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20 November 2019

A union built on blood

The first of a new series on the constitutional moment and the future of the United Kingdom. 

By David Reynolds

When Boris Johnson greeted Conservative MPs as the country’s new leader on 23 July 2019, he told them his mantra was “Dude”: Deliver Brexit, Unite the country, Defeat Jeremy Corbyn – and Energise. Media attention was directed to his pledge of delivering Brexit by 31 October, “do or die”. But uniting the country at the same time would be a Herculean task. Not just on account of the pervasive Brexitoxicity of public life but also because of the growing fragmentation of “the country”. Increasingly, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are pulling in different directions. 

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, regularly avowed her fidelity to “our precious union”. In Belfast in June 2018 she called it “a union not just of nations, but of peoples bound by a common purpose”. Like much of May’s rhetoric, however, this was vacuous. The crisis over the Irish backstop was one example of the failure of Leave (and indeed Remain) to anticipate the implications of Brexit for the United Kingdom as a whole. What’s more, the English nationalism that helped to fuel Brexit is an expression of deeper historical tensions that the heroic narrative of “our island story” – as championed by David Cameron and Michael Gove – cannot conceal. In fact, the struggle to escape one supranational union – the EU – could easily undermine another: the UK. To understand why, we need to take a long view of Brexit.


Constitutionally, the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – formed by Acts of Union with Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1801) and then modified by the partition of Ireland in 1921. Yet, as the historian Linda Colley has observed in Acts of Union and Disunion, nobody calls themselves a “UKanian”, and the abbreviation UK only seems to have caught on from the 1970s. Yet to talk simply of Britain and the British ignores the Irish dimension – which the English have been happy to do most of the time.

What drove the construction of the Union was largely the expansionary appetite of the English state since medieval times. Yet this expansion proved a two-way process. To quote the historian John Pocock, over the centuries England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland “have not only acted to create the conditions of their several existences but have also interacted so as to modify the conditions of one another’s existence”. What we might call the Pocock principle is crucial to understanding the British problem right up to the Brexit era. England has shaped its neighbours in the archipelago, but they have also shaped the evolution of England. Indeed, the Union only came into being because Scotland and Ireland pressed back so hard, often violently.

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For instance, Colley estimates that over the seven centuries from 1040 to 1746 every English monarch except three either had to repel an invasion from the north or chose to invade Scotland – in some cases doing both.

This battle of Britain also had a Continental dimension. For nearly four centuries from 1066, English monarchs ruled large tracts of France and fought brutal wars to hold and expand those domains. This French connection helped confirm lowland England as the main locus of power within Britain, and London, the royal capital and principal port, looked south as much as north. In the age of sail, France could be reached far more quickly than Scotland.

Although England had lost virtually all its French possessions by the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), the Continental connection remained integral to the history of England and these islands.

It was from the 1530s that the project of building England’s inner empire developed in earnest. Henry VIII’s Acts of Union imposed English law and local government on Wales, and gave the Welsh seats in the Westminster parliament. By the end of Henry’s reign in 1547, he was established as king of Ireland as well. And when the Scottish wars resumed in the 1540s, royal propagandists also laid claim to the crown of Scotland, invoking the ancient myth of Brutus and his united kingdom to justify their bid to create “Great Britain”.

The sense of mission behind this empire-building was inescapably European in scope. The aim was to ensure that these islands became a secure bastion of Protestantism against the Continental Counter-Reformation. Here, the reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth proved decisive. Not only was she a firm if cautious Protestant, who reigned for 45 years (1558-1603) and saw off an invasion by Catholic Spain in 1588, but her arrival on the throne of England coincided with the Scottish Reformation, assisted by English arms, which severed Scotland’s Auld Alliance with Catholic France. For Elizabeth’s principal adviser, William Cecil, an integral part of his British strategy was cementing the Reformation in Scotland and imposing it on Ireland – to ensure the religious unity of the islands.

After Elizabeth died childless in 1603, Cecil’s son Robert masterminded the succession of the Protestant James VI of Scotland as James I of England. Yet 1603 did not constitute a union of laws, let alone of hearts, but what has been dubbed a “dynastic agglomerate” of three kingdoms: England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Under James’s son, the autocratic, crypto-Catholic Charles I, that agglomerate fell apart catastrophically. 

At no time was the Pocock principle of mutually modifying interactions more evident than in the 1640s and 1650s.

