Understanding the UK: A Unionist Philosophy

March 11, 2016


For centuries, the greatest testimony to the dominance of unionism in Scotland was the fact that it never needed to articulate itself. As historian Colin Kidd notes, the Union was such a widely accepted and unchallenged fact of Scottish political life that a sort of “banal unionism” has prevailed since at least the late 18th Century [1]. The Empire rose and fell, World Wars were fought, social revolutions raged on; even when the Republic of Ireland seceded from the UK, somehow the Union in Scotland itself was never called into question in any serious way. It was only with the first flourish of the SNP in the 1970s that a semi-substantial anti-Union movement emerged, and even then the SNP were unable to break into the mainstream of Scottish politics. This lack of any sort of anti-Union threat for the best part of three-hundred years has meant that unionists have never had to outline any sort of intellectual defence of the Union.


To be sheltered like this for so long was undoubtedly a blessing – the internal peace, external security and constitutional certainty provided by the Union allowed Scots to turn their energies towards industry, commerce, philosophy, trade, and all the things that brought such growth and prosperity from the 18th Century onwards. The Scottish Enlightenment, the impressive heights of our old heavy industry and our vastly disproportionate contribution to Empire are some of the best known legacies of the stability and opportunity provided by Union.


The unchallenged acceptance of Union in Scotland did however leave it with one significant weakness: the lack of any sort of deep, underpinning philosophy of what it was. This is simply because it never needed one. The Union was a fact of life; it delivered results, not ideals. It was justified by the prosperity and global dominance that Britain enjoyed for much of the Union’s three-hundred year history. Nationalism, by contrast, offered none of these things. Unlike the Union, an independent Scotland wasn’t a real thing, it was just an idea. And so the energies of nationalism were devoted to building a powerful set of ideals, offering a simple and coherent narrative of the Scottish nation and its relationships within the UK. That these ideals are misguided and rarely grounded in any sort of historical or political reality is, as far as their cultural and electoral appeal is concerned, secondary in importance to the aforementioned strengths.


In our new era of identity politics, this offers nationalism a powerful advantage. Nationalists know what Scotland is: it is a liberal and progressive centre-left country yearning to realise its potential under the wings of the EU. It is an organic nation that has existed from time immemorial and that for centuries defended its independence from a greedy southern neighbour, only to be finally conquered by the underhanded dealings surrounding the Union of 1707, from whence sprang the artificial, cruel, imperial construct that is Britain. All this is total nonsense of course, but this is the narrative on which nationalist discourse hinges, and almost all nationalists are united in believing it.


Unionists, by contrast, have no coherent philosophy of what either Britain or the Union is. Many in fact buy into the nationalist narrative to at least some extent, but are happy to live with perceived historic injustices and a lost nationhood if Union can deliver material benefits in the present day. The majority opinion seems to be that the UK is, in the words of David Cameron, a “family of nations” or “union of nations”. In this framework, the UK is not itself a nation in any traditional sense, but rather a sort of supranational organisation that provides a mutually beneficial arrangement for the four home nations. The way in which this informs policy on the Union is clear – David Cameron himself has championed “home rule” for Scotland and England, and federalism or quasi-federalism has now been embraced by the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. All champion more devolution, further separation and looser, weaker Union. Essentially, they want the UK to regress from being a country as it has always been, and become a federal entity made up of several distinct and largely autonomous countries.


The political elite aside, if you were to ask the layman on the street what Britain is, you would get a great diversity of answers. Favourable ones might grant that it is a “family of nations”, a “nation”, a “nation of nations”, or more likely merely a political arrangement between entirely distinct nations. There is little concept, never mind agreement, over what exactly Britain is, where it came from or where its future might lie. As with the nationalist narrative, there is no deep or emotive concept of either the Union or Britain. The consensus between nationalist and mainstream unionist alike is thus that the Union needs to be chipped away at and more autonomy granted to the four “home nations”. And so it is that the mainstream unionist parties have for twenty years been sending us down the slow road to separation through the devolution process.


