National DK (Disunited Kingdoms)
July 27, 2006
by Martin ‘HStorm’ Odoni
First published in June 2004
1. The Background to Union.
In 1064, in what were the dying days of the Anglo-Saxon era – although no one knew that at the time – Wales became a principality of England. A furious raid on Herefordshire by Welsh invaders backfired hopelessly, and Harold Godwinson, the highest nobleman in England (and King in all but name), led a counterattack that forced the Welsh to submit to English sovereignty. Although the oath the Princeps Walliae (Prince of Wales) swore was more symbolic than effective (as Wales still remained defiantly autonomous in practise), it was nevertheless the first step in a process that would unite the four separate nations of the British Isles into one, not altogether harmonious, whole.
In the 12th century, the great monarch of the Angevin Empire, Henry II, sent a small force of Anglo-Norman soldiers to Ireland in what appears to have been a genuine attempt to protect the people of the south-east from the despotic northern King Diarmid Mac Murrach (Dermot McMurrough). This small band of peacekeepers settled into Dublin and effectively took the place over, forming a small region around the capital virtually cut off from the rest of Ireland, a region that later became known inaccurately as The Old English Pail. The rebellious independence of the Anglo-Norman settlers forced King Henry to try and bring them into line. To this end, in 1180 he sent his youngest son John to Ireland to become its first national King. John, who to that point had been nicknamed Lackland to reflect his being the only son of Henry II not to own any serious territories, was able to pride himself on his sudden elevation to being a King in his own right, but proved helpless to bring the rebellious Normans back into line. In 1199, John succeeded his brutal brother, Richard the Lionheart, to become King of England, thus uniting the two crowns. England, Wales and Ireland were now all subject, at least officially, to one monarch and they would remain so for centuries, in spite of general Celtic unwillingness to accept it.
In 1278, the imperious new Plantagenet King of England, Edward I, responded violently to the Prince of Wales’ failure to swear allegiance to him at his coronation by beginning a bloody war to bring the province fully under English control at last. It proved a much longer, slower, and more gruelling task than Edward had perhaps anticipated, but after six years the Welsh finally capitulated and accepted direct English governance. Surprisingly, the English never tried to make Wales fully a part of England (as had happened to Cornwall centuries earlier) but allowed it to retain a fair degree of cultural distinction. It retained most of its own customs, especially its language, but was also brought under the control of English Common Law, and the appointment of the Prince Of Wales was, ironically, made a most English business. King Edward promised the Welsh people he would give them a new Prince who spoke not a word of English, and so he did; he gave the title to his infant son, also Edward, who at a single year in age had still to learn how to speak in any language at all. (The fact that the child had been born in Carmarthen was no consolation to the conquered.) Every Prince of Wales since that time has been the first heir to the English throne.
Famously of course, Edward I and his son after him both failed spectacularly to bring Scotland under their control, thanks mainly to Robert the Bruce, but centuries of war would follow between England, Scotland and France as the overall issue of Scottish sovereignty remained perpetually in the balance.
There were spells during these centuries when Ireland and Wales also emerged temporarily from under English control to achieve a measure of autonomy again. In Ireland’s case it was always a brief business that was stamped on ruthlessly. In Wales there was a longer and happier time of relative self-determination in the 15th century, which only ended with the climax of The Wars Of The Roses. The Welsh were happy conspirators in their own subjection this time, for the man who emerged from the Battle Of Bosworth Field as King Henry VII of England was Henry Ap Tydir, or Henry Tudor. He may have been descended on his mother’s side from King Edward III, but the entire paternal side of his aristocratic family was Welsh, as indeed was Henry himself. So the majority in Wales seemed to assume that that would make rule from London a far more palettable dish. In fact they were probably right. Although it remained a second-class nation in England’s shadow, Wales was treated far better in future by the English monarchy than it had been in Plantagenet times, and has remained very firmly under English rule ever since.