The familiar narrative of “our island story” presents these decades as a struggle between king and parliament for the advancement of English liberties. But, to most historians, the English Civil War is better understood as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, with Protestant identity again a central issue.

The historian Conrad Russell has identified the “billiard-ball effect” of each of the kingdoms on the affairs of the others. Parliament would not have been emboldened to act against Charles in 1641-42 but for the outbreak of a Presbyterian rebellion in Scotland against his attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book, combined with a Catholic revolt in Ireland that generated sensational stories in London about anti-Protestant atrocities. Nor would parliament have defeated the royalists in 1644-45 (at Marston Moor and Naseby) without an Anglo-Scottish military alliance run by a “Committee of Both Kingdoms”.

Parliament’s decision in 1649 to try Charles I, execute him and declare England a republican Commonwealth set off the billiard balls again. The Scots – appalled at such treatment of a Stuart monarch – together with the Irish recognised the dead king’s son as Charles II, ruler of Great Britain and Ireland. Whereupon the English Commonwealth despatched Oliver Cromwell and his army to put them down, which he did ruthlessly in 1649-51. The impact on Ireland was particularly durable – not only in the image of Cromwell the baby killer of Drogheda and Wexford, but also through a programme of Protestant “plantations” that eclipsed anything imposed by James I. In 1641, 66 per cent of Irish land had been owned by Catholics. Even after royal rule was restored in 1660, the proportion was only 30 per cent

This cascade of wars in the 1640s and 1650s stood as a terrible reminder of what could happen if the three kingdoms collided, rather than converged. During the extended bloodletting, the Irish population was reduced by perhaps a third, and in England a larger percentage of the populace is estimated to have died than during the Great War of 1914-18.

Home rule: Irish members of parliament in 1886, including Charles Parnell (centre, standing up)​


Union by force did not work. But union by negotiation proved a tortuous process. There was nothing inevitable about union with Scotland in 1707 or with Ireland in 1801. Once again, the essential catalyst was foreign war.

In the case of Scotland, it was the long-running conflict with Louis XIV’s France. Geopolitically, this was a power struggle to prevent the Sun King from establishing a “Universal Monarchy” in Europe. But it was also dynastic and existential: parliament was now so committed to the continuance of Protestantism that it had opted for a German Lutheran from Hanover if Queen Anne died childless, whereas France wanted to reinstate the Catholic Stuarts. The Scottish parliament also favoured a Stuart succession, albeit by a Protestant from another branch of the family than James II’s Jacobite descendants, and it refused taxes and troops for England’s war. London now judged it imperative to deal with this rogue state on its back doorstep. Legislative union seemed the least unsatisfactory answer and it was negotiated in 1706.

The Union enacted by both parliaments, which came into force on 1 May 1707, remains controversial. For Scottish nationalists it’s a dirty deal bought by English bribery. Yet Scotland’s legal and religious institutions remained untouched – a matter of consequence for the future – and the Treaty of Union also brought real advantages for Scottish landed and commercial interests, because it created a common market. English capital could flow across the border, and Scottish traders were guaranteed access to England’s lucrative Atlantic colonies. Glasgow merchants quickly secured dominance in the tobacco trade, squeezing out English ports like Whitehaven (which in 1710 actually petitioned for repeal of the Treaty).

Through this legislative union, Scotland’s people and resources were harnessed to England’s imperial project, now becoming global in extent. Colonial administration and the army (one of the few truly British institutions) depended disproportionately on Scottish manpower. So it’s not much of an exaggeration for the historian Robert Colls to say that “England made the Union, but Scotland made it work”. And the fact that both countries profited economically from what was now the British empire helped cement their unity. 

Union with Ireland did not come about until the end of the 18th century, again triggered by war with France. The spectacular upheavals in Paris from 1789, with their combustible mix of revolution and republicanism, electrified Irish radicals. France supported the Irish rebels with invasions in 1796 and 1798. William Pitt, Britain’s prime minister, insisted that union with Ireland was the only way to “counteract the restless machinations of an inveterate enemy”. He pushed Acts of Union through both national legislatures and they came into effect on 1 January 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Unlike the Scots, the Irish struggled to hold their own in the British empire. Scotland’s precocious industrialisation allowed it to exploit English capital and commerce within the common market; whereas union only accentuated the colonial status of Ireland’s heavily agrarian society.

