Nationalism & Citizenship

What was the Union For? Historical perspectives on Union and Independence in present day Britain

The debates surrounding this month’s referendum on Scottish independence have focused in the main upon the place of Scotland in present-day Britain. The historical nature and meaning of the union, and of Britain, has been largely ignored. As Laura Stewart illustrates, historical narratives have been mobilized to support both the yes and no campaigns in the lead-up to the imminent vote; they have also been strategically and emotionally deployed, as Lloyd Bowen details, on both sides of the ongoing discussion about Welsh sovereignty. And yet, as these early modern historians show, examining more carefully the historical contingencies and complexities of the ever-changing United Kingdom compels us to rethink the meaning not only of the union but also about the very concept of the nation and national sovereignty which has played such an important—if under-examined—role in recent debates.

The Act of Union....
The Treaty (or Act) of Union, 1707

READ What is the Union for? Laura A M Stewart on the Union in Early Modern (and Modern) Scotland

READ More than a Marriage of Convienience: Lloyd Bowen on the Union in Early Modern Wales

These two essays, which examine the early modern roots of present-day Britain, show how historical perspective is crucial to understanding the political and social realities of the union and national sovereignty within it, as well as the cultural meanings ascribed to these concepts. Historical understanding can also be highly instructive about why the Welsh and the Scots (not to mention the English) approach Britain and Britishness so differently. Stewart and Bowen also approach the questions of union and sovereignty within the early modern period differently, but both contributions fundamentally destabilize the essential notions of Britain (as well as its composite parts) that have dominated the current political and media debates on Scotland’s place within Britain.

What is the Union for?

Laura A.M. Stewart on the Union in Early Modern (and Modern) Scotland

On 2 June, I switched on the Channel Four News and was surprised to see a report about Scotland featuring Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset, who was ambling around the streets of Dundee with what could be construed as a wistful air. I was even more surprised to hear Rees-Mogg declaim that ‘the English need Scotland’. As an internal migrant to the south of England, where I survive happily enough despite the affliction of a Scottish accent, I’ve been subjected to a lot of opinion about the September referendum on independence. The one thing nobody seems to be saying within my earshot is how much the English need Scotland. On the contrary, I hear more or less polite variations on the Scots as impoverished proles, who are able to sustain their unhealthy predilection for all things deep-fat-fried only because the English pay for it. (For some reassurance on this point, listen to Radio 4’s More or Less, ‘The economics of Scottish independence’, 24 May 2013 ). This caricature is deployed by otherwise witty people like the English satirist, Marcus Brigstocke, for whom lazy ethnic stereotyping would ordinarily be beneath their intellect (The Brig Society, ‘King of Scotland’, July 2013). Even the respected journalist and broadcaster, Jon Snow, concluding the Channel Four report from Rees-Mogg, welcomed him back from ‘the wilds’, which may be a reasonable way to describe a Saturday night in Dundee, but it seems less than tactful. Messrs Rees-Mogg, Brigstocke, and Snow embody a contradiction: the English ‘need’ Scotland, but appear not to value it. This point is not lost on the Scots and it is not new to current politics.

The debate about Scottish independence has revolved around the question of whether the northern component of the state created in 1707 can or should become an autonomous entity. It is much harder to find anyone asking the obvious corollary to that question: what is the union for? Indeed, the fact that we talk about the ‘Scottish independence’ debate and not, say, the ‘British union’ debate is instructive. Those who defend the union tend not to believe it should be up for discussion at all. This justifiably places the onus on the Yes campaign to explain the need for change, but it also gives the sense that the rationales for maintaining the union are essentially negative: without the union to protect it, so the argument goes, Scotland will be poorer, less secure, less economically dynamic, and more heavily taxed. UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, travelled the epic distance from London to Edinburgh, in the inclement month of February, to inform the Scots that independence would mean ‘uncertainty and risk’ . More positive English perspectives are now being aired and Rees-Mogg is right to turn the debate away from scare tactics. Unfortunately, Rees-Mogg then pronounced that the union matters because Scots and English together had created ‘one of the most powerful empires that the world has ever seen’. Whatever Scots think about the British Empire – personally I find it a deeply troubling aspect of our shared history – it hardly offers a progressive vision of Britain’s future.