The question then is if unionism can offer something better: something less half-hearted, something deeper, something more positive, and something that will be less concessionary in the face of continuing separatist threats. To do this, one must first understand where both the Union and the concept of Britain come from, and how exactly they relate to the political entities that previously existed in these isles. Then the Union itself and the three-hundred years that follow it can be placed in their proper context, and a meaningful sense of what all these things are can begin to emerge. It is only by doing this that we can develop a strong unionist philosophy to challenge nationalism, and offer a coherent and attractive vision for British union to counter that of Scottish separation.




While many believe that Scottish nationhood can be traced back almost into the myths of prehistory, Britain is generally seen as a product of the 18th Century, with any sense of Britishness only beginning to develop after the supposedly rather forced Union of 1707. Such is the common perception, although the reality is quite different. The Scottish nation only began to assume its modern borders around the late 11th Century, when the Welsh-speaking Britons of Strathclyde and the English-speaking Anglo-Saxons of Lothian and the Borders were incorporated into the growing, Gael-dominated Scottish kingdom. Even then, Scotland was something of a microcosm of all Britain, and the Scots who gave the kingdom its name were themselves Gaels from northern Ireland who settled only on the western shores around the 6-7th centuries. Scotland, like Britain, has a beginning and predecessors long before it.


But the focus of any unionist narrative should not be on discrediting Scotland’s past, far less rejecting it. Unionists can, and indeed should be every bit as proud of Scotland’s famous antiquity as nationalists. The unionist response should therefore be primarily about making the case for a shared British past, one that could offer some sort of historic legitimacy to a sense of British identity. Only then can unionism offer that same sense of connectedness to the past that so many find instead in nationalism.


Undoubtedly, a shared British heritage can be traced back long before Union. Before Scotland and England emerged from the migrations of the Dark Ages, the ancient Britons inhabited the British mainland. As early as 300 BC the Greek geographer Pytheas named the British Isles as ‘Brettaniai’. This geographic designation would later find political manifestation in the Roman province of Britannia following their invasion of the isles in 43 AD, which at its height incorporated England, Wales and Scotland up to the Antonine Wall. It was from the Latin term ‘Albion’ that Gaelic ‘Alba’ was inspired, applied by the Gaels to their newly-forged dominion in modern Scotland, which they themselves called Britain in their own tongue. Scotland, even at its origins, has a curiously British dimension.


When Roman forces withdrew from Britannia in 410 AD, Romano-British culture dominated the mainland for around two centuries. The ancient Britons, as they were known, were united in speaking a P-Celtic language known as ‘Common Brittonic’, highly similar to modern Welsh, the latter being descended from it. This can still be seen in place names today: Scotland’s Aberdeen, Wales’ Aberystwyth, England’s Aberford, Cornwall’s Aberfal. A distinct pre-Catholic Christian tradition existed in the form of Celtic Christianity, a highly independent, native and monastic-based branch of Christendom that was only incorporated into the Catholic world after the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD. Its great centres of learning included Lindisfarne (England), Iona (Scotland) and Armagh (Ireland). The most powerful Romano-British warlord would hold the title of ‘Rex Britannorum’ or ‘King of the Britons’, a title nominally held by Welsh rulers until as late as the 15th Century. Indeed, the Welsh are essentially the direct heirs of this lost British past, unaffected by later migrations of Saxons and Gaels. Welsh language and culture thus offers a sort of portal into this past, ironically now used to fuel a Welsh nationalism that seeks to differentiate itself from a Britain that has been re-shaped by other cultures.


For our medieval ancestors, this relatively close British past was never entirely forgotten, kept alive by the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (1136 AD) and the popular myths of King Arthur. When the 1603 Union of the Crowns put an end to five centuries of intermittent Anglo-Scottish conflict, King James VI & I heralded not the creation of a new British nation, but the re-unification of peoples once united long ago, proclaiming the “reuniting of these two mighty, famous and ancient Kingdoms of England and Scotland, under one Imperial Crown”. There’s an element of propaganda in that no doubt, but it also reflects the mindset of a Renaissance Britain rediscovering a little known past that predated the emergence of Scotland or England.