The famine of 1846-51 cost perhaps a million lives and London’s failure to provide effective relief exacerbated Anglophobia. For many Irish people, emigration was the only answer. By 1911, the population of Ireland was 4.4 million – nearly half the figure of 8.2 million around 1840. The Gaelic revival fostered nationalist sentiment. And the charismatic Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell put Home Rule firmly on the political agenda at Westminster. 

The backlash against Britishness spread to Britain itself. In the 1880s the Welsh revitalised the annual arts festival (eisteddfod); new colleges at Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor were fused in 1893 into the University of Wales. In Scotland the tartan-clad Highlanders – once derided as primitives by Lowlanders as well as the English – were now romanticised, while the poet Robert Burns and the medieval patriot William Wallace became cult figures.

The Home Rule crisis finally exploded in 1912-13. Like the 1640s, it offers another example of the Pocock principle of the UK’s mutually modifying interactions. And, though now largely forgotten, it has much to teach Brexit Britain.


After the December 1910 election, the ruling Liberals had only one more MP than the Conservatives (272 to 271) and were reliant for their Commons majority on the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), whose aim was to regain Ireland’s self-governing parliament. As a result, the Liberals introduced another Home Rule Bill in 1912. This sparked a political crisis with the Tories – now formally renamed the Conservative and Unionist Party to reflect their claim that the unity and identity of the kingdom were at stake.

What is often forgotten is that the 1912 bill also galvanised Home Rule activists in Scotland, who introduced their own Home Rule Bill. In May 1913 this passed its second reading in the Commons with government support. In Wales, anti-English passions were directed against the established Anglican Church, whose endowments buttressed the power of largely English landlords. A bill to disestablish the Church and remove its endowments was introduced in the spring of 1912.

Ardent devolutionists even advocated what they called federalism or “Home Rule all round”, with parliaments in Wales and Scotland as well as Ireland. One enthusiast was the Liberal MP Winston Churchill, whose scheme of devolution across the UK also envisaged assemblies for seven English regions. He told his constituents in Dundee in October 1913 that “the day will most certainly come – many of you will live to see it – when a federal system will be established in these islands”.

Then came the assassination in Sarajevo, the escalating July crisis between the great powers and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. The Liberal government still forced the Irish Home Rule on to the statute book in September 1914, together with disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales. But implementation of both pieces of legislation was suspended for the duration of the war. The Scottish Home Rule Bill failed to get a third reading because of wartime business.

The summer of 1914 therefore proved a turning point for Home Rule. Ethnic nationalisms were increasingly subsumed in a rejuvenated civic nationalism as yet another war pitted British values against a menacing “other” – this time militaristic Germany, not Catholic France. And four years of Scottish and Welsh sacrifice for the British empire in 1914-18 had a lasting effect. Although new nationalist parties were founded in both countries during the 1920s, neither made much impact.


This new sense of Britishness in Scotland and Wales, sealed in blood, was reinforced by another war in 1939-45. And then, for a quarter-century after 1945, the interventionist economics of both Labour and Conservative governments made the Union seem materially beneficial to the Welsh and Scots through a nexus of state subsidies, welfare benefits and public housing – as well as employment in nationalised industries such as British Railways, British Steel and the National Health Service. 

While the Great War forged Britain anew, it split Ireland asunder. With Home Rule in stasis, Irish radicals became desperate. Their quixotic Easter Rising in 1916 – supported by German weapons – was botched almost from start to finish, but the ham-fisted and brutal backlash by the British military turned “foolish young men” into martyrs. When the UK went to the polls in 1918, the nationalist party Sinn Féin won three quarters of Ireland’s 105 seats at Westminster but did not take them up. Instead, it convened as a revolutionary assembly in Dublin, which proclaimed Ireland an independent republic in January 1919 under the leadership of Éamon de Valera.

Actually securing independence took two-and-a-half years of savage guerrilla war against the British, with mounting atrocities on both sides. The Black and Tans – a ruthless new wing of the Royal Irish Constabulary – joined Cromwell and the famine in Ireland’s book of English demonology.

When London conceded dominion status under the Crown in 1921 to the Irish Free State – putting it on a par with the likes of Canada and Australia – this provoked a backlash against the Dublin government from diehard republicans. In the ensuing ten-month civil war more Irish people died than during the war of independence. 