A little over a century after it had emerged as a new Royal dynasty, the House of Tudor suddenly disappeared from the scene again when Elizabeth I died childless. Her nearest surviving relative was the Stuart King of – of all places – Scotland, one of England’s bitterest historical enemies. Although the relationship between the two kingdoms had been far more cordial during Elizabeth’s reign of canny diplomacy, the idea of actually being ruled from Edinburgh made many an Englishman uncomfortable. Many in Scotland shuddered in equal distaste at the thought of mixing blood with the English, and indeed it turned out that they were the ones who had more reason for concern. Great Britain was born when King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English crown and so became King James I of England and Ireland as well, the first monarch to rule the entirety of the British Isles. And while he went out of his way to make sure that neither England became subject to Edinburgh’s rule nor Scotland subject to London’s, his head was soon turned by the far greater riches and luxury of life in his new kingdom. He’d promised the Scottish Parliament before setting off for his English coronation that he would spend a minimum of two months in Scotland each year for the rest of his reign. In fact, he only managed it for the first two years, and spent hardly any time north of the border after 1612, leaving the administration of his homeland in the hands of his parliament. He died in 1625 as Scotland’s first absentee King.
Not the last though. His son, Charles I, was born in Dunfermline in 1603, but spent almost all his life in England, and after his succession to the throne he never even got round to travelling to Edinburgh for his Scottish coronation for another seven years! For numerous complex reasons that developed over the course of more than ten years during Charles’ reign, the four nations of Britain gradually broke out into one of the most enormous series of Civil Wars ever seen on Earth. The different nations fought each other and themselves until 1651, by which time the King had been overthrown and eventually beheaded. Scottish armies had twice invaded England before being routed and annihilated by the New Model Army, led by Oliver Cromwell, who now emerged as the first commoner to rule England. It was also the first time that all of the British Isles, including Scotland, was ruled directly from London. But it was still not a United Kingdom, but a disunited Republic.
It was a paralysed and joyless country as successive Parliaments, now ruling without a Royal figurehead to have the last say on matters, bumbled and blundered from mishap to catastrophe, its members never able to agree on important constitutional matters. Eventually Cromwell died, exhausted by the endless political turmoils he’d had to fight against with undeniable valiance but also with modest expertise. The frail Protectorate he’d built collapsed into anarchy once more, and only the Restoration in 1660 of the Stuart monarchy, in the form of the dead King’s oldest son, Charles II, restored order and peace. Scotland was given back its autonomy as the infrastructure of the four nations was restored to what it had been in the 1630’s, and the whole sorry mess of Britain’s first ever attempt at civilian government was quickly written off as a pointless and bloody mistake. No one could have imagined that within thirty years the crises would repeat themselves almost identically, and that this time there could be no going back.
Despite the Great Plague and the Fire of London, Charles II’s reign was largely a much more peaceful and settled era than his father’s, as his great knack for moderation and reason (not least his willingness to let his advisors and officials handle a lot of the more intricate governmental detail for him) carried his three Kingdoms out of one awkward situation after another.
Charles died in 1685. He’d been secretly negotiating an alliance with the Catholic Imperialist, Louis XIV of France, while also fighting a serious public dispute with a large faction of dissenters in parliament who wanted to get the Duke of York, Charles’ brother James, excluded from the Royal succession because of his open Catholic worship. As Charles had died childless, his brother succeeded as James VII of Scotland and II of England, and immediately set about turning his kingdoms into Catholic countries once more. Opposition spread all around England, Scotland and Wales on a similar scale to the way it had in Charles I’s time.
The Chief Stathauder of the Dutch Republic, William of Orange, was the most powerful Protestant ruler in Europe, making him King Louis’ archenemy. He was also King James’ nephew, as well as husband to James’ daughter Mary, giving him a huge claim to the British throne. He wanted British support in the upcoming war against France, but he knew that if James got his way that support would go to King Louis instead. So William invaded England in 1689 and successfully overthrew James II. (Bizarrely, the ‘Prince’ of Orange was now William I of Ireland, William II of Scotland, William III of England, and William IV of Holland).
With friction between Scotland and England growing over the succession of William to the throne, economic disaster followed with the calamitous failure of the Darien Expedition. The whole fiasco consumed over a third of Scotland’s liquid capital and left the nation so destitute that it was virtually impossible for it to carry on independently. The English also wanted a full political union as well, as they knew that there were moves in the Scottish Parliament to try and have the Stuarts restored to the throne.