‘As Scottish historian Jenny Wormald puts it, James and his successors were “king of all, and king of each” -King James VI and I

Let us return to that key question: what is the union for? In the first instance, the union was nothing more than a dynastic accident created by Elizabeth I’s refusal to lie back and think of England. Although the marriage that made modern Britain occurred in 1707, England and Scotland had been cohabiting since 1603: historians refer to the ‘union of Crowns’ but the accession of the Scottish king, James VI, to the English throne did not unite the kingdoms as such. As Scottish historian Jenny Wormald puts it, James and his successors were ‘king of all, and king of each’. Throughout the seventeenth century, Scotland and England continued to be governed according to their own laws, customs, practices, and institutions. They retained separate and different parliaments and churches. Even when Oliver Cromwell’s republican regime governed Scotland in the 1650s, parliament and the central law courts were abolished, but much of the panoply of local government survived. The introduction of religious toleration had a negligible effect on the presbyterian Scots, who gawped at the novelty of English lay preachers in their midst much as their twenty-first century descendants marvel at the rare sight of Westminster cabinet members braving the streets of Scottish cities.

After the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 (Charles II had been crowned at Scone in 1651 during a miserable year resident in Scotland), the republican moment proved as embarrassing to the English as it was to the Scots. Both did their best to forget about it. Ignorance of the occupation era amongst modern Scots, as I have recently argued, stands in notable contrast to our Irish cousins, and it has much to do with the fact that the English felt disinclined to force a Protestant kingdom to adhere to English norms. In the decades leading up to the 1707 Union, there were clearly points of convergence between the two countries, yet this period continued to see the evolution of different legal, governmental, educational and religious institutions.

The reasons why the union came about are well-known. For England, it was national security. Fearing that the Scots would break the union on the death of Queen Anne, and restore the Catholic, Francophile male line of the dynasty usurped by William and Mary in 1689, the English government decided to do away with the means by which Scotland could effect this outcome. Having achieved what they wanted, Anne’s ministers promptly did what most of their successors have done ever since: they forgot that Scotland was there – until it made a nuisance of itself.This point is essential for understanding what sort of union came about in 1707. It is called an ‘incorporating’ union but, again, this is something of a misnomer. The union legislation allowed Scotland to retain its presbyterian church, its judiciary and legal system, most of the structures of local government, and its universities. Even the Scottish members of the new ‘British’ parliament were elected according to idiosyncratic procedures, less representative than England’s, adapted from the pre-union institution. The key things ‘incorporated’ were, of course, Scotland’s sovereignty (whatever that meant by 1707) and its parliamentary members, who voted to dissolve themselves because the most important amongst them knew they were going to a better place, at least in terms of their own careers.

For the Scots, it was more complicated. Many Scottish politicians were equally frightened of a Jacobite succession and saw any union the English wanted as the best preservation against it. Some people thought that union with England offered a means of addressing myriad economic problems. Although the expansion of overseas trade and the acquisition of new territory had occurred under the auspices of a British Crown since 1603, the English trading monopolies, such as the East India Company, were highly successful at protecting their own interests against Scottish rivals and interlopers. The union opened up Anglo-British trade and, eventually, the British Empire, to the Scots. It is not surprising that Rees-Mogg therefore sees Empire as the cornerstone of what it once meant to be British. Empire, and with it the defence and advance of Protestantism, became the glue that held the Scots and the English together as one British people.

This did not happen overnight. The economic benefits of the union were slow to materialize and were offset by other, more immediate problems, notably rising taxation. Security and political stability were also conspicuous by their absence in the first half of the eighteenth century, when the political and economic marginalization of Scotland had the apparently unexpected consequence of stoking active sympathy for the Jacobite cause. For many Scots, especially in Highland areas, the embodiments of union were the red-coated soldier, the excise man, and the military surveyor. Historians are right to point out that characterizing Jacobitism in crude national terms ignores the extent to which Scotsmen (and initially it was mainly men) contributed to and benefited from British military and fiscal expansion. What the union was ‘for’ came to seem obvious as the golden age of Empire bestowed its opportunities and achievements on a resourceful and well-educated people. For around two centuries or so, Britain appeared to give the Scots the security, stability, and prosperity that had proved so elusive in the seventeenth century. More than this, it allowed some (not all) Scots to imagine themselves as part of something larger than themselves and their weather-beaten corner of the globe: that great mission to bring the light of the Gospel, the polish of civility, and the shine of economic, educational, and cultural betterment to the savage and the heathen. And who was more qualified to undertake this task than a once-backward nation, now in the vanguard of improvement, urbanization, and industrialization?

