Between its inception in 1707 and the Twentieth century the sources of threat to the Union came from a variety of sources. In the Eighteenth century the major source of danger was military. The Union faced two major military threats in 1715 and 1745: the Jacobite uprisings. These military threats were defeated and the new British state began consolidating and strengthening itself. Discontent remained in some quarters of Scotland, but after the defeat of Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, at Culloden in 1745 the Jacobite threat to the British state was effectively ended. His son, Henry Stuart (‘Henry IX’) died in exile abroad in 1807 after never having attempted to seize the British throne by military means. With his death, the Stuart claim to the throne passed into history and there were no other military threats from other sources to the Hanoverians from rival royal houses that came to anything substantial.
Just as the military threat from Scotland was diminishing by the turn of the Nineteenth century, a new source of danger to the Union opened up after the 1801 Acts of Union with Ireland. Throughout the century various nationalist paramilitary groups posed a very clear and present danger to the newly united kingdom. By far the biggest of these groups were the Fenian Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Brotherhood which used terrorist tactics to try to coerce the British state into leaving Ireland so that an Irish republic could be established. These Irish paramilitary terrorist groupings continued to pose a grave danger to the UK well into the Twentieth century, being later replaced by other factions with the same purpose and using the same terrorist tactics.
By the advent of the Twentieth century, with the exception of the aforementioned Irish paramilitary problem, nationalism in the UK had adopted a constitutional approach towards achieving its objectives. In Scotland, a process of administrative devolution had been evolving since the later part of the previous century. In 1885 the Scottish Office had been set up and the position of Secretary for Scotland established. In 1926, this post was upgraded to full Cabinet membership and the title became Secretary of State for Scotland. In May 1913, the then Liberal government passed the Government of Scotland Bill by a narrow margin, despite the fact that it was not actually supported by the Unionists. The advent of the First World War killed the bill off. The 1920's and 30's were a tumultuous period in many ways and for many reasons, but in relation to UK politics, they are significant for the formation of Plaid Cymru in 1925 with the purpose of establishing a Welsh government and the Scottish National Party in 1934 with the merger of the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. Both the SNP and Irish nationalism thoroughly disgraced themselves by establishing strong links with Germany during the Second World War. Indeed, Douglas Young, SNP leader from 1942-45, was imprisoned for undermining the British war effort after the SNP advocated that Scotsmen should refuse conscription into the armed forces. Young and the SNP were virtually completely ignored by their fellow countrymen and Scottish regiments went on to establish a glowing record in all theatres of the war.
The late 1940's and 50's saw the establishment of the Scottish Covenant Association, which was a political organization that campaigned for the establishment of a devolved Scottish assembly. The next major development came with the 1973 Kilbrandon Report. The Royal Commission on the Constitution, also referred to as the Kilbrandon Commission (initially called the Crowther Commission) or Kilbrandon Report, was a long-running royal commission set up by the Labour government of Harold Wilson to look into the structures of the UK constitution and the British Islands as well as the government of it's constituent countries, and also to consider whether any changes should be made to those structures. It began under Lord Crowther on 15 April 1969, Lord Kilbrandon took over in 1972, and it finally reported back on 31 October 1973.
Various models of devolution, federalism and confederalism were looked at by the Commission, as well as the division of the UK into separate sovereign states. The core issues of Scotland and Wales were dealt with separately from Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
All in all a total of 16 volumes of evidence as well as 10 research papers were published by the Commission between 1969 and 1973. The final report was delivered to the Conservative government of Edward Heath, which had come to power at the general election of 1970. The report's conclusions rejected the options of independence or federalism, in favour of devolved, directly elected Scottish and Welsh assemblies. Two Commission members, Lord Crowther-Hunt and Professor Alan Peacock, refused to sign the report as they disagreed with the interpretation of the terms of reference and its conclusions. Their views were published separately in the 'Memorandum of Dissent'. The Callaghan government of the mid-late 1970's pushed ahead with a policy of devolution introducing bills into Parliament for devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. Referenda were held in both these parts of the UK in 1979. In Scotland, the vote failed to reach the 40% required passing and in Wales devolution was massively and virtually unanimously rejected by 80% of the vote and as a result, devolution was abandoned.
Then came the 80's and 90's and the Conservative governments of Mrs Thatcher and her successor, John Major. This was a seminal period in many ways, but, primarily, in the effect that the politics of the period had on the Unionists of that era. Mrs Thatcher was a Unionist at heart. At the very beginning of her premiership, she was surrounded by strongly pro-Unionists advisors like Airey Neave, who had captured the public's imagination with his daring escape from Colditz in the Second World War. This stout hearted ex-serviceman helped give Thatcher much solid advice and support on the tactics necessary for the strong defence of the Union, primarily on a strong stance against the IRA in the Province of Ulster, but also in strongly defending Unionism in general in all parts of the UK.
