish and British culture and complain of being colonised. This is nonsense. Scots were never colonised; indeed in many parts of the world they were the ones doing most of the colonising. Even proto-nationalist movements such as the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights, founded in 1853, argued that “the more Union the better” on the basis that, as one of their members put it, “Union obviates war, encourages commerce, permits of free transit, [and] abolishes national antipathy.” Alistair Darling couldn’t put it better himself.

What they – and, later, the Scottish Covenanters – were arguing for wasn’t separatism but equality “within the framework of the United Kingdom”. And here, Colley implicitly admits, they might have had a point – but one they shared with the north of England. The northern English could moan about institutional neglect too; only in 1890, for example, was a university built in either Yorkshire or Lancashire, those power-houses of the Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps the central paradox of Britain’s history is that it became powerful through wars, yet those wars centralised power in a way that destabilised the country. This clear in terms of population: in 1801, not much more than half the UK’s population lived in England; today, five times more people live there than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

Colley doesn’t explore the way in which Thatcherism further strengthened London and weakened institutions and industries holding Britain together. She does, though, suggest “as a semi-detatched if attentive observer”, three ways in which the UK could better cope with inevitably increasing demands for autonomy: an English parliament; retaining the Westminster Parliament only for major cross-border issues; and a written constitution for the federal country that the UK would then become. She doesn’t suggest a name for that new country, but there’s already an acronym that can’t be bettered: Islands of the North Atlantic. Write it out and you’ll see that it has Scotland at its heart.

Twitter @scotsmandavid