Therefore, in 1707 the English parliament offered its Scottish counterpart a deal; dissolve permanently and have representation at Westminster, and in return English funds equalling the total lost in the Darien venture would be invested in the Scottish economy. The deal was accepted after ten weeks of frenzied and unhappy debate in the Scottish parliament. Six weeks later, the Bill of Union was passed through Westminster and Scotland, despite retaining its separate code of Civil Law, was joined to England and Wales under one government. The United Kingdom of Great Britain was born.
It was an unsettled and peaceless Union early on. ‘Jacobite’ (Stuart sympathiser) groups on both sides of the border rose up unsuccessfully in 1715 in protest against the Union, against the accession of the House of Hanover as the new Royal House of Great Britain, and especially against the new Law – preventing the accession of Catholics to the throne – that had made George I’s succession possible.
The ingenious policies of Robert Walpole, who was effectively Britain’s first ‘Prime Minister’, restored peace and order for some while, but in 1745 a second much larger Jacobite rebellion began in the Highlands, led by Charles Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), the grandson of James VII. Although at least as many Scots fought against the Jacobites as for them, this rebel army took over Scotland within weeks, then invaded England and got as far south as Derby before choosing to retreat when expected military support from France failed to materialise. Hanoverian troops then counter-invaded Scotland, catching up with the Jacobites and routing them totally at Culloden. To date, this was the last military conflict between Scotland and England, and for over two and a half centuries this aspect of the Union would continue unchallenged, usually (though by no means always) to the betterment of both kingdoms.
The Union extended further in 1801 when Ireland finally became a full member of the United Kingdom, dissolving its parliament in favour of direct representation at Westminster. It was now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Unlike Scotland however, Ireland wasn’t able to find a peaceful, settled or prosperous way of remaining under Britain’s bruising and neglectful rule, and many violent and traumatic battles ensued in the century that followed. Finally, during the First World War, six of Ireland’s counties were granted independence and formed the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland or Eire), under the leadership of Eamon De Valera. However the north-eastern province of Ulster, whose Protestant-dominated population remained largely loyalist, stayed under British control, as they remain today. It is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The conundrum of who should have sovereignty over Northern Ireland has still not been conclusively settled even now.
So that is the history of how the United Kingdom became, more or less, what it is today. The question is, what is likely to happen to it now? This is because in recent times there have been moves towards its disintegration.
2. The Case Against Union.
There was some minor upheaval in the structure of the Union at the end of the 20th century. It started in 1997 with the negotiation of a new settlement for the government of Northern Ireland, one that included the formal relinquishment by the Irish government of its claim to Ulster, and the establishment of a local Assembly at Stormont, exclusively answerable to the inhabitants of the province.
At the same time, the new Labour government began to implement long-standing plans to establish semi-autonomous parliaments in Scotland and Wales. Throughout the 1980’s there had been growing discontent in Scotland in particular with direct control from Westminster, especially with the narrowly pro-London/pro-Home Counties style of the Thatcher government that was draining resources from the rest of the United Kingdom into London and returning very little.
To this end, a new parliament, expressly concerned with Scottish matters, was convened in Edinburgh in 1999. Its powers are somewhat limited and its track record in its first five years of business has been far from unblemished, but it has deeply soothed the Anglophobic sentiments that had been brewing north of the border during the Thatcherite era.
In a similar time-frame, Wales was given its own National Assembly. This has very few powers in practise, largely because Wales has so long been governed from London that it has less internal structure available for self-government than Scotland has, and what there is largely harks back to medieval times.
This perhaps seems a natural enough progression. With the collapse over the last half-century of the Empire, the main binding force for British prosperity has evaporated, and as Britain has been forced to become far more self-reliant, the strain of the differing interests of the different regions has told. In other words the cracks in the Union, for so long hidden by the pomp and glory of the Empire, have finally become impossible to ignore.
Many, especially on the Celtic fringe, have never been convinced by the illusion of British unity in any case. They have long seen the Union as nothing more than a cheap invention by the early-modern English government finally to fulfill by stealth a belligerent ambition dating back to the middle ages; the conquest of Scotland and Ireland. With peaceful relations at home thus established, it helped pave the way for conquest in the rest of the world. Though exaggerated, there’s little doubt that there’s a loud echo of truth in this, so why not end this tasteless, shabby charade at last and give the Celts back their birthrights now the reason for the pretense is gone? In the end, wouldn’t there be a strange, poetic justice if the nation that built the largest Empire in human history, having already seen almost all of its foreign holdings frittered away, should then witness its own internal disintegration?
