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David Torrance: a short history of the United Kingdom

Since the beginning of this year it has become abundantly clear that a lot of Scots – on both sides of the constitutional debate – do not understand the basic history of their own country. What is particularly irritating is that many of them think they do understand it.

Alex Salmond, to be fair, does know his history, although that doesn’t mean he can’t deliberately muddy the waters. His Sunday interview with Andrew Marr is a case in point. Asked about changing the proposed referendum question to include a reference to Scotland “leaving” the United Kingdom, the First Minister said this:

“I would argue…the UK…to an extent, not the state but certainly the monarchical union, was formed in 1603 with the union of the crowns. And of course it is SNP policy to have the Queen as our head of state, so that union, that United Kingdom if you like, would be maintained after Scottish political independence.”

Now laying aside the fact that it is not SNP policy to have the Queen as head of state (it is, as per the 1997 SNP conference, to choose between HM and a republic in another, post-independence, referendum), but the term “United Kingdom” does not – as Salmond acknowledged – refer to the 1603 Union of the Crowns, or even the 1707 Act of Union. True, the term “united kingdom” was used informally to describe both, but it was not the name of either the pre- or post-1707 state.

The “United Kingdom” became the name of the British state in 1801, when another Act of Union merged Ireland’s hitherto semi-independent Parliament with that of Great Britain, thus the state’s full name, the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. Although the events of 1707 were obviously important in that they merged the Scottish and English Parliaments, the 1801 Act created the state we inhabit today. (Before I forget Wales that was, since another Act of Union in 1536, considered an integral part of England.)

Or rather, the state we have inhabited since 1922, when it became the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (a name change formalized in 1927). How many Scots, or indeed Britons, are aware that our country is less than a century old? The case of Ireland is also generally misunderstood. Southern Ireland – initially known as the Irish Free State – did not become fully independent in 1922, as many people believe. Rather it became a Dominion within the British Empire, and the British monarch, King George V, remained head of state until 1937, as did his successors, technically, until 1949, when Ireland became a Republic.

Is any of this important? I think it is, not only because the history of any state is important, but also because the story of the United Kingdom gave rise to much of the political terminology we still use today. For example the term “Unionist”, in party political terms, refers not to those wishing to preserve the Union between Scotland and England, but those who want to retain the Union between Great Britain and Ireland/Northern Ireland. When the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland in 1886, the party became two: Liberals and Liberal Unionists (the latter being opposed to Home Rule). Gradually, the Liberal Unionists merged with the Conservatives to form, in England, the Conservative and Unionist Party, and in Scotland – between 1912 and 1965 –the Scottish Unionist Party. 

Yes, it could be argued that that the term “Unionist” has assumed a broader meaning in recent decades, but it’s still important to understand its origins. Judging by the pronouncements of many “Unionist” Conservatives, they do not. So if Scotland does vote for independence, it would not mean the end of the “United Kingdom”, as many Nationalists seem to believe: it would simply be seceding from that Union just as the Irish Free State did 90 years ago. The state might change its name, but the Union Jack would most likely remain unaltered, just as it did after 1922.

This brings me to Northern Ireland and Wales. If anyone’s been listening to Peter Robinson or Carwyn Jones recently, you might have got the impression they aren’t terribly thrilled at the prospect of Scottish independence, not least because it might weaken their status within the UK. Sensing this, Alex Salmond continues to cast “independence” purely in terms of England and Scotland, which is astonishingly simplistic. The United Kingdom comprises four nations, not two, and its history is a lot more complicated than many die-hard Nationalists, or indeed Unionists, seem to appreciate.

Posted by David Torrance




Steamie Comments

'So if Scotland does vote for independence, it would not mean the end of the “United Kingdom”, as many Nationalists seem to believe: it would simply be seceding from that Union just as the Irish Free State did 90 years ago. The state might change its name, but the Union Jack would most likely remain unaltered, just as it did after 1922.' Hmmm....rather muddled thinking here. If the United Kingdom would persist, why would that name be changed? And yet the Union Jack could remain unaltered....although with Scottish independence there would not be an excuse for keeping the Saltire, as there was an excuse for keeping the St. Patrick's Cross in 1922 when the six counties of Northern Ireland were retained within the UK.

Comment left by Knowingtoomuch on 21st of February 2012 at 23:04

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