English Self-Government

By Tong, Raymond | Contemporary Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview
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English Self-Government


Tong, Raymond, Contemporary Review


One of the most remarkable achievements of the British during the past two centuries has undoubtedly been the concept of constitutional evolution to self-government. As a result of this concept British colonies throughout the globe have evolved in a largely peaceful manner into completely independent nation-states. Moreover they have all evolved into states that have accepted the value of democratic institutions, at least at the time when independence was obtained. It is, however, often forgotten that this process had its origin not in the twentieth century but in Canada as long ago as 1839. During that year Lord Durham, who had recently resigned as governor-general, presented a report to the British government which is rightly regarded as one of the most important constitutional documents in the history of the Commonwealth. In it he analysed the causes of Canadian discontent and suggested lines of constitutional development towards eventual self-government. This evolutionary approach to independence was gradually applied not only in Canada, but also over many decades in almost every colony of the British Empire. It was clearly a very long and arduous evolution, requiring considerable patience and determination not only by successive British governments, but even more by the British men and women who worked in the colonies concerned.

Today, apart from a few small islands, this process of constitutional development to nationhood has, from the British point of view, largely come to a satisfactory conclusion. The colonies have at long last evolved into sovereign states and British responsibility for them has happily faded into the past. Unfortunately the saga is not quite over. The final part of the evolutionary process is at present taking place in the country where it all began, in Britain itself. There is, of course, an obvious logic in the concept of constitutional evolution being finally applied to its country of origin. Certainly, once set in motion, such evolution can never really cease until all the demands have been satisfied. It is, however, perhaps a little ironic that the ultimate constitutional demands on the British government are now being made by the Scots and the Welsh, both of whom are seeking their own parliaments, with the almost inevitable consequence of eventual independence.

When considering this denouement it is important to remember the way in which the British state was formed. It was achieved largely by the persistence of the English, who gradually brought the other nations of the British Isles under their hegemony. The first serious efforts in this direction were increasingly made after the Norman conquest of England. Henry II, the greatest of the Plantagenets, was not only king of England and virtually half of France, but could also rightly claim that the rulers of Ireland, Scotland and Wales were his vassals. Edward I was somewhat more ambitious and sought to replace vassalage with a more united Britain. However, although he met with some success in Scotland and even more in Wales, many centuries of almost continuous struggle were to go by before the kind of unity he had seemingly envisaged was finally achieved. Wales was not politically assimilated to England until the Act of Union of 1535, in the reign of Henry VIII. It was not until the reign of Queen Anne that Scotland was united with England in the Act of Union of 1707. While, as one might expect, Ireland was even more resistant to being represented in the Westminster Parliament. It was not until 1800 that the Act of Union was passed, which brought into being the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Unfortunately the constituent nations of the United Kingdom were never really integrated. In spite of political union, the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish have all maintained their authentic national and cultural identities. Although the Irish have shown themselves to be more determined than the other nations of the British Isles in their pursuit of national independence, both the Scots and the Welsh have long had nationalist parties aiming to restore the sovereignty of their countries.

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