h i s t o r y v e r n on b o g danor
Lion, Harp & Unicorn The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland, and the Survival of the
United Kingdom, 1707–2007
By Alvin Jackson (Oxford University Press 467pp £35)
The United Kingdom came into exist- ence as a result of two parliamentary unions, the union with Scotland in 1707 and the union with Ireland in 1801. They were the product of crisis rather than popular pressure, and were achieved through corrupt means. Neither was accompanied by any vision of what the future of a united kingdom might be like. The union with Scotland, however, survived, while that with Ireland did not, except in the six counties now comprising Northern Ireland. The remaining twenty-six counties broke away from Britain when Ireland secured her independence in 1921.
Gladstone, who tried unsuccessfully to secure Home Rule for Ireland (or, as we would now call it, devolution), declared that there had been ‘a Union in Scotland and a Union in Ireland, just as there was a river in Monmouth and a river in Macedon’. He believed that ‘English policy has achieved no triumph so great as the union between England and Scotland’, whereas relations between Britain and Ireland exhibited to us ‘the one and only conspicuous failure of the political genius of our race to confront and master difficulty, and to obtain in a reasonable degree the main ends of civilised life’.
Why was the one union a success, while the other failed? Alvin Jackson brings the tools of modern historical scholarship to answer this conundrum in his impressive book. The Two Unions offers welcome relief from the usual polemics, but Jackson’s argument is complex and to summarise is inevitably to oversimplify. Nevertheless, it is clear that much of the history of the two unions was determined by their origins. The union with Scotland came about through consent, as a bargain between two autonomous teams of representatives negotiating freely, and it sought to preserve the two central institutions of Scottish civil society – the Kirk and the legal system. The union with Ireland, by contrast,
was not a ‘treaty or contract freely made between two independent states’, but was devised by Pitt and his inner circle in London and imposed upon a Protestant elite, which initially resisted it. Religion, which united Scotland, divided Ireland, and the British party system could not secure a foothold in a country dominated by sectarian division. The union with Scotland secured the rights of Presbyterians. That with Ireland failed to secure the rights of Catholics. Emancipation had indeed been promised with the union, but George III refused to concede it, believing that it would violate his coronation oath, and so it did not come about until 1829. As so often with Ireland, concessions, which, if given willingly, might have secured goodwill, were made too late and under pressure, so that any goodwill was lost. In consequence, the union never escaped the taint of the Protestant Ascendancy.
The outcome was that union proved compatible with the sense of nationality in Scotland, while in Ireland they were brought into conflict. Later, British inaction during the famine, and refusal to accept Home Rule, added to Irish grievances. ‘What fools we were’, George V told Ramsay MacDonald in 1930, ‘not to have accepted Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. The Empire now would not have had the Irish Free State giving us so
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‘With the benefit of historical hindsight’, the Queen declared in Dublin earlier this year, ‘we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.’ Even so, the union with Ireland survived and, had it not been for the Great War, it might possibly have proved permanent. The nationalist Daniel O’Connell declared in 1836 that ‘the people of Ireland are ready to become a portion of the Empire … a kind of West Briton if made so in benefits and justice’. Perhaps Ireland was even beginning to be integrated into the British political system as Scotland had been. In 1914, with Home Rule on the statute book, John Redmond, the nationalist leader, stood up in the Commons to assure England of Irish loyalty. Redmond’s brother was to die on the western front in 1917, the year after the British executed the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin.
The obstacles to the success of union with Ireland, were, Jackson believes, ‘overwhelming; but it still took the universal conflagration of 1914–1918 to bring down the 120-year old edifice’. In 1914 Britain claimed to be fighting to defend the rights of small nations such as Belgium and Serbia. Yet when the small nation on Britain’s doorstep sought, in 1918, to exercise her right of self-determination by establishing her own parliament in Dublin, the Lloyd George government tried to extirpate it by force. Rereading the history of AngloIrish relations during the era of union, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the British took leave not only of their principles but also of their senses when they came to deal with the Emerald Isle.
Even though it has been said that historians remember the future and imagine the past, it is dangerous to think that we can learn lessons from history. Nevertheless, the temptation is sometimes too great to resist. What is clear is that, were the SNP to dominate Scottish representation at Westminster as the Irish nationalists did from 1885, Britain would not fight against independence for thirty-five years as our Victorian and Edwardian forebears did. Instead, after a test of Scottish opinion through a referendum, negotiations would begin on ending the union.
