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Big Thinkers: Professor Linda Colley on what keeps Britain together

Professor Linda Colley, a leading historian of Britain, empire and nationalism, discussed her historical perspective on the idea of Britishness.

Professor Linda Colley, a leading historian of Britain, empire and nationalism, discussed her historical perspective on the idea of Britishness, in the year that Scotland will vote on independence. Colley, Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University, explored how the various Acts of Union shape contemporary discussions about nationalism, and also discussed how the mythology of Britishness was shaped by art, literature and landscape, as well as by politics.

It was followed with a discussion led by Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government.

Our Big Thinkers Series is aimed at expanding the Institute’s range of public debate beyond its main focus on improving government effectiveness to broader questions about the nature of government and democracy.

Acts of Union

The United Kingdom, like Spain, China or India, is a composite state of formerly autonomous regions. Even today, there remains ambiguity about the distinction between ‘Great Britain’ and the ‘United Kingdom’, which are often used interchangeably. The three Acts of Union that formed the United Kingdom all occurred during period of war or fear. For example, the world wars increased support for both the union and highly centralised government.  Conversely, independence movements have typically found most support during peacetime. Colley noted that current calls for devolution are not new, citing the ‘home rule all round’ movement in the late nineteenth century which would have given every country of the union its own Parliament or Assembly – and was advocated by a young Winston Churchill. She also noted that some of the ‘tone-deafness’ of the London government to home independence movements during the British Empire continue to persist to this day.

The decline of British emblem

Religion used to be a significant binding force in the country, with the United Kingdom being viewed as a ‘Protestant Israel’ amidst a largely Catholic continent. This dynamic has long since diminished – along with broader emblems of British exceptionalism and individualism such as sea-faring dominance and empire. More recently, the sell-off of iconic British companies has also had an effect on national identity, affecting what political scientists refer to as ‘banal nationalism’.

Defining the modern union

Colley argued that today not enough attention is given to the purpose of the modern union: why does it exist and why should it continue to exist? To illustrate this point, she highlights that defining the union’s importance by generic Western values like ‘equality’ raises the question of what makes us different to other monarchical Parliamentary democracies like Denmark or the Netherlands? The United Kingdom is not a nation-state but state-nation and as such must simultaneously respect regional identities, but also promote a broader, state-level identity.  

Recommendations for change

Professor Colley made three suggestions in particular:

  • The adoption of an English Parliament, preferably situated in the North of England
  • More explicitly federal strength
  • The move to a written constitution.

Discussion with Peter Riddell

The discussion that followed focused on the role of the European Union – as the other major ‘union’ Britons are involved in, over which the future also remains uncertain. A key theme was that the expansion of the EU and a potential yes vote in the Scottish referendum would strengthen the case for having a written UK constitution. The issue of political deference was raised; in contrast to the US constitution that was written by the elite, a modern day UK constitution would have to follow a more democratic, consultative approach as followed by the African National Congress in post-Apartheid South Africa. The point was also made that the expansion of the European Union is also rendering national-level independence movements in Europe less relevant – as they are all encompassed by the EU ‘umbrella’ anyway.

Questions from the floor

  • How do you go about placing a renewed emphasis on unionism?
  • How much do you think the post-war Scottish independence movement was influenced by North Sea Oil and the formation of the European Economic Community?
  • How can you counter Alex Salmond’s emotive, historical appeal for Scottish independence?
  • Why is it that mid-sized states are country being affected more by regional independence movements than smaller and larger ones?
  • Would an English Parliament decisively deal with the West Lothian question?

In her answers, Colley further noted:

  • The role of trade unions and nationalised industries in uniting the country
  • The Conservative Party’s electoral fortunes in the North of England raise a ‘cause or effect’ argument
  • Alex Salmond being a “clever and adroit politician” who is well-versed in history.

In closing, she made the argument for a robust British identity that, contrary to the rise of UKIP, did not define itself by what it isn’t (European) but by what it is – nor was it a table-thumping type of nationalism. It was also generally agreed that the Better Together campaign was currently not as effective as it could be.

The union
Institute for Government

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