Union or Devolution in Cromwell's Britain?

By Roots, Ivan | History Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Union or Devolution in Cromwell's Britain?


Roots, Ivan, History Review


Ivan Roots applies the new `British' perspective to the 1650s

Opposing during the run-up to the 19 9 7 General Election the devolution of Scotland and of Wales, prime minister John Major spoke of `a thousand years' of the integrity of British unity, presumably under a British constitution. Poor politics, the election and referenda results suggest. Bad history, certainly. The most convincing investigation of a British identity, Linda Colley's Britons, dates it from the eighteenth century, born of the political union of England (with Wales) and Scotland in 1707, a union which left the Scots still with some of their characteristic institutions. Even so, Britishness has taken a long time to mature, if indeed it has. Current controversies about a multi-cultural society here have exposed the decided lack of a definition which is acceptable to all English people, let alone Scots, Welsh and those Irish within the United Kingdom.

Stages in the achievement of a United Kingdom are easier to trace. They reveal remarkable vicissitudes. Wales was joined to England by parliamentary statute under Henry VIII (1536 and 1542), confirming an effective medieval conquest. Though loyal to the crown during the Civil Wars, Wales retained its essential Welshness, much derided by the English, and it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that constitutionally the term `England' was taken to imply England and Wales. As for Ireland, it has never been regarded as British by the bulk of its (ethnically diverse) inhabitants. The union with the United Kingdom -- Great Britain -- in 1801 was rather ad hoc, an English reaction to `nationalist' revolts and the perceived perils of the French Revolution. It was a subordination, distressful not only to the Irish throughout the nineteenth century -- and at the end of it a painfully disruptive force in English domestic politics. Further risings in the early decades of the present century forced its demise in 1921, when a Catholic Irish Free State, later the republic of Ireland, comprising twenty-six counties, was recognised. Six others, mainly Protestant, were hastily flung together to form a convenient entity called Ulster (the old province lost three of its traditional counties) or Northern Ireland. It remained within the United Kingdom, with consequences still working themselves out.

The record displays the present United Kingdom as the unlikely effect of centuries of uneasy, but often inextricably close, relations within what we are still inclined to call the British Isles -- though the term is increasingly unacceptable to Irish historians in particular, for whom the Irish sea is or ought to be a separating rather than a linking element. Sensitive to such susceptibilities, proponents of the idea of a genuine British history, a theme which has come to the fore during the last couple of decades, are plumping for a more neutral term to label the scattered islands peripheral to the two major ones of Great Britain and Ireland. Taking together the Channel Islands (topographically French) in the south and the Orkneys (with Scandinavian tinge) in the north, observers have come up with `the Atlantic Archipelago' -- as all-embracing as it is vague. Even vaguer is `these islands', sometimes employed to express a sort of ethnical neutrality. Neither term does much to invoke the sense of community and of cultural and social cohesion which might clinch a British identity. If anything, they seem likely at once to intensify and to broaden a historiographical conflict, already over-heating. No doubt in time the notion of a British history and/or an Atlantic archipelago history will turn out to be an error. Even so, it looks like being a fertile one.

`Britain' under Charles I

This is certainly true for the understanding of the period surveyed by Linda Colley. But we can with profit go further back, applying a `British' dimension to the troubles of the multiple-kingdom inherited by the Stuarts of the seventeenth century. …

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