Out of the Irish settlement of 1921, Northern Ireland got devolution – the only part of the UK to do so. Partition created a Protestant rump state formed from six of the nine counties of Ulster. London hoped that separation would be temporary, but such were the passions that successive British governments ended up bankrolling Unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland and turning a blind eye to the consequent corruption and discrimination. The 1921 border also set firm, despite being utterly ludicrous. It followed the county boundaries of the pre-industrial era, which often ran along rivers that had later become part of urban areas. No fewer than 180 roads crossed the border and in some 40 cases the line ran down the middle of a street.

Éamon de Valera, leader of the Irish Republic


London’s blind-eye policy seemed to work for a while. But in the 1960s the civil rights movement against Unionist discrimination in Northern Ireland escalated into paramilitary violence on both sides of the sectarian divide, drawing in British troops. They in turn became part of the problem, especially after the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972, which led to suspension of the Northern Ireland parliament and the imposition of direct rule from Westminster. During three decades of the Troubles, some 3,500 people died. London tolerated a daily level of violence in Ulster that would have been regarded as unacceptable elsewhere in Britain. But disengagement seemed impossible under the threat of force and without Unionist consent.

It was only in the 1990s that what we might call the UK’s ad hoc Great War settlement – a cohesive Britain and a divided Ireland – finally began to unravel. By then decolonisation had dissolved the cement of the British empire, and the Scottish and Welsh economies – built on coal, steel and other heavy industries – had become uncompetitive. The Thatcher government’s aggressive privatisation programme and drastic spending cuts hit especially hard in Scotland, where a third of the employed population still worked in some way for central or local governmental organisations and businesses.

When Tony Blair’s Labour government offered devolution referendums in 1997, Scotland and (less decisively) Wales voted in favour. In 1999, some eight decades after the Great War spoiled Churchill’s prophecy, devolved parliaments were inaugurated in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

In Ireland, even more dramatic change was afoot. By this time, both sides in Ulster had wearied of the bloody deadlock. Intense efforts by John Major, Tony Blair and their civil servants to promote the peace process in Northern Ireland, working in tandem with Dublin, culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. London pulled British troops off the streets of Ulster and agreed to restore devolved government to a new Northern Ireland Assembly. 

What could be termed the Millennium Settlement of 1998-99 developed a momentum of its own. The Scottish and Welsh governments gradually extracted more powers, particularly in Scotland where the Scottish National Party (SNP) – which formed a majority government from 2011 – manoeuvred its way to holding a full-scale referendum on independence in 2014. It was defeated, but the fact 45 per cent of Scotland’s voters wanted out represented a damning commentary on Scottish enthusiasm for the Union.

Across the Irish Sea, although implementation of the Good Friday Agreement was extremely difficult, the peace process made Northern Ireland much more open to the Republic. Most notable was the dismantling of the militarised border, but it also happened in less visible ways such as the creation of a single electricity market across the whole island, an evolving system of cross-border health care and all-Ireland bodies to regulate waterways and food safety.

Again, the European dimension has been critical. Although having little to do with negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement itself, the EU has proved essential for the peace process as a whole. Ireland joined “Europe” in 1973, at the same time as the UK, and was fundamentally changed as a result. Funding from Europe accelerated urbanisation and modernisation, moving Ireland away from the pinched Catholicism of the de Valera era, and Ireland had the chance to escape British tutelage (as also happened for Portugal in relation to Spain).

What’s more, the full implementation of the EU’s single market under the Maastricht Treaty expedited commerce between the two parts of Ireland. And many of the recent cross-border initiatives have been driven and funded by the EU – an organisation in which border regions constitute 40 per cent of the territory and 30 per cent of the population. A salient part of the European project ever since the Treaty of Rome in 1957 has been cleansing the Continent’s historic bloodlands.


A century on from the Home Rule crisis of 1914, it looked as if the United Kingdom was really being redefined, with devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and transformed relations between Belfast, Dublin and London – all sustained by shared membership of the EU. Then the 2016 referendum threw all that into confusion. Although Wales, like England, voted to leave, 62 per cent of voters in Scotland and 56 per cent in Northern Ireland wanted to remain. How would the Scots respond to a coerced Brexit? Can the Irish peace process survive?

