Adam Somerset looks at the long game of history in nation unions.
The years between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three are the ones that set the attitudes for a lifetime. After that it is a tidying-up at the edges, unless trauma or therapy intervenes. Aged nineteen I travelled Syria north to south. At the time the image of Assad Senior was everywhere, his hold on the country a grip of steel, his borders fiercely guarded. Those Middle Eastern borders had been the part-work of Lloyd George, worked over in secret discussion with Clemenceau 1st-4th December 1918. In this decade those borders evaporated.
A couple of summers on I was in the Alamo. For its first hundred and fifty years its home town of San Antonio had been in another country. An act of unilateral annexation took it into the United States. My last summer as a student I travelled in four countries of the then Warsaw Pact. Sizeable cities like Cluj came with other names. Cluj, also Koloszvar or Klausenberg, had been in four countries over a few decades. Those formative years left their impression, that borders are temporary affairs.
The valleys of Tweed and Esk in 2015 are bucolic and tranquil places. But look to Carlisle’s impressive Tullie House Museum. Its display of the Esk’s history reveals a past of blood and robbery, longer than its time as a peaceful border area between England and Scotland. The main road that links Thuringia and Franconia also crosses a deep, forested valley. At the time of my crossing, half a dozen times, it was a place of wire, watchtowers and minefields, all now gone. If a free Scotland joins the EU that means as a signatory to Schengen. An inward-looking Fortress England will be intent on securing its border. That means Tweed and Esk will be walled off, akin to the Rio Grande. Of course, in 2015 it is inconceivable, but all history is inconceivable before the event, and inevitable afterwards.
Linda Colley is the foremost historian of the period that saw the emergence of our state in all its particularity. In 2012 she was approached by Radio 4 to write and deliver a series of talks. The subject was to be ‘acts of union and disunion, and how they can help us both to understand and question the British past.’ The resulting radio programmes progressed to print in the form of fifteen slim and crisp essays entitled Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books, 2014.) It deserves to be well-thumbed in the libraries of Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, Stormont and Westminster.
The metaphor most drawn upon at the height of last summer’s pre-Referendum panic was that of ‘a family of nations.’ It is a good metaphor; a family is not just bound together but more often than not family members know very little about one another. Linda Colley crisply delivers many a nugget that helps the members of our family of four nations to become better acquainted with one another.
Her first surprise is to record quite how recent is the very title of United Kingdom. ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ was officially coined in 1801 and lasted until 1922 when it required amendment with the addition of the word ‘Northern’. But it never became an adjective of affiliation. There have never been UK-ians. When it came to the Olympics in 2102 officialese invented the grammar-defying ‘Team GB’. Ulster was out of the picture altogether.
Colley pinpoints the bonds of unity that tied the nations together. They were never law or language, but war, empire and religion. The soggiest part of both Scots and Welsh modern day culture is the posture of the smaller nations’ superior virtue, of innocence led astray by perfidious Saxons. As historian Chris Evans has written, the fabulous wealth of Parys Mountain was indispensable for the economic logic of the Middle Passage. The contribution of Scots and Welsh for the making and maintenance of Empire was greater in proportion to their populations than that from England. Wales v England has been subject of a lively debate on the Institute of Welsh Affairs site this election season. Howell Morgan writes of ‘the narrative of the nationalists to continually portray us as “victims” and develop grievance politics.’
Colley homes in on the fictionalising of the United Kingdom that started long before its actual political realisation. The twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a history that declared that Britain had once been a political unity. Colley credits the Welsh polymath John Dee, occasional adviser to the court of the first Elizabeth, as a possible inventor of the phrase ‘British Empire’. His notions, including the landing of Madoc on the shores of America, were widely circulated in print and manuscript.
Dee was one of many to have used the fact of the encircling sea as unhistorical proof of a divinely set unity. The sea, writes Colley, ‘demonstrated that God and Nature had designed Britain as a single polity, and had also provided for it a distinctive mission and medium.’ Colley takes issue with any notion that Britain stood alone in 1940. Up until the summer of 1944 there were more Commonwealth and Empire troops in frontline combat than Americans.
Colley’s sprightly chapter on Scotland records that Daniel Defoe visiting eighteenth century Ross and Cromarty thought it wiser to pretend to be French rather than English. Government sinecures, notorious at the time, were handed out wholesale to Scots. A third were in the possession of men of Scotland.
Families are bonded in their testing. ‘Unity to be real must stand the severest strain without breaking,’ wrote Gandhi. History is always partly repetition. In the Europe Referendum of 6th June, 1975, the warnings against staying in the then-named EEC were the same as today. In the event sixty-seven percent voted to stay in a region whose importance to trade was less than that with the former dominions.
The lessons of that referendum are several. It’s not a game of football. The hurdle should be significant, perhaps two-thirds or higher. If the harmony of a family of nations is to be more than occasional rhetoric, withdrawal must be with the consent of all four nations. There is no moral legitimacy to an England dragging the rest out just by dint of its superior size. If one opts to stay, then all stay. That is the logic of four nations. If Westminster opts to trample the others, then indeed Solway Firth to Berwick runs the risk of being turned into a strip of wire and concrete. As for Offa’s Dyke maybe it will be a few years, maybe decades, on. History is nothing if not a long game.