If there was this lingering sense of Britishness, the next question to ask is whether or not that ever found any sort of political expression in drives for union prior to 1707. English attempts at conquest aside, there were genuine, usually Scottish-led calls for peaceful political union. As early as 1521, John Mair of Haddington, one of Scotland’s great scholars, called for union in his ‘History of Greater Britain’ [2]. In John Knox’s infamous ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’, published in 1558, he lamented that the Rough Wooing had not resulted in Anglo-Scottish union. In 1594, his fellow Presbyterian revolutionary Andrew Melville dreamed of a “Scotto-Britannic prince” who could lead a united Britain to triumph over its enemies on the continent [3]. A host of prominent Scots including John Russell, Robert Pont and Thomas Craig published tracts calling for parliamentary union following regal union in 1603, inspired by the ascension of a Scottish king to the London throne [4].


More popular calls for union followed throughout that century. The Scottish Covenanters called for closer union in their 1643 Solemn League and Covenant, before demanding immediate and full parliamentary union in the Engagement of 1648. This was briefly achieved as part of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, when for the first time Scots sent MPs to Westminster. While this was abolished with the restoration of 1660, the issue of union never went away. Scots led the failed union negotiations of 1670, which in the context of a Catholicising and increasingly absolutist Stuart monarchy, might have brought about a very different Britain to the one we know today [5].


But it was after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that the most serious Scottish attempts at union were produced: as Scottish commissioners began union talks with King William in 1689, the Marquess of Tweeddale asked William to consider "what ways and means these Kingdoms of Scotland and England may be united in a more strict and inseparable union”. These proposals had popular support: Tweeddale noted that his address to the king was signed by "almost all of the gentlemen [of east Lothian] who are of age except those who are gone to London”, while a similar address signed by the 'Nobilitie, Gentry, Magistrats and inhabitants of Glasgow' called explicitly for the creation of a single British parliament [6]. Scots put union on the agenda long before 1707.


All these things must inform our understanding of Britain and the Union. We must not buy into the narrative that either of these things are “false constructs” that have no sort of organic origin or historic precedent, far less that they are products of English imperialism that had no mandate or tradition in Scotland. Like Scotland itself, the idea of Britain has a long antiquity. There are precedents for an embryonic British nationhood that stretch back through the centuries, and a latent sense of Britishness that endured even through the ferocity of Anglo-Scottish conflict. Scots made the case for union for centuries before it was finally achieved in 1707. These historical realities show that unionism has deep, meaningful and genuine roots, in Scotland as well as in England.




In addition to understanding where the drive for union came from, we must also understand what the Union itself is, having been brought into being in 1707. The most important point, lost upon modern politicians it seems, is that it is fundamentally a parliamentary union. The third article of the Union with England Act of 1707 stipulates “That the United Kingdom of Great Britain be Represented by one and the same Parliament to be stiled the Parliament of Great Britain” [7]. As such, the Union created Britain as a unitary state with a single supreme legislative body to represent both Scotland and England not as Scotland and England, but as a single British nation.


It is for this reason that the Union has traditionally been understood as an incorporating union. This is crucial, and it highlights why the devolutionary proposals being put forward in our own day signify a radical alteration of the very nature of the UK constitution. The Union created Britain as a single country, allowing it to develop as a nation state in much the same way that France, Germany, Italy and other typical countries did. This is what Britain has been for three-hundred years. But it is not how mainstream unionists now view it.


The consensus now between Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seems to be that the UK is not itself a nation in any tradition sense, but rather a “union of nations”. With this understanding (or lack of it) in place, the leaders of all three of these parties have stated their support for Scottish “home rule”, with the UK functioning as a sort of supranational institution for the largely autonomous home nations. This is a serious attack on the fundamental principle of parliamentary union enshrined in the Union itself. Already, we have reverted to a state where there are two parliaments across Scotland and England, one in Edinburgh and one in London. The Scottish Parliament has been accumulating more and more powers since 1999, and is set to be delivered the biggest transfer of powers yet once the new Scotland Bill comes into effect.


