United Kingdom: How it was born and how to preserve it

Once again, the future of the union lies in doubt. Strife within the Scottish National Party may have offered some respite of late, but there is no avoiding the reality that the 2014 referendum did not, after all, settle the question for a generation. In an ideal world, the 2014 referendum would have been followed by meaningful reform in order to shore up the union. Instead, the Scottish government (and by extension the Scottish National Party for the time being) were bolstered with additional powers and Scottish members of parliament were further marginalised by English Votes for English Laws. This was unfortunate and reflected a failure in Westminster sufficiently to understand the history of the union.

That history is long, complex and little known. It is not a story taught in British schools. Yet it might be thought that some overall understanding of it should be fundamental, not least for those responsible for the governance of the kingdom.

In large part, union was forced on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by the English. Wales was conquered by Edward I in the thirteenth century and absorbed by Henry VIII as part of the realm of England in the sixteenth. Scotland was driven to union with England in 1707 by its economic collapse resulting from the disastrous Darién venture, barriers to trade erected by the English and English wars against Scotland’s other trading partners. Nonetheless, for their part the English were desperate for union fearing that the Scots would choose a Catholic to succeed Queen Anne in Scotland, as threatened by the Scottish Security Act of 1704. Ultimately, the English agreed to a massive bail-out for Scotland.

Northern Ireland’s place in the union, however, is a little more complicated. Colonisation of Ireland by Anglo-Normans began in the twelfth century and was consolidated when Henry VIII made it a kingdom of the English crown. Successive Catholic and Jacobite uprisings during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were crushed by the English, culminating in the Battle of Aughrim in 1691. Insurrection and cries for independence a century later led to the British and Irish Parliaments voting for union in 1800 – the Irish Parliament in highly questionable circumstances.

Initially, the United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Ireland prospered both politically and economically, but as the nineteenth century wore on, there were moves afoot for Home Rule, particularly in Ireland. But for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Home Rule would have been achieved in Ireland and Scotland and probably also in Wales following the disestablishment of the Church in Wales. This would have entailed devolution of most powers to new national parliaments, but leaving the UK parliament supreme with responsibility principally, among other things, for defence, foreign affairs and the currency.

The First World War largely put paid to Home Rule. However, the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland eventually led to the formation of the Irish Free State and the secession of Northern Ireland from the south in 1922. Home Rule in Scotland fell largely by the wayside until the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s, with cries of ‘It’s our oil’ leading to devolution in 1998. Wales spurned devolution initially, there being an overwhelming vote against in a referendum in 1979. However, it joined Scotland with devolution in 1998, the ‘yes’ side winning by a slender margin.

Although the circumstances in which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have ended up as part of the UK differ in many respects, they have two things in common: first, many Welsh, Scots and (to a lesser extent) Northern Irish feel with some justification that they were worsted by the English; and secondly, because of the far greater population of England, the English are perceived as having the upper hand in Parliament.

So long as questions of independence are settled by referendums, it will always be difficult to explain the virtues of the union against this strength of feeling. The Better Together campaign in 2014 published 30 pages of cogent reasons to vote No, but struggled to extract a few short, hard-hitting headline points that could go toe-to-toe with a simple and effective nationalist message. However, given that Westminster can dictate the terms of any referendum, it is critical that those terms should determine in advance the conditions on which independence would be offered, for example whether Scotland would be required to repay the bail-out received in 1707 or its share of the national debt, lose sterling (backed by the Bank of England) as its currency or lose the benefit of international treaties to which the UK is a party.

If any Westminster government is genuinely interested in preserving the union, it needs to do a great deal more to foster the interests of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and understand the source of their grievances. This means doing more than slicing away at the union through piecemeal devolution and the distribution of untargeted hand-outs, but instead putting increased emphasis on working to improve standards of living in the devolved nations and involving them more closely in decision making. The current policy of rejuvenating the English regions needs to be applied to the whole of the UK, not just to England. Once progress has been made on that front, it might well be politic to offer referendums, albeit stipulating the conditions of independence in advance. Preservation of the union is far from a forlorn hope, if only a Westminster government takes the right steps to save it.

Iain Milligan is the author of Sovereign of the Isles: How the Crown Won the British Isles. He practised law throughout his professional life, taking silk in 1991 and retiring recently.

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