Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The oddness of the United Kingdom

The Bottler's dithering about whether to go to the RWC final on Sunday seems as good a reason as any to post on a subject I have given a great deal of thought to for many years (almost all of it entirely inconsequential of course – but thought it is nonetheless, or at least what passes for thought in my addled antiquity). So now am I am going to share the results of my deliberations with you.

The Bottler's problem is that he is Scottish. And Scotland, though part of the United Kingdom, is at least historically a separate country from England and Wales, to say nothing of Northern Ireland. Except of course that it isn't. With the Act of Union in 1707, whose 300th anniversary in January was so shamefully uncelebrated by our Great and Glorious Government, Scotland, England and Wales became a single entity.

In 1801, they were joined by Ireland, until then a de facto Anglo-Scottish colony. This created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from 1922, when southern Ireland was granted dominion status within the British empire (it won full independence in 1937), the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extremely unusual constitutional arrangement.

In effect, you have four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – in one – with the United Kingdom the over-arching authority. They share a common head of state, a common central government, a common currency, a common defence policy, a common foreign policy and, though each has it own national capital, a common capital. But Scotland, which retained its own legal system and church in 1707, Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own parliaments, the first two modern Labour party creations, with responsibility for significant areas of policy (though that in Wales, its scope more limited than those of the other two, is technically only an asembley).

England, tellingly, does not. But then England has always been the dominant partner and accordingly has always felt less need to assert itself. If the national capital is in England, the national government is in England and the national parliament is in England, the need for a local parliament in England inevitably seems less than pressing.

But this instantly highlights one of the most obvious tensions of this curious union: that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have always felt hard done by. It may have been a long time ago, but both Ireland and Wales were forcibly subjected by English conquest (even if the kings of England at the time, Henry II and Edward II, were Frenchmen – though it is also worth pointing out that England, too, even earlier, was also conquered by a Frenchman, hence the fact that his warlike descendents were in a position to impose themselves on their smaller, Celtic neighbours).

For its part, Scotland, impoverished, remote and intermittently the victim of English invasion, was forced into a union with England for the simple reason that England was rich and it was poor. If you like, England bought the Scots.

A further layer of complication is added by the fact that between 1603 and 1668, England, Wales and Scotland were ruled by the kings of Scotland, the years of the Commonwealth aside. This did not mean they were united. Through the largely accidental workings of inheritance, they merely shared a monarch.

Were you setting out to devise a rational means of government, I think it would be fair to say that the above process would probably not suggest itself as a logical means of arriving at your goal. Nonetheless, however circuitously, the union of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom has been overwhelmingly successful. Politically, it has been a model of stability (by way of comparison look at France and Germany: actually look at practically any country other than those in the Anglo-Saxon orbit, as the French would say: notice a pattern?) Further, the contribution of the peripheral members has been arguably at least as important as that of England. Whether as empire builders, industrialists, thinkers or scientists, the United Kingdom has consistently unearthed a series of world-shaking figures.

So why is there such misunderstanding? Why in fact is the Bottler, a Scot, inevitably going to look and feel so uncomfortable in Paris next Saturday? Where has British identity gone? If Lloyd George could manage it, why can't Brown?

The first and most obvious answer is that history, to the extent that it is taught at all in schools these days, is very badly taught. This problem is compounded by the instinctive leftie desire to seek out victims so as to lay into their supposed oppressors, which almost inevitably means the English. Scots/Welsh/Irish equals victims; English victimisers. Even the Vikings come out of this process better than the English. Sorry, St Cuthbert: you brought it on yourself.

The second is narrowly party political in ways that reflect immense discredit on the Labour Party. The Thatcher revolution of the 1980s inevitably threw the Labour party, then decidedly unreconstructed, back to its heartlands, Scotland conspicuously among them. Having gained power in 1997, inevitably New Labour sought to reward these Scottish heartlands by giving them their own parliament, a move that simultaneously allowed it to proclaim its modernising instincts (old = bad, new = good) while rewarding its traditional supporters. Wales benefited similarly.

At immense expense, the Labour party introduced parliaments in Scotland and Wales that effectively did no more than add to the already gargantuan cost of government in both countries while simultaneously ripping apart precisely those improbable, unforeseeable qualities that had made their union with England so successful.

Thus do ignorant, short-term political goals undermine what history has bestowed you.

No wonder the Bottler, a Scottish, Labour MP and prime minister of the United Kingdom, is going to feel so acutely uncomfortable in Paris next Saturday.

He has been very precisely hoist by his own petard. And the wonderful thing is, he didn't just arrange for it, he actually lit the thing himself.

And now - drum roll, drum roll – a tiny quiz (in the unlikely event anyone has survived this far).

1) Where does the term Union Jack, the flag ie, come from?

2 Who was the last English king to lead troops into battle? Extra points for the year and the name of the battle.


The Remittance Man said...

1) It comes from the flag flown at the jackstaff of a Royal Navy ship when in Harbour or the reigning monarch is aboard.

2) George II (a kraut, by the way) and it was the Battle of Dettingen, I think

The Creator said...

Fuck me, quadruple points there. In fact, a tiny qualification, the Union Jack was an initiative launched by James I/VI in an attempt to force the union of England and Scotland. It combined the cross of St George and St Andrew and was intended to be flown by all British ships at sea. The name is a corruption of James's preferred French name, Jacques. Hence Union Jacques or Jack (though it was originally known as the 'Great Union'). Technically, it should only be flown from the jackstaff of an RN ship – assuming we still have any – or when the monarch is aboard.

Bulls eye likewise with George II. He was a kraut, in fact almost a joke version. It was the battle of Dettingen, as you say, in 1743. Combined British, Dutch, Austrian and Hanoverian force against the French. Those were the days. I don't think he did much more than wave his sword about. But better than anything I can imagine the Bottler mustering. He also, when 20, fought under Marlborough at Oudenarde.

Furrowed Brow said...

I hope bottler gets booed and er... bottled for that matter.

The Remittance Man said...

Interestingly George VI wanted to be at D-Day but this was vetoed by Churchill. He did visit fairly shortly afterwards and because of that I think he might have qualified for whatever campaign medal the Normandy veterans got - like my fearsome Auntie who was a Wren.

Now you can see why my freinds hate it if I suggest a game of trivial pursuits.

The Creator said...

I'd never heard GVI wanted to take part – presumably in other words to watch – the D-Day landings. He could surely never have thought he would be allowed to, however. I know he was at Jutland (mostly being seasick and stt...stt...stt...stt...UTTERING) but considering the fuss about the PofW, the loathesome Edward VIII, wanting to serve in the trenches he must have known he never be allowed to get near the landing beaches. I imagine too that the Queen Mum would have vetoed the idea pretty smartly.

Glad to know your fearsome auntie got a medal. I had an auntie (not that fearsome) who worked at Bletchley Park and she never, ever talked about it. Not once. I only found out after she died.