3. The Case For Union.
There are other questions that need to be asked before we commit to such a path though. While the violence over the unwanted partitioning of Ireland makes the reassessment of Ulster understandable, and even desirable, was it really such a good idea letting Home Rule spread to the other Celtic provinces of the UK? More interestingly, isn’t it paradoxical that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have a measure of self-determination, and yet England, by far the largest of the four provinces, has none? All MP’s at Westminster are entitled to vote on collectively British matters, naturally enough. But also they are allowed to vote on specifically English matters, even MP’s from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And yet the narrower affairs of the Celtic nations are never discussed at Westminster, and English MP’s have no say in the affairs of the provincial parliaments. This is not just paradoxical in fact, it’s blatantly unfair, and appears only to have been implemented in this way as an added defence for Tony Blair’s majority in the House of Commons against backbench rebellions by English Labour MP’s.
The historical arguments for devolution, furthermore, are not as convincing as you might think. For a start, it’s a mistake to assume that the UK was brought into being for the purposes of ruling a vast inter-continental Empire. No one in 1707 had the slightest inkling that within one hundred and eighty years a quarter of the Earth would be ruled from London.
And yes, the United Kingdom probably was just a cheap English invention to snare Scotland and Ireland into captivity by peaceful means, and the unity that followed was largely just an illusion. Certainly there was always far more pride about being British in England than ever there was in the other three countries. But the thing people are forgetting when they make that argument is that all nationality is an illusion, and that what existed beforehand – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all separate from one another – were nothing more substantial than inventions that had replaced something else. In other words, exactly what the UK is. To explain…
At the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Anglo-Saxons invaded the south and east of Britain from mainland Europe, while the Dal Riadha Gaels (or ‘Scoti’) invaded the north from Ireland. There was no certainty for centuries afterwards that mainland Britain would become divided into just three realms, an England for the Anglo-Saxons, a Scotland for the Scoti, and a Wales for the Romano-Britons. By all means, the signs in the Dark Ages were that the island’s political structure, such as it was, would be hugely more fractured than that. The early ‘England’ (if we can even call it that) was not a country but a haphazard mixture of small kingdoms, known collectively as the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, that fought each other as much as they fought the Celts. ‘Scotland’ wasn’t even dreamt of until the 9th century, and for a long time it looked like there would be at least three warring kingdoms to be found north of Hadrian’s Wall in the future, with the Picts in the east, the Scots in the West, and a large cluster of Strathclyde Britons and dispossessed Anglo-Saxons in the south. Neither England nor Scotland would have existed as united kingdoms in their own right, or even been thought of, had it not been for the tortuous accident of the Vikings arriving to tear across both, forcing the different realms to stop fighting each other and stand together against a common, far greater enemy. Meanwhile Wales was always a collection of smaller, bickering kingdoms until Edward I marched in. It was only collectively titled Wales (or Wealas, meaning ‘slaves’) by the Anglo-Saxons as a general term to describe the ‘wild’ western region that they had never been able to subdue fully. And Ireland was never one country either until Henry II sent his son there to become its first King. (As such, it’s ironic that Gerry Adams is always referring to the British occupation of ‘his country’, as the country he refers to didn’t really exist until the English occupied it in the first place.)
And this is the crux of the matter. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are no more a reality than the United Kingdom, and are just as prone to divisions and inherent flaws. And if Imperial nostalgia and London-centricity make the UK an out-of-date nation, and they do, then its component nations are even more so.
Therefore the real question is not whether there should be a realignment but why should it be done on the basis of restoring the old structure of pre-feudal times? If we want to devolve the present structure on the basis that it’s out-of-date, it would surely be absurd to go back even further and to restore the setup of the early 18th century, or worse still the setup of the late 13th century. That cannot possibly be seen as a step forward. Devolution is a legitimate policy, but it should address the needs of the modern era, not the needs of the middle ages or the 18th century. While the old borders do still exist, albeit slightly repositioned here and there, for the most part they’re only lines on a map.
