End of the Imperial romance

Peter Stead examines an account of how the British constitution has clambered out of the footnotes and up the agenda

A.J.P. Taylor’s judgement that “British Society came of age in 1945” was probably the most widely used quotation in the university classrooms of the closing decades of the 20th Century. As Mrs Thatcher set out to prove that there was “no such thing as society” it was all so easy for academics to embrace every aspect of what was termed the Post-War Settlement and to explain it in terms of a particular British disposition. Fundamental to this view of history that was so pleasurable to teach was the notion of consensus, so beloved by historians. It was all beautifully British. Prompted by the huge trade union movement in which so many ‘Celts’ were prominent, the Liberal policies of the Welfare State and Keynesianism were eagerly adopted by Labour and largely accepted by the Conservatives.

The various historians of consensus were never entirely unprofessional. In asides they would make references to wartime class tensions and the ‘myth of the Blitz’, as well as to the ways in which the War had made Britain economically subservient to the United States. However, in all of this there was hardly any reference to constitutional matters. The British dimension was entirely taken for granted. This was done all the more easily as it was so seamlessly blended with the Imperial romance. Although the Americans had called a halt to the Empire, for the time being it could still be celebrated as another aspect of the British genius.

In that era the authors of the standard texts felt very little obligation to discuss the constitutional nature of a state whose name we never used, other than to scribble UK on cards sent from abroad. We were famously a country without a constitution. Our essential informality was conclusively illustrated by the fact that two Welshmen, Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan, had created the Welfare State, that the Scots were prominent in the Empire, on ships and in the Labour Movement, and that people of Irish Catholic extraction were an essential component of urban life throughout the land.

The one exception to all of this was the matter of Ireland. In terms of History the irritant of its story had to be told, but it was not difficult to shut out any detailed analysis of either the implications or consequences of the two Irelands. We were able to do this partly by just ignoring the details, accepting the Irish who lived amongst us as being the real representatives of their country and, perhaps, above all by romanticising the story by enjoying Guinness and singing their songs. The island of Ireland was just an ‘other’ that we could accept and define on our own terms.

As I relive those post-war decades I realise how comfortable I was living within those notions of Britishness, Empire and Consensus. I was thrilled by sports fixtures that brought teams from every part of the Empire to play cricket and rugby, and by ‘home international’ matches that more than anything else seemed to define what I took to be my status as a citizen of a particular state.

Of course, John Charles and Ivor Allchurch were the best players in the world, but I was just as thrilled by Danny Blanchflower, George Best and Kenny Dalglish. The story was the same with entertainment. My favourite comedian was a Scot, my favourite tenor Irish. To all of us with this frame of mind, any discussion of precise constitutional matters and any indication of dissatisfaction with consensus were the last things we wanted to encounter. The boat was not for rocking.

But, of course, the boat has rocked. The question of the constitution and the nature of the British state has clambered out of the footnotes and the cheaply-printed pamphlets and worked its way up the main agenda. In Unique Paths To Devolution the three authors – Arthur Aughey, Eberhard Bort, and John Osmond – clearly and succinctly tell the story that so many ignored in the 1950s and 1960s, and then bring it right up to date.

In doing so they explain the reasons for a political transformation that took most of us by surprise. The Irish settlement of the early 20th Century had been hurriedly improvised at a time of great crisis for the British state. The subsequent ‘marginalisation’ of Northern Catholics was a matter that was bound to rear its head eventually.

Miraculously religious sectarianism never became violent in Scotland but now the whole of the UK was affected by wider issues. North Sea oil and the European dimension are always cited as factors loosening established constitutional bonds, but far more important was the phenomenon of de-industrialisation. Industry had been the element in which most people had lived, breathed and had their being. The whole notion of Britishness was based on the fact that a miner in Wales had more in common with a miner in Kent or Fife than he did with someone in Wales who was not a miner. As the ‘real’ jobs went so identity became an issue.

At the same time there occurred the failure of the traditional political parties, and in particular the Labour Party. The old historians of consensus had stressed that one of the crucial factors explaining the genius of British politics was that the newly professional sons of blue-collar workers retained their parents’ commitment to Labour. At some time in the 1980s, by which time it was clear that Labour had already surrendered the youth vote, this ceased to be the case.

Politics is all about capturing and harnessing cultural energies. In Scotland and Wales, tribal Labour Parties rooted in the 1940s no longer seemed relevant to professional and youth activists. The fact that British parties never recruited in Northern Ireland encouraged the chickens to come home to roost.  Suddenly whole political orthodoxies and shibboleths were impotent.

As a contemporary historian I found this telling of the strange and piecemeal story of Devolution utterly meticulous and convincing. This is a text that needs wide distribution and it should certainly find its way into the hands of all politicians and their respective advisors and consultants.

The authors do more than tell the story. They also ask questions of the future.  What is most valuable about their analysis is that in accepting that there is an ongoing process of devolution they make no attempt to disguise the fact that the dynamic of the process is way ahead of public opinion in all three of the nations they examine.

We come back then to the point of harnessing cultural energies. They are surely right to maintain that by now “the United Kingdom is a multinational state” and that at some point down the road that fact will have to be formalised. In each constituent nation there are minorities that know precisely where that road should end. For the moment the rest of us remain in a kind of no man’s land. This invaluable text reminds us all, and especially our politicians and historians, that for the first time we need to do some serious constitutional thinking.

Peter Stead is a cultural historian. Unique Paths to Devolution is available from the IWA at £7.50 (members receive a 25 per cent discount).

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