Back to Basics: The UK is a Country and a Unitary State

April 16, 2016


Our past articles have been heavily critical of the devolution process that has been embraced by the mainstream unionist parties. While this criticism of the particulars of the Smith Commission and the new Scotland Act is important, it is equally important to challenge the false assumptions that underpin mainstream unionism’s support for these measures. The most serious of these is undoubtedly the concept of the UK as, to use David Cameron’s words, a “union of nations”. This idea of the UK as a sort of international organisation for a collection of largely distinct nations lies at the core of both nationalist and devolutionist thinking.


If we are at heart Scots before Britons, and only in a fairly superficial political union with the rest of the UK, it follows that we should expect a large degree of self-governance in those areas where Union does not seem to be in line with what are perceived to be our unique Scottish interests. This is the framework of thought which informs Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative policy on the Union. To take one example, it explains why all three of these parties positively endorsed the transfer of control over income tax from the British to the Scottish Parliament. If Scotland (more accurately: a majority of UK citizens in Scotland) wants a more progressive tax system and the Union does not provide that, they see no reason why it should not be devolved. As a consequence, UK income tax has been federalised and we will now pay a new Scottish Rate of Income Tax controlled by the SNP at Holyrood. Instead of trying to make the case for how we can make the UK a better country while working together as Britons, they are merely cementing Scotland’s divergent path from the rUK by buying into nationalist discourse which says that we are too different to pool and share our resources in common. When it comes to income tax, Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems seem to think we are “better apart” rather than better together.


This thinking was evident during the referendum and can be seen in the recent manifestos of all three mainstream unionist parties. They assured the electorate that the Union was “good for Scotland”, that it was “working for Scotland” and that it delivered the “best deal for Scots” (although it was rarely that positive-sounding, focusing instead on the dangers of independence – not for the UK or for Britons, but for Scots of course). This idea of Scottish separateness was implicit even in the title of the official No campaign: “Better Together”.  Is the UK nothing more than a mutually beneficial arrangement for Scotland and England which remain fundamentally separate entities, or does it represent something deeper than that, that we have come together as one?


The latter interpretation dominated until recent decades, years even. The UK has always traditionally been viewed as a unitary state and country in its own right, not merely as some sort of international organisation which, much like the EU, represents a “union of nations”. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were (Hugh MacDiarmid and his small band of followers aside) first and foremost Britons. National life: elections, health, education, culture and all these things were conducted at the British level and the local level, but there was no institutional separation of Scotland, England or any part of the UK. For today’s young generation that have grown up in devolution-era Scotland, that no longer holds true. For them, things like elections, health and education now take place in large part at the Scottish level. Little wonder then that they feel more Scottish than British, and view Scotland, rather than the UK, as a country in the fullest sense of the term.


While these political arrangements influence our sense of identity, there’s a certain historical narrative which to the minds of most justify them. This is the narrative which says that Britain is a false construct and that Scotland is a more natural nation. Mainstream unionism has done little to challenge this narrative, and to a large degree accepts it; hence why even the Conservatives who use pro-Union rhetoric still choose to brand themselves as the “Scottish Conservatives”, use a Saltire logo in Scotland, support devolution to the Scottish Parliament and view the UK, in the words of their leader, as a “union of nations”.

Nobody would contest that the likes of France, Italy or Germany are countries and nation states. And yet their existence as countries and nation states is in all cases far more recent than that of Britain. If we are to hold Britain to the standard of any other country, the idea that it is somehow an artificial, modern construct simply doesn’t hold water.


The first serious union between Scotland and England took place not with the Act of Union in 1707, but with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It is that Union to which our national flag, the Union Jack (and yes, Union Jack is the proper term – no urban myth’s about it only flying from a ship’s mast please!) can be traced. The royal union existing over several autonomous parliaments found in Britain mirrors the situation found at that time in Spain, Italy, Germany and France to name a few. In most of these cases, as with Britain, this involved one monarch holding multiple crowns: Castile and Aragon in the case of Spain and a very loose patchwork of petty kingdoms and archbishoprics under the Holy Roman Emperor in the case of what very roughly corresponds to modern Germany. Italy lacked even this regal union, consisting as it did as a patchwork of city-state republics, Papal-administered territories and a southern portion held by various foreign powers. France was the exception in being united under a single crown.


It was with the Act of Union in 1707 that Britain arguably became the world’s first modern, unitary nation state. This incorporating, parliamentary union made Britain unique amongst the powers of Europe in having a large territory and number of subjects united under a single crown and a single parliament. For over three hundred years Britain has existed in this form as a chiefly unitary state, a fact that changed last month when the new Scotland Act enshrined the permanence of the Scottish Parliament in law, ending the British Parliament’s sovereignty and marking our transition to quasi-federal state. We can thank the mainstream unionist parties for that.


No other European country can claim such a long history as a unified country and nation state. Germany was only united through the great diplomacy and command of Otto von Bismarck in 1871, over a century-and-a-half after the UK. As with the UK, this German unification built on a number of political unions between various German states: the 1806 Confederation of the Rhine, the 1815 German Confederation and the 1867 North German Confederation all plaid their role in the march towards German unity. These unions, as in the case of the UK, were not always entirely symmetrical. Prussia’s political and demographic dominance mirrored that which England may have held within Britain, yet this did not stop Germany developing as a single nation, nor are there left-wing separatists within Germany who view the very idea of Germany as an “artificial Prussian construct”.


The Italian nation was also formed far more recently than its British counterpart. Garibaldi was Italy’s Bismarck, largely uniting the country by 1861 and completing that process a decade later, by which time the Papal States and Lombardy-Venezia has been subsumed within the new Italian nation. Spain was formed in a far more piecemeal fashion; as late as 1492 large parts of southern Spain were still ruled as Islamic emirates. Ironically, it is in Spain’s core northern heartlands that it’s only separatist movements exist: the Basque Country and Catalonia. Even France, known for its centralising and homogenous nature (both products of post-1789 revolutionary France) was governed by numerous parliaments long after Britain. Although its notoriously absolutist monarchs were rarely challenged in their rule, thirteen ‘parlements’ existed in pre-Revolution France, giving some degree of autonomy to areas like Britanny, Normandy, Languedoc and Lorraine. These were not subordinate or devolved authorities of the dominant Parlement of Paris, and for that reason it is only in 1789, almost a century after Britain, that France could be said to have become a unitary state.


The idea that Britain is somehow uniquely a modern or artificial creation and unlike any other well-accepted nation state simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Britain is and always has been for its hundreds of years of existence a unitary state and a country in its own right, and existed as such before even most modern countries. To reduce it to some sort of international organisation for what are regarded as “four home nations” (never mind the problems of viewing entities like Northern Ireland as “nations”) is to completely misunderstand what it is and always has been so long as it has existed as a political entity. Britain is every much as bit a country as France, Spain, Germany, Italy or any other commonly-accepted country. The unionist leadership must return to these strong foundations if it is to rise about the confusion and concession of the devolution process and truly make the case for a United Kingdom.

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