The British union no longer fulfils these functions and has not done so for some time. Many of the values and assumptions that bound Britons together as ‘an imagined community’ are not relevant to us now. Britain no longer has an Empire, even if we continue to live with its consequences. Most people do not go to church regularly and those that do are less likely to be Protestants. The imperatives of security and stability, as they were understood between the late eighteenth century and the middle of the twentieth, simply no longer apply. Even the French can’t be bothered trying to invade. We have not stopped trying to invade other countries, but the truth is that our once-mighty military power is subordinate to that of the United States of America and none of those disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention a near-miss in Syria, could have been attempted under British leadership.

Historians such as Paul Ward have made the case for Britishness as a flexible and resilient construct that is entirely capable of being remade for the twenty-first century. What should a future Britain look like? Not, I hope, like the ‘lost’ Britain of conservative nostalgia, where the mantras of community cohesion and family stability are equated, for some of us, with stifling social conformism and people ‘knowing their place’. Perhaps the union should exist to safeguard the economic and financial security of the British people in a volatile globalized world? This is a highly debatable point in the wake of the 2008 crisis. ‘Our’ future prosperity is now predicated on government measures that have made jobs more insecureslashed the welfare spending that enables households to make ends meet, stoked another housing bubble with a breath-taking disregard for how we got into this mess in the first place, cut back on the public services that make difficult lives more tolerable, and put a price on education that is pocket-change to the rich and a lifetime of debt for everyone else. There seems little likelihood that any British government elected in 2015 will offer a markedly different set of social and economic policies from those pursued since 2010. The Scottish government, aware that growing social inequality seems more worrying to many of the electorate than most of the people who represent them at Westminster, have explicitly made ‘tackling low pay’ and addressing ‘the gap between rich and poor’ part of its campaign strategy.

We cannot know if independence for Scotland will lead to the creation of a more cohesive and less grotesquely unequal society, where public service is placed on at least an equal footing with the profit motive. Scotland’s inhabitants will decide in September whether they want to take that chance. We do know that the current system is failing to offer stability, security, and prosperity to a sizeable proportion of Britain’s peoples in terms applicable to their lives at this moment. In which case, what is the union for and why should any of us, Scottish or otherwise, want to keep it?

The Scottish referendum has generated surprisingly little debate about what Britain is or should be. Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, has good evidence for the assertion that most Scots ‘acknowledge their British identity as well’, but what this mean? Does it matter that only about 10% of Scots, according to the same data, consider themselves primarily British? As used by people like Rees-Mogg, the term Britishness has almost no intellectual content – perhaps intentionally – and seems largely to consist of misty-eyed reverence for a bygone age. This is irksome, but not as damaging as the attendant assumption that the constituent parts of Britain should accept a social, cultural, and political model based on prevailing English norms. The promise held out to the people of Britain, as an alternative to some of them seceding from the union, is not a reformed relationship that takes Scottish (and Welsh and Irish) difference newly into account. Granting additional powers to the Scottish parliament or, more worryingly, the Scottish executive will not stabilize the union because it does nothing to challenge the widely-held notion that Scotland is effectively a colonial acquisition, whose expression of difference is seen as a threat. When the British media notices from time to time that Scotland does things differently from England, the contrast is almost always portrayed in negative terms. Scotland is rarely discussed as an example of how the sick and elderly can be cared for without privatising provision, or how universities can be funded without indebting young people. The rise of UKIP has English politicians and journalists in a frenzy about what its success might mean for ‘mainstream’ politics. There is much less to get excited about north of the border. Newspaper headlines shouted that UKIP gained its first Scottish MEP in the May 2014 European Union elections. Few commentators sought to examine why UKIP won 27% of the vote in the UK and polled first overall, but gained only 10% of the vote in Scotland and came fourth.

Scotland has always maintained its distinctiveness within the union. Its right to be different is enshrined in the union legislation. Scotland is an ancient kingdom with a well-established civil society but, unlike its southern neighbour, it has begun to develop progressive constitutional forms that make its parliament and its politicians more representative of society at large. England, and consequently Britain, remains saddled with an eighteenth-century constitution that concentrates power in the hands of a self-perpetuating elite, who have persuaded many of us that we do not want change. These people have sought to close down the opportunity, generated by the Scottish referendum, to debate how we can make Britain anew because they, of course, are the beneficiaries of the status quo. The English need Scotland – and vice-versa – if we want to jump-start Britain’s clapped-out constitution. Before we can do that, however, we need to think about what it is that Scotland can add to the union precisely because it is different. We all need to value that difference. And I’m not talking about deep-fat-frying Mars Bars.