Some people would argue that they signify cultural boundaries that still exist these days, and that therefore devolution should still be achieved this way. But again, it’s not quite that simple. If you’re going to divide the British mainland up on cultural grounds, the old borders between the three provinces are inadequate, because practically any country on Earth will have numerous different cultures within its own borders. Furthermore, some of those cultures may have more in common with people in other national territories than their fellow countrymen, and this is certainly true in the United Kingdom; –
Let’s face it, Cornwall has more in common with north Wales than it has in common with the rest of England. South Wales, meanwhile, has a great deal in common with the west of England, certainly more than it has in common with north Wales. So why not unite south Wales to the west of England, and unite Cornwall to north Wales, and give these two mini-kingdoms independence? And let’s go further. Let’s unite the south-west of Scotland and Merseyside, with all their heavily-Irish characteristics, to Northern Ireland, and give them independence from not only the UK, but also from Scotland and England. Also, let’s give government of the Hebrides back to Norway. The inhabitants of the outer islands of Scotland, after all, feel far more Scandinavian than Scottish and wouldn’t even be part of the UK were it not for their brutal conquest by the armies of James VI in the late 16th century. And why should we stop there? Let’s make the south-west of England (bar Cornwall of course, as we’ve made that Welsh again) a separate kingdom stretching from Plymouth to Bournemouth and as far north as Gloucester. London and the Home Counties are practically cut off from the rest of the UK by their own sheer indifference anyway, so we wouldn’t change anything by making them a separate country in their own right as well. And then we can make the regions around the Pennines into a kingdom all its own, and meanwhile we can give Cumbria to what remains of Scotland. As mentioned earlier, it only seems fitting to do to the headpiece of the Empire what’s been done in recent times to, say, Yugoslavia? I mean, why not?
The reason why not is of course fairly obvious, and that is what has happened to the former Yugoslavia since it broke up. When that country disintegrated in the early-1990’s all the simmering old divisions and ethnic rivalries, which had been dormant within its borders since the World Wars, suddenly returned with frightening speed and sickening violence, and even now that the worst of the Balkan Civil Wars appears to be behind us the situation there is still uncertain. What’s to say that cutting the UK up on such cultural grounds won’t do the same thing here, that they won’t re-create old tribalisms of our own? The days of the ancient Anglo-Saxon heptarchy and the kingdom of the Dal Riadha Gaels were not peaceful or settled after all, and repartitioning the modern island on such a heavily pluralist basis might only re-create more tensions and heavy complications. Certainly so many borders on such a tiny land mass would be impossible to police or govern.
So on what basis can we devolve safely? It probably shouldn’t be on ancient national grounds as those are simply irrelevant, and it certainly shouldn’t be on cultural grounds as they’re completely impractical. My belief is that the only grounds that are relevant to the needs of the moment and are practical to enforce are purely geographical ones. One way therefore is to readjust the new setup currently in development. The Welsh Assembly is fine so far, but should have more powers, and its responsibility for local administration should stretch to include the south-west peninsular of England and the west up to Merseyside. The Scottish Parliament has resources adequate to cater for the north of England as far as Durham, while local parliaments could also be created for the remainder of the north of England, and for the Midlands. Then a final local body could be appointed for London, the Home Counties, and the remainder of the south coast.
Personally though, I think even this would be overkill. The whole ridiculous fuss, and the horrifying expense that it has caused (especially in Edinburgh), could easily be resolved simply by devolving more power to local government structures like city and county councils. Unfortunately, speaking out in favour of local government of that particular kind is unfashionable, as there is a perception that these things are an expensive extra layer of Administration and havens of corruption (which they probably are, but then so is every other type of government – I for one don’t see why sleaze or corruption become acceptable just because it’s done on a national level instead of a regional one). In the end, devolving to localised parliaments is just a grander way of saying that you’re setting up a local council anyway so that’s not a very good reason to refuse. And neither is fear of national disintegration, for devolution doesn’t have to be disintegration.
The bottom line is that the structure of the UK is now obsolete. Power does need reinvesting at a more local level. And our unity is an illusion. This does not necessarily mean that it isn’t worth retaining though; surely two-and-a-half centuries of peace between Scotland and England, after nine centuries or so of intermittent bloody war, is all the proof we need of that.