And does the Conservative and Unionist Party really care? A “Future of England” survey in December 2018 indicated that people most antagonistic towards the EU also tended to express “the strongest frustration at what is perceived to be a lack of English voice” in the UK.  This “devo anxiety” is an identity issue: “The more English one feels, the more likely one is to express dissatisfaction with each of England’s two unions, one external, the other internal.” In June 2019, a YouGov poll of Tory members showed that 63 per cent were ready to bid farewell to Scotland, and 59 per cent to Northern Ireland, in order to have the pleasure, as it were, of saying “F*** off” to Brussels.

At present, the UK issue is on ice because of the election. Boris Johnson’s “do or die” moment on 31 October came and went, and he then suspended Brexit manoeuvrings at Westminster in a bid to gain an effective Commons majority. But if he’s successful and goes on to “deliver Brexit”, the deal he secured from Brussels and the way he has handled it have grave implications for the Union. 

Take Northern Ireland, where the peace process is still fragile and there has been no power-sharing government for more than a thousand days, since January 2017.  Theresa May had no interest in pressing Arlene Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party because they were propping up her minority government. On 24 November 2018, Johnson, then a backbencher, told the DUP annual conference in Belfast – to rapturous applause – that a customs border in the Irish Sea would leave Northern Ireland “an economic semi-colony of the EU” and “I have to tell you no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement”.

In October 2019, however, Prime Minister Johnson signed up to a deal that did just that because he had finally grasped that the Good Friday Agreement and the open inner-Ireland border really were red lines for Dublin and Brussels. The DUP was furious at his surrender but Johnson ignored it, presumably hoping that the party won’t matter if he wins a decent majority. Just to rub it in, on 19 October Theresa May, who had intoned similar pledges about no border in the Irish Sea, stood up and lectured the Commons that it should “put the national interest first” and vote for Johnson’s deal in order to deliver Brexit.

What about the other country in the UK that voted Remain? Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she wants a second referendum on independence in 2020. But she has also stated that this must be held with the agreement of the UK government, as in 2014, under Section 30 of the Scotland Act of 1998. Johnson, like May, has said no, but his cavalier English attitude to the rest of the UK has antagonised many Scots who haven’t previously been ardent nationalists. And Sturgeon is under mounting pressure from SNP activists to go for a referendum even if London refuses consent, raising the spectre of a unilateral declaration of independence by Edinburgh – Scottish UDI.

Even if that “Catalan” option were avoided and a government in London did concede another referendum, the challenges are enormous. If Scotland voted to leave the UK, what currency would be used? The SNP wants to keep the pound for the moment, but would London agree? And would Scotland be able to retain its membership of the EU if Brexit went through? In any case, any Scottish declaration of independence would rupture Britain’s 300-year common market.

Faced with such nightmares, let’s return to that Millennium Settlement of the late 1990s. In an effort to build on it, a new Act of Union was proposed in October 2018.  The product of work by the Constitution Reform Group since the Scottish referendum, this was introduced in the upper house as a private member’s bill by Lord Lisvane. Speaking on 28 January 2019, he said it sought to replace the historical patchwork of devolutionary measures handed down over the years as acts of “central imperial condescension” by creating “a devolution settlement properly owned by its participants”.

The proposal was for essentially a federal United Kingdom – though without mentioning the dreaded F-word – and it had echoes of Churchill’s Home Rule all round of 1913, not least the idea of creating regional assemblies in England as well. That English dimension could build on the recent innovation of metro mayors possessing significant autonomy and budgets, and might begin to address the “devo deficit” sense of alienation from the metropolis that seems to have animated many Leave voters outside the Home Counties.

Lisvane’s bill didn’t get even a second reading before the dissolution of parliament, and one can’t imagine Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn offering much support in the next parliament. Yet, de jure or de facto, a looser Union – stripped of “central imperial condescension”, suited to an age of devolution, and taking modern Ireland seriously – is surely essential if the United Kingdom is going to hang together. And the blood-soaked history of these two islands over past centuries suggests that hanging separately is not ideal.

On a broader plane, the crisis of the Union is but one example of how the long-running Brexit pantomime since 2016 has exposed deeper problems in our politics – among them the management of parliamentary business, the role of the judiciary, the party system itself and the rooted assumption that London knows best. These are problems that have been brushed under the carpet for years, perhaps because of a deep complacency about our institutions that was the “price of victory” in 1945. The Brexit shambles could be a wake-up call. But are our “leaders” likely to act – or even listen?

David Reynolds’s latest book is “Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit” (HarperCollins)

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