Acts of union and disunion

"Perhaps Britain will start breaking up after the Scottish referendum, but I don't think that we should see it as pre-ordained" – Linda Colley talks to Matt Elton about her new book and radio series exploring the historical links within the UK, its relationship with the rest of the globe, and the current state of the union

Author Linda Colley.

How important has our ‘island story’ been in constructing identities in the United Kingdom?

Islandhood has been very important in different ways. The fact that the main island of Great Britain is an island was enormously helpful from very early on to those people who wanted to push the idea of a political union. They could say “this has been ordained by the almighty – we wouldn’t have been an island had God intended us to be split up”.

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Of course, this kind of geographical determinism is unsound. The Iberian peninsula – which was once politically united – is split into Portugal and Spain. But these geographical constitutive stories are incredibly powerful, particularly once the Royal Navy emerged as the strongest on the globe, because people could then say: “Not only are we God’s chosen island, the new Israel, but we have our wooden walls. We are defended.”

Do you think that London still exerts a great influence on the rest of the UK?

London has been influential in lots of different ways, some of which have been benign: it does continue to pump a lot of money into the economy, for instance. There are various downsides, however. I’ve always thought that it would be very good for prime ministers of this country if, rather like the medieval kings, they spent some of the time up north – if they had another capital, somewhere where they weren’t surrounded by pompous imperial statuary of another age, and were reminded that this is now a different kind of country. It would also take them out of the ‘London bubble’: it can be difficult to understand the extreme regional variations of this UK, and the varying levels of poverty and levels of anxiety, if you’re comfortably in that bubble.

I think part of the long historical reason for the fragmentation and angst that we’re experiencing now is that, with the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing, a lot of places in the north have lost the sense that they have something to balance against the south. We’ve now got a massive concentration of population and wealth in the south. Look at house prices.

How did having an empire affect how Britain came to see itself?

There is an argument, that I don’t absolutely buy, that this story is entirely about empire – that first of all England colonised Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and then moved on to the outer empire. This argument is very seductive, but it’s misleading in all sorts of ways. Nonetheless, the ways in which empire both fed into and layered identities is important. The massive scale of emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, gives rise to these notions of a ‘Greater Britain’ across the seas.

I think that part of the post-Second World War, and certainly post-1970s, malaise in the UK is perhaps the way in which attitudes to empire have changed so radically in the past couple of generations. I think if you asked people about the British empire in 1945, or even 1960, probably most of them would have thought it was a good thing – that Britain had spread decency, constitutional government and Christianity all around the globe, and that this was ‘us’ exporting ‘our’ values in a way that mattered and was benign. Obviously, that was a very selective view of empire, but it was powerful.

Now, of course, even if people do still secretly agree with this viewpoint, they feel less able to express it. So that means that there’s a big question mark over a very large part of British experience in the past.

How do you think that the current crisis of identity compares to past troubles or worries about the subject?

I don’t think that I’d use the word ‘crisis’: in the media now almost everything is called a crisis! And it could be that what we need to do is put the UK in a much larger context. All of Europe is now in relative decline, and all of its states are having to adapt to the bundle of developments that we term ‘globalisation’. It’s important not to treat the UK as some kind of unique basket case. Perhaps it will start breaking up after the Scottish referendum in September: I don’t know – nobody knows. But I don’t think that we should see it as necessarily pre-ordained.

I call the United Kingdom a ‘state-nation’ quite deliberately. It has never been an actively assimilationist nation state such as France, for example, but is more a composite like Spain, or indeed India: an amalgam of different regions and countries that were once distinct.

A state-nation has to operate at two levels. Its government has to acknowledge the distinctiveness and quasi-autonomy of its component parts, while also having a vision for, and projecting an idea of, the whole.

It is the latter, in the United Kingdom’s case, which is in severe need of repair and rethinking. A written constitution might be one way of helping people to sort out a new kind of unionism. And if not that, well, why not a charter of UK rights?

Has the lack of a specific assembly in England added to these concerns?

Yes, and the situation will not stand. For instance, the move to pull shipbuilding out of Portsmouth may indeed have been based on purely commercial and economic factors, but as these decisions accumulate they are going to build up a lot of English resentment, and this is part of what is feeding into UKIP. Why should Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland have their own representative assembly, but not England?

The current lack of a separate English  assembly also risks making the Westminster parliament seem, by default, an English parliament. So you need a more explicitly federal system in which the four parts of the UK each have their own assembly, with the Westminster parliament focusing on cross-border and over-arching issues such as foreign policy, defence and so on.

I should say that schemes of this sort were being extensively discussed between the 1860s and the First World War and even after. It’s really only the two world wars and the great crisis that they represented that put a halt to a lot of the ideas about reorganising the UK that we are now revisiting.

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Acts of Union and Disunion by Linda Colley (Profile Books, 224 pages, £8.99). The accompanying radio series is set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from January. bbc.co.uk/radio4