More than a Marriage of Convenience

Lloyd Bowen on the Union in Early Modern Wales

In an influential article of 1998, published rather provocatively shortly after Wales had (very narrowly) voted for a degree of devolved government and in the same year that the Government of Wales Act set up the Welsh AssemblyProfessor Philip Jenkins argued that nationalism and separatism had ‘no role’ in early modern Welsh politics. He observed that there were no Georgian fortifications marking the ‘progress of redcoats on their way to stamp out the last smouldering vestiges of revolt in Snowdonia or the Prescelly hills. The very absurdity of such images suggests the extent to which we take for granted the political integration of Wales into Britain’. Jenkins may have wished to make his own political point about how devolution was something of an aberration in the course of Welsh history, but his broader argument about the lack of a vigorous strain of political separatism in early modern Welsh history stands.

Henry VII’s coat of arms

The politics of Welsh independence and sovereignty are largely minority products of the modern age, but they usually have the tincture of historical precedent running through them like a watermark. These precedents are often radically de-historicised in order to do service to present day concerns, but generally look to visions of independence and autonomy articulated in the distant past. The proto-nationalist resistance of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to Edward I in the thirteenth century, or Owain Glyndwr’s attempts to rally Welsh opinion against Henry IV are the principal reference points in this regard. It has been comparatively easy to politicise these medieval princelings’ precocious notions of Welsh self-rule because, on the one hand, these notions were inchoate and amorphous and can thus support a generous number of modern readings, and on the other because they were unsuccessful, affording a sense of romantic failure but also wistful longings of a project left unfinished, of an aspiration as yet unrealised.

The awkward bit for modern advocates of greater Welsh autonomy is the fact that such medieval precedents are, in fact, better seen as throws of the dice in the dangerous game of medieval aristocratic power politics rather than early flickerings of a national spirit of independence, ruthlessly suppressed by autocratic English monarchs and censored by alien overlords. Even more uncomfortable for such sensibilities is the centuries of affable co-habitation with said overbearing English rulers which followed these spasms of medieval resistance. It can be uncomfortable for the more nationalistic modern observer to read the assessment of Glyndwr offered by the Tudor historian, David Powel, who believed that the Welsh rebel lived in a ‘fooles paradise’. Powel reflected the general attitude of his age, a period in which English monarchs were venerated in a Wales that was proud to be an indivisible part of the constitutional entity of ‘England and Wales’. This entity was one of relatively recent coinage, however, being created under Henry VIII by the so-called ‘Acts of Union’ passed by the Westminster parliament between 1536 and 1543.

As in the case of early modern Scotland, we need to be aware of unions in the plural. The case of Wales has some echoes with the Scottish experience of a dynastic union (1603) being followed by a legislative union (1707). In Wales, however, the dynastic merger was a forcible one following the military defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282. Under the terms of the Statute of Wales of 1284, large parts of Wales were was annexed to the English Crown, while and 1301 the dynastic annexation of Wales with England was symbolised by the creation of Edward I’s eldest son as Prince of Wales. This settlement was piecemeal and left Wales as a patchwork of different administrative divisions and jurisdictions. It was to regularise and extend the process of incorporation and union that the Henrician legislation was passed. Henry VIII and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, wanted administrative uniformity, dynastic security and confessional order throughout southern Britain. In a period of turbulent Reformation politics, it was dangerous for a monarch to have a large chunk of one’s western border occupied by a territory only ambiguously subject to one’s authority. For the Welsh, union held out the prospect of full participation in the economic and political worlds of an expanded and much more prosperous polity.

The first ‘Act of Union’ of 1536 referred to the long-standing ties through which Wales’s fate had been bound to that of its more powerful neighbour. It began, ‘the dominion, principality and country of Wales justly and righteously is, and ever hath been, incorporated, annexed, united and subject to … the imperial Crown of this realm [i.e. England]’. While such phraseology strikes the modern reader as an arrogant statement of empire-building superiority (which, partly, it was) the reception within Wales to the union was universally positive, and has largely remained so. Contemporaries saw this union as a kind of deliverance into a world of settled government, equal status and increased opportunity. In the words of George Owen, an Elizabethan commentator from Pembrokeshire, ‘the discord between England and Wales … procured slaughters, invasions, enmities, burnings, poverty, and such like fruits of war. This unity hath engendered friendship, amity, love, alliance, assistance, wealth and quietness. God preserve and increase it’.

There is precious little ammunition here for the modern advocate of greater Welsh autonomy within the British state, and this partly explains the early modern period’s perennial lack of popularity within the Welsh academy as well as in Welsh culture more broadly. In stark contrast to the plucky ‘pygmy nation’ fighting its own corner and fashioning its own independent image, we seem to be confronted with a people that willingly surrendered the trappings of nationhood for subordinate status and abject incorporation.