This is the slow road to separation, and it stems from a total misunderstanding of the basic nature of the Union. Britain is not, as David Cameron has claimed, a “union of nations”, but rather a “nation of unions”. It is not a loose confederation of four home nations, but rather a nation itself formed through political unions. It ought to be a testimony to the depth and strength of these unions that they were brought about by peaceful political process rather than brute conquest as was usually the case in other parts of Europe. For the best part of three-hundred years, Britain was and has been universally regarded as a nation or a country in and of itself; as a unitary state.


This understanding of Britain as a unitary state and as a country in its own right must form the basis of any unionist response to separatist threats. Far from being unionist solutions, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat plans for home rule, federalism and radical devolution should therefore be recognised as dangerous attacks on the very nature of the UK. Once the new Scotland Bill comes into force, Britain will for the first time in its centuries-long history be a quasi-federal state with multiple sovereign parliaments whose permanence is enshrined in law. The passing of English Votes for English Laws has meant that for the first time, Scottish MPs are unique in being stripped of a vote at their national parliament on many issues. Our parliamentary union will lie in tatters. For this reason, unionists must realise that the unionism espoused by Cameron, Corbyn and Farron is no unionism at all. Much like the separatists of the SNP, these men find themselves attacking the very Union that brought our country into being.


None of this means that Union must suffocate any sense of Scottish distinctiveness, or that Scotland must be reduced to being a mere region of the UK. On the contrary, the Union itself contained numerous clauses to guarantee the continuation of distinct Scottish institutions. A separate Scottish legal system and the Kirk are the best known of these, and were indeed highly significant institutions at the time (its own sporting teams and separate football leagues might be of more significance today). Scotland has always maintained a distinct and flourishing body of civil society within the Union.


It is not the case that Union need in anyway erode our Scottishness, or that Scottishness is somehow pitted against Britishness. On the contrary, the two have for three-hundred years happily co-existed and indeed complemented each other. It was devolution, rather than Union, that brought the two identities into competition, and fractured a society that in the past was always comfortably Scottish and British. Further separation in the form of more devolution, federalism or home rule will only worsen and accelerate this trend.


If unionists are to halt the ongoing breakup of the UK, then they must reverse these trends. A banal unionism that essentially buys into the nationalist truisms of Scottish separateness and indifference towards Britain, all the while offering nothing more emotive than the intricacies of the Barnett formula is no longer going to cut it. The grounds for a much deeper unionist philosophy are there: one that recognises that union was a deep-rooted process and not a sudden event, the almost inevitable coming together of two polities that shared an island home and so many things in common. A unionism that recognises that the idea of Britain has strong precedents long before the 18th Century, and that a distinctly British dynamic to life on this isle has always existed.


With these strong foundations in place, unionism can begin to articulate a positive and unapologetic case for union. We can state unequivocally that union is an authentic expression of a deep-seated sense of Britishness, that we came together as a single unitary state, and that this coming together as Britons had been the direction things were travelling in long before 1707: a date at which union was finally consolidated, rather than manufactured. On this basis, we can build a confident unionist philosophy to challenge what sometimes seems to be the inevitability of further separation, and reclaim the march of history from nationalism. This, rather than tame and concessionary proposals for further devolution, Scottish home rule or a federal UK, is the only way in which unionism can truly seize the initiative from the forces of separatism.  





[1] C. Kidd, ‘Union and Unionisms’ (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

[2] Mair, J, ‘A History of Greater Britain as well as England and Scotland’, trans. by A. Constable, ed. by A.J.G. Mackay (Edinburgh University Press, 1892)

[3] Melville, A., ‘Principis Scoto-Britannorum Natalia’ (1594)

[4] Galloway, B.R & Levack, B.P. ‘The Jacobean Union, Six Tracts of 1604’ (Scottish History Society, 1985)

[5] Jackson, C., ‘The Anglo-Scottish union negotiations of 1670’ in T. Claydon & T.N. Corns, ‘Religion, Culture and National Community in the 1670s’ (University of Wales Press, 2011)

[6] Whatley, C.A., ‘The Scots and the Union’ (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp.91-92

[7] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/aosp/1707/7

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