As a consequence of this strong pro-Union advice from Neave, but also from several other strong Unionist sources like Ian Gow, Thatcher's government adopted a very strong Unionist line. It wouldn't even consider any kind of devolution, far less independence. It reasoned, correctly, that devolution would just lead to full independence and, as Unionists, they viewed this prospect with horror, knowing full well from all the empirical evidence that independence was little more than a ticket to severe impoverishment for the constituent parts of the UK. Although Thatcher's attitude to Unionism in Northern Ireland softened in the mid-80's and she signed the disastrous Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 (which had a severely deleterious effect on the Province's Unionist community as it gave Eire a say in the running of Ulster) she continued to maintain a resolutely pro-Union, anti-devolution and anti-independence stance as concerned the rest of the UK up until her departure from office in 1990.
Thatcher's successor, John Major, continued his predecessor's strong Unionist stance throughout his tenure as Prime Minister, strongly opposing devolution up until he lost the 1997 election to Tony Blair's New Labour.
However, herein laid the seeds of a problem for Unionism that was to provide severe difficulties from the late 1990's onwards. During the long 18 odd years of Conservative government, many Unionists in the UK, encouraged by this prevailing political atmosphere of rock solid certainty that the Union was absolutely safe, began to become complacent. They observed that the governments of the day were 100% solidly behind the Union and that there was certainty that that was how things were going to stay, breeding a sense of complacency. Added to this, many Unionists lost, either partially or wholly, the ability to struggle and fight to maintain the Union. They simply lost theses instincts and skills as they didn't have the need to exercise them due to the prevailing certainty over the status of the Union. This malaise affected virtually all sectors of the Unionist community, even in it's heartland in Scotland and Ulster. The political class at the Houses of Parliament (the Commons and Lords) also became affected by this malaise and this was to prove extremely dangerous to the Union when Tony Blair began his assault on the United Kingdom constitution after his defeat of the hapless John Major in 1997.
All this came to a head during the attack on the constitution of the UK that was begun under the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Whilst many elements in the Unionist community had become complacent, as described above, New Labour suffered from no such problem and, having observed the relative weakness in their Unionist opponents began to utilize it to advance their devolutionary agenda. John Major's successors as Conservative Party leader, William Hague, Ian Duncan-Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron; whilst holding to nominally Unionist positions had all been affected by the malaise that had been bred in the 80's and 90's and New Labour had very little difficulty in getting their devolution policies through Parliament. The rest, unfortunately, is history. After referenda in 1997, a Scottish Parliament was set up and a Welsh assembly was opened in Cardiff.
Initially, these devolved bodies had minimal powers devolved to them from the House of Commons (though it is important to note that they still had substantially more powers than the proposed assemblies that would have been set up after the referenda of 1979). But, contrary to the line put out by New Labour at the time, this was a process of more or less continuous devolution of powers from the House of Commons to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, not just a one-off event. More and more powers were devolved out to the devolved executives. Did the Unionists at the House of Commons try to stop this flow of powers away from Westminster, as was best for the Union? No, they didn't, because they had become just as complacent as many other sectors of the Unionist community. They had lost the will, and the ability, to oppose the tide of New Labour's pro-devolutionary assault on the constitution of the United Kingdom.
This failure of the political class, allied to the complacent malaise in the wider Unionist community, to stand up to New Labour and its attack on a UK unitary state had serious knock on effects that are still being seen to this very day. Tam Dalyell, the great anti-devolutionist of the 70's and 80's warned that devolution would be an unstoppable highway towards independence. Subsequent events have proved him right. The SNP continue to agitate for independence very aggressively, despite the fact that they have been convincingly told by a very substantial majority of the Scottish public that they simply don't want it in the referendum held in 2014 and consistently in polls held since then. Other nationalist groups continue to wage aggressive campaigns to break up the UK. This ongoing campaign by extreme nationalism shows no sign of abating any time soon and this makes the complacency and lack of fight in the Unionist community even more alarming.
So what's needed to counter this lack of vigour in the Unionist community's defence of the Union? The obvious answer is for that group of Unionists who have identified this problem to do whatever they can, with all the strength they can muster, to push their complacent Unionist brothers and sisters out of their funk and show them the dangers that still lay ahead from this new strain of aggressive ultra-nationalism. If this is not done the consequences are too dire to even contemplate. One thing is for sure, the extremists in the UK's nationalist parties aren't going to stop in their pursuit of their goal of breaking up the United Kingdom by any means they can, fair or foul, despite the glib assurances of the pro-devolutionary left. It is the urgent task of all real, committed Unionists to ensure the Union by re-awakening the fighting spirit of the wider Unionist community.
© 2017 Stephen Bailey.