This is part one of the series. The full essay is available to read here.
In his book Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples, Barry Cunliffe (Oxford University Press 2001) references French historian Fernand Braudel’s description of history as being fashioned conceptually by three wavelengths of time, with the environment both facilitating and constraining human actions in the long term, according to climatic and geographical factors. In accessible, habitable landscapes societies create, over the mid-term, diverse economic and political systems, which encourage either stable or gradually developing technologies and ideologies about identity and belief, influencing peoples towards conservative or innovative outlooks in their short-term day to day activities.
The shape of the isles of Britain today is the result of ancient geological forces during the ice age, modified by fluctuations in sea-level, framing what are the submerged uplands of an extensive plateau situated at the western extremity of the Eurasian landmass. The coastline around Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England stretches some 11,000 miles, with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream having an ameliorating effect on climate. Coastal life played a major part in fashioning human development, as did the network of connected estuaries and rivers which gave access to substantial inland resources and locations suited to farming, manufacturing and settlement, especially for the purposes of civil protection. In this topography, waves of peoples put down roots, assimilated and fought to craft the essential fabric of the nations of today’s isles, which over recent centuries have been corralled into the unitary state known as the United Kingdom (UK).
The inward and outward forces forging this island story created a natural melting pot for the sharing and application of pioneering ideas. During the industrial revolution, these pressures came to fashion an internal market of such magnitude that a truly modern state, whose institutions and political principles directed and inspired similar advancements worldwide, was formed. The generative actions of this innovative society rippled outward globally to build a present and a future, both instant and intermingled which, when exposed to the weight of historical analysis, left a contrasting trail of nostalgic veneration and progressive regret, observable in our time through the judicious prism of objective reflection. Occasionally, during this journey, the full unsettling extent of change was masked by the cloak of ceremonial continuity worn reassuringly by long serving British monarchs, promoting a sense of political stability.
As discussed in Linda Colley’s book Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books 2014), most states are synthetic constructs and subject to change, experiencing conflict at some stage of their evolution. That said, unitary states face ongoing challenges in acknowledging the partial autonomy and diversity of their constituent nations, especially in cultivating and sustaining a sense of allegiance and belonging to the larger political body, as was effectively enacted by the UK during the era of the British Empire. Historians often associate the Empire with England, but while English institutions influenced the way in which much of the Empire was run, especially through common law, people moving into this expansive construct as administrators, missionaries, professionals, settlers and soldiers mirrored the multi-national nature of the UK, disseminating Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English customs globally, along with shared British ideals.
In time, the UK unitary state developed mature political institutions, considerable defensive resources, effective instruments for preserving internal order, a complex narrative of ideological underpinning, and a measure of material well-being. The unprecedented scale of conflict experienced during World Wars One and Two cemented the UK state’s cohesion, strengthening the administrative reach of London at a time when most of the population felt a genuine sense of togetherness and courage in tackling a hostile, external threat. The multi-national character of the UK was further fractured after the years of conflict through the rise of a re-energised British identity, founded mostly on civic principles, which was fuelled by the positive introduction of universal suffrage after World War One and the offer of widespread benefits and services through a centralised welfare system in the wake of World War Two. From the late 1940s onwards, pre-war discussions and party-political commitments to Home Rule were swiftly forgotten as the focus of attention shifted towards uniform rights and entitlements across the isles.
By the 1970s, the growth in global trade saw the traditional heavy industries and manufacturing sectors lose out more and more to competition from overseas, leading to a less dependable tax yield for the UK Treasury. Many suggested that the role of central government was becoming overstretched, which increasingly amplified calls for some reform of the UK constitutional framework to empower Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with a degree of flexibility in responding to the economic and social challenges they faced. Simultaneously, many acknowledged the need for improved international cooperation through the pooling of sovereignty within appropriate supra-national frameworks, such as the United Nations’ economic and monetary mechanisms, international law, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Common Market and European Union. As the traditional understanding of UK state sovereignty adjusted to the practicalities of an interconnected world, those advocating greater autonomy for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland could progressively present a sophisticated platform of debate for self-government, or even modern independence, which wholeheartedly subscribed to outward facing international structures. This view was most prevalent after the introduction of devolution in 1999, contrasting starkly with the Eurosceptic attitudes held by many which promote an increasingly centralised unitary state through seeking to seemingly ‘take back control’ from the continent.
Devolution, as a governance model, leaves Westminster parliamentary sovereignty, that most conceptual of constitutional principles, technically intact, hence its acceptance by most UK politicians. Wales and Scotland today hold legislative competence over all matters not explicitly reserved to Westminster, which implies a form of federalism, but without the usual sharing of sovereignty across parliaments. The House of Commons in London, according to the Sewel convention, ought not to legislate on devolved matters without consent of the respective parliaments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. However, the customary argument that absolute parliamentary sovereignty should rest continually and solely with Westminster in future years now stands challenged. The devolution era has seen a greater willingness to modify constitutional arrangements than ever, with Wales experiencing executive devolution with secondary law-making powers from 1999 to 2007, executive devolution with enhanced secondary powers between 2007 and 2011, legislative devolution under a conferred powers model from 2011 to 2018, and legislative devolution under a reserved powers model from 2018 onwards. There have also been three Scotland Acts in this period, each augmenting powers north of the border.
The following sources have inspired ‘These Isles’.
- David Torrance: ‘A process, not an event’: Devolution in Wales, 1998-2018 (House of Commons, 2018)
- Lord David Owen, Gwynoro Jones, Lord Elystan Morgan and Glyndwr Cennydd Jones: Brexit, Devolution and the Changing Union (2018) and Towards Federalism and Beyond (2017)
- Tom M Devine: Independence or Union (Penguin Press, 2016)
- A Draft Constitution for a Confederal United Kingdom (Scottish Constitutional Commission, 2015)
- Linda Colley: Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books, 2014)
- David Melding AM: The Reformed Union: The UK as a Federation (Institute of Welsh Affairs, 2013)
- Barry Cunliffe: Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples (Oxford University Press, 2001)
- James Mitchell: ‘From National Identity to Nationalism’ in the book The Challenge to Westminster: Sovereignty, Devolution and Independence (Tuckwell Press, 2000).
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