This, however, this is to wrench the Welsh example from its proper context. Early modern concepts of union and sovereignty were not formulated along modern lines of the nation, but were rather saturated with ideas of historical identity and confessional allegiance, which allowed a wider and more inclusive set of allegiances and affinities to predominate. As the current debate over Scotland has thrown into relief questions of ‘Britishness’ and the role of the ‘British state’, so consideration of early modern Wales reminds us that its inhabitants had a powerful vision of themselves as the true heirs of the aboriginal Britons who once had dominion over these islands. British patriotism in its first incarnation was ultimately Welsh in character. It was the Anglo-Welsh Elizabethan magus John Dee who encouraged imperial expansion into the New World under the rubric of recovering a long-lost ‘British empire’.

Incorporation with England by the Henrician union thus held out for the Welsh the prospect of recovering the status of Britons. Such ideas were particularly powerful because the union had been brought about by a ‘Welsh’ dynasty – the Tudors, who hailed from Anglesey and were venerated as princes of Welsh blood. There were no more fervent royalists in early modern Britain than the Welsh.

Folded into this was a slow-burning but ultimately potent and vigorous enthusiasm for Protestantism which, by some skilful Tudor sleight of hand, was also reconfigured as an ancient British faith of distinctly Welsh pedigree. Faith as much as politics was the glue binding Wales to the British state. As Charles Edwards claimed in 1667 the loss of any pretence of political independence was a necessary requirement to obtaining the faith of their fathers in the Welsh tongue.

This vision of an inclusive British patriotism is removed from the narrower nation-based affinities which developed in the twentieth century, and from which much modern political discourse about independence and sovereignty derives its origins and energy. It helps explain Welsh enthusiasms for the incorporation of Scotland into the state in 1603 and 1707. Here was an opportunity to recover the ancient Welsh-speaking territories of Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) and incorporate them into a new unity that had ancient Welsh roots. The rediscovery of the ancient Welsh epic of Y Gododdin by Welsh litterateurs in the mid-eighteenth century was notable partly for having recovered a Welsh poem written in what was now Scotland.

For the Welsh, then, these various forms of union were attractive as they embodied ancient but powerful ideas of a Britishness to which the Welsh had a peculiar claim. In some ways, they viewed the construction of a British Protestant state as their particular inheritance and legacy. The union of Wales with England was a centuries-long process of conquest and co-habitation as much as a legislative provision under Henry VIII, and its legacy has been similarly durable. It was not until the rise of a more militant form of Welsh identity politics in the early twentieth century that Wales’s position in the British state was seriously questioned. Although the relationship between the influence of the nationalist party Plaid Cymru since the 1960s and the eventual obtaining of devolution in 1997 is complex and not causal, there has been little real enthusiasm in Wales for anything approaching genuine independence.

Wales’s relationship with the British state in recent times, however, has been characterised by a political disconnection which could feed into a more profound and influential form of activism akin to that which helped hand the SNP the reins of power in 2011. Post-industrial decline and the remaining vitality of leftist politics saw a largely Old Labour Wales emasculated and ignored in the Britain of Thatcher and Blair. Devolution was designed as something of a lightning rod for the discontentments engendered by this dislocation, but whether the Welsh Assembly can channel these energies or merely serve as a reminder of Wales’s political marginality and impotence within the current constitutional dispensation remains to be seen.

The Scottish referendum on independence has, inevitably, caused some reflection on the nature of the devolved settlement in Wales, the future of its relationship with England and the implications of any ‘Yes’ vote for the principality. However, the two cases are incommensurable because of their very different histories. The union of England and Scotland was a marriage of convenience, and any divorce would see the Scots bride walk away with a good deal assured in the pre-nuptial agreement. Wales, however, has been hitched for a lot longer, it brought less to the union and has a lot more to lose.

The question of what the union is for is much less pressing in Wales partly because the union is of such long standing and so deeply ingrained into the psyche as to be something of a given. The alternatives are sketchily nebulous at best, and are often seen (rightly or wrongly) to revolve around a form of language politics which excludes four-fifths of the monoglot English-speaking population. Although the relevance of the dynastic and confessional underpinnings of early modern Britishness have long since fallen away, something of the inclusivity and capaciousness of that kind of British patriotism still seems relevant to the Welsh experience. While there is a fierce loyalty to Welshness in sport and self-identification on the census, this appears to be able to sit comparatively easily alongside an unarticulated but pervasive sense of being unproblematically British too.

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