Why the United Kingdom is a legacy worth preserving
The United Kingdom has one critical flaw: there are too many English people. There are in fact five times as many English as the other three nations combined. This has always led to the perception of English dominance, and the practical risk that the English can outvote their partner nations.
Over the years this problem has got worse. The English will just not stop multiplying. In 1700, just before the creation of the Union between England and Scotland, there were five times as many English as Scots, by 1900, eight times as many. This problem gets worse even today – the population of England grew faster than Scotland between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. There are now more than ten times as many English as Scots. The population of England has in fact grown by more since 2001 than the entire population of Scotland. The Union therefore is no longer so important in providing the English with the strength of additional numbers.
It is to that relationship between England and Scotland that I shall turn. This is the United Kingdom in a legal sense. Wales has been part of England since 1535 and Ireland was a separate Kingdom until 1800. Both were also conquered by England. Only Scotland was truly a willing, albeit bribed, bride.
Over the years however a story of English oppression has developed. This is the Braveheart version of history. This film is set in the 1290s and what is startling is that this is how far back you have to go to find the “English” oppressing the Scots. Many wars were fought in the centuries after, but the Scots were as likely to be the aggressor as the English. Scotland’s oppression has come from elsewhere: from France in the 16th century for example.
In the Union Scots have thrived and often been dominant. This includes political dominance: Scotland has given the
UK nine Prime Ministers – from the Earl of Bute to Gordon Brown. Tony Blair’s first Cabinet in 1997 contained six Scots, and two of the five contenders in the 2016 Conservative leadership election were Scottish, with both Liam Fox and Michael Gove representing a long tradition of Scottish MPs sitting for English seats. Political dominance was long matched by economic significance. Scotland was at the heart of the British industrial revolution, with a dominant role in iron, steel and shipbuilding.
Yet the Union is under threat. The long-term structural problem – too many English – has collided with political differences. Since the 1980s the English have been voting differently to the Scottish. The English voted for Thatcherism, responding to industrial decline by letting the UK fully embrace the global economy. The Scots were amongst those parts of Britain which did not like this approach.
Why has this proved such a problem? It is not a problem of poverty. Scotland is poorer than the UK average but comparable to middling English regions. However, Scotland, unlike those parts of England dissatisfied with Thatcherism, could draw on nationalism as an alternative. It also had North Sea oil as a base for an alternative economic vision. This has led to what we see today, a political force, the SNP, which is both patriotic and progressive, and so forming a powerful, and up to now enduring, political cocktail.
Against this vision of the future is set the legacy of the Union. It has been claimed that this legacy is dominated by Empire and Protestantism and so no longer relevant. The legacy is deeper and more enduring. It contains three compelling elements:
• Scottish and English identity
• The security legacy
• A legacy of tolerance and liberty
Scottish and English identity
The SNP sometimes claim that Scotland is a Celtic country, and sometimes they claim that it is a Scandinavian country. It is very telling that they cannot decide. The truth is that the country Scotland has most in common with, is England. Medieval Lowland Scotland was a lot like England. It spoke a range of English dialects, was dominated by Norman Barons and a Latin Church. A Church which was later overthrown in favour of English-language Protestantism. Highland Scotland was a different land, Gaelic speaking and more Catholic.
The single Scottish identity that we know today emerged fully only after Union in 1707 as the two regions merged and trade and culture thrived. For example, the single great symbol of modern Highland identity, the kilt, was a garment designed in modern form by a Lancashire Quaker. The clan tartans which adorn the kilt were developed as uniform for the Highland regiments first raised for the British army.
Nationalist historians have contested the idea that Scotland was backward before the Union. However, it is undoubtedly true that Scotland was poorer than England, blood feud still existed in law, and its Parliament had only a few hundred electors, compared to England’s hundreds of thousands. Scotland after the Union was at the centre of the British Enlightenment, producing figures such as the economist Adam Smith, the historian (of England) David Hume, James Boswell, biographer famous for his life of Samuel Johnson (Englishman), and Tobias Smollett, the author of novels (often set in England). These men were known because they were influential in London, but, equally important what they wrote of was British life.
It is sometimes said that England does not have an identity outside the British identity. Maybe Scotland is also like England in that sense. Scotland’s identity is also intertwined with that of the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom – a legacy of security
The Union of Crowns in 1603 was a big step towards internal peace on the island of Great Britain. After this date conflict increasingly happened within England and Scotland rather than between them, as in the Civil War of the 1640s and the Jacobite rising of 1745. After the Union of 1707 this security Union turned outward facing, with spectacular results. It became history’s most massive and successful imperial project. This project has left a lasting legacy on global civilisation, from sport – football in particular, through dress codes – the men’s suit, to the English language and to a lesser extent legal system. A legacy that will continue to evolve but will surely endure in some form.
At some point, more or less the moment when Nazi panzers lined up at Dunkirk, that common imperial project became the common self-defence project. At first it was the self-defence project against Nazism, and then against Communism. After the Cold War the British armed forces became part of the liberal intervention project, hesitantly in Bosnia, boldly in Kosovo and Sierra Leone and recklessly in Iraq. This project has proved unpopular as it has over-reached, but when Alex Salmond condemned British involvement in Kosovo in 1999 he seemed out of touch with Scottish opinion.
Today the need for the security union seems as strong as ever. Looking across the world Scottish independence seems a cause that should, in Francis Fukuyama’s adaptation of his own term, happen at the end of history. Terrorism, the Ukrainian war, strife in Korea and the Middle East, all show that history is nowhere near over.
A legacy of tolerance and liberty
The Union was also a step forward in tolerance and good government. It followed on a series of big steps forward in England – freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the supremacy of Parliament. The Union helped formally establish the first multi-confessional state. England and Scotland had separate established religions – Anglicanism and Presbyterianism. Discrimination against other religions endured for some time, but Britain was a multi-confessional state to a much greater degree than any other European nations. The fact that Scotland was and is a multi-confessional state means that it is very different to Ireland or Scandinavia, where nationhood is strongly linked to a single religion.
This tradition of tolerance, and of liberal government, is surely the crowning legacy of the Union. A step on the road towards the societies we know today where religious identity should have no political significance. As well as a major step forward in limiting the power of the rulers over the ruled. Again, that legacy is global.
How special is the Union today?
Perhaps the biggest reason the Union is under threat because it is no longer seems as special as it once was. Peace, trade, travel and cultural links no longer depend upon political ties. The nations of the developed world have learnt to live in peace. People feel that can have their cake and eat it – local control but international interdependency.
Can such benefits be taken for granted though? There is no better legacy than identity, security and liberty, and it would be reckless to risk this legacy by ending the institution which created it.
James Worron is a Director at Burson-Marstellar
This article first appeared in Localis’s essay collection ‘Neo-localism: rediscovering the nation’