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But the differences that Jackson points out between Scotland and Ireland mean that Scottish independence, despite the victory of the SNP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament in May, is not very likely. Many in the SNP are coming to the view that a federal solution with financial autonomy may offer a better solution for Scotland than separatism. Jordi Pujol, leader of the nationalists in Catalonia (which, like Scotland, has extensive devolution), has called himself a non-separatist nationalist. A split in the SNP between separatists and federalists is just as likely as a split in the United Kingdom. As Jackson emphasises, historians have concentrated too much on those who repudiated union at the expense of those who helped sustain it; and his book is a valuable corrective to such distortions. It is all too easy to underestimate the strength of a United Kingdom in which, even in Scotland, 80 per cent of those who voted in the 2010 general election supported parties that believe in the union. England remains a pole of attraction and not only for the English. Perhaps the last word should lie with Kipling: ‘If England was what England seems/An’ not the England of our dreams,/But only putty, brass an’ paint,/’Ow quick we’d drop ’er! But she ain’t! ’
There is no reason why ‘Britain’ should not be substituted for ‘England’ in Kipling’s poem. To order this book at £35, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 57
kwas i kwarteng
The Brute Facts Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
By Richard Gott (Verso Books 568pp £25)
Richard Gott’s Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt is a comprehensive and passionate denunciation of the militaristic side of imperial life. Gott narrowly focuses on a period in which much of British imperial rule was established. He starts with the Seven Years’ War and finishes his lengthy account with the Indian Mutiny in 1857.
The tone of the book is consistent and somewhat monotonous. Outrages, violence, the brutal repression of rebellions, and exterminations are detailed with almost metronomic regularity. Gott claims that this ground-up approach to imperial history is new, but Marxist and other leftleaning historians have been extolling the virtues of subaltern history for years. In fact, Gott’s entire book has the atmosphere of a 1970s Marxist department in one of our newer universities, where lecturers in tweed jackets and polo-necked jumpers railed against the class system, while employing Filipino nannies.
Despite this, Gott has unearthed a number of surprising stories. The description of the Maori resistance in New Zealand is poignant. Other instances of imperial repression include the ruthlessness with which Britain put down the Irish rebellion of 1798, and the savage treatment of rebel slaves in South America. The details of these rebellions are drawn from a wide range of sources, even though the footnotes are not as detailed as one might expect (no page numbers, for instance, are given in the notes).
While it is important to remember the negative aspects of empire, an exclusive focus on military matters reveals very little about the administrative or ideological underpinnings of the imperial project. There are no shades of grey, no rays of light in this uniformly dismal story. Imperial soldiers and militaristic figures parade through the book, yet no attempt whatsoever is made to understand them. They appear merely as pantomime villains.
The importance of Gott’s book is its range – many instances of imperial brutality are catalogued with almost gleeful precision. It is also true that much of the tough, fighting side of empire has been glossed over in a series of saccharine,Boy’s Ownaccounts,which tend to romanticise the achievements of British soldiers and generals. Gott provides a useful corrective. Other historians may easily jibe at the lack of cultural history, but I can appreciate what Gott is trying to do.
The relationship of culture to the British Empire is an enormous subject in itself, and it is perfectly justifiable to treat the political and military aspects of the British Empire without referring to it. Despite this, any student of imperial history should be aware of certain cultural and sociological features.
Slavery was an unalloyed evil; the Victorian public school was of central importance to the empire; logistical difficulties meant that the man on the spot had a wide degree of discretion; many imperialists had an overweening sense of racial superiority and social arrogance. These facts are certainly characteristic of the later period of Gott’s account, yet he only engages superficially with them.
The culminating episode of Gott’s account is the Indian rebellion of 1857–8, which he describes as ‘the climactic moment of the first century of empire’. Yet the British Empire reached its zenith fifty, if not seventy, years after 1857. The Gold Coast, Nigeria, Sudan and Upper Burma were all acquired in the period of high Victorian imperialism between 1885 and 1914. After the First World War Britain gained, in the form of a mandate, Iraq and Palestine. She also took control of many of Germany’s former colonies, including Cameroon and South West Africa.
It must be recognised that any historian writing about the British Empire will necessarily commit egregious sins of omission. Whole tracts of the British imperial experience will be ignored, or made light of, by any writer attempting to grapple with this immense subject. When one considers a book on imperial history, one should be mindful of the words of Theodore Roosevelt: ‘It is not the critic who counts … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.’ In this respect, Richard Gott should be admired for the enthusiasm, dedication and thoroughness with which he has set about his task. To order this book at £20, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 57
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