The UK comprises four nations not two and its history is a lot more complicated than many seem to appreciate

Nice piece from David Torrence at the Steamie (H/T Phil)

Is any of this important? I think it is, not only because the history of any state is important, but also because the story of the United Kingdom gave rise to much of the political terminology we still use today. For example the term “Unionist”, in party political terms, refers not to those wishing to preserve the Union between Scotland and England, but those who want to retain the Union between Great Britain and Ireland/Northern Ireland. When the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland in 1886, the party became two: Liberals and Liberal Unionists (the latter being opposed to Home Rule). Gradually, the Liberal Unionists merged with the Conservatives to form, in England, the Conservative and Unionist Party, and in Scotland – between 1912 and 1965 –the Scottish Unionist Party. 

Yes, it could be argued that that the term “Unionist” has assumed a broader meaning in recent decades, but it’s still important to understand its origins. Judging by the pronouncements of many “Unionist” Conservatives, they do not. So if Scotland does vote for independence, it would not mean the end of the “United Kingdom”, as many Nationalists seem to believe: it would simply be seceding from that Union just as the Irish Free State did 90 years ago. The state might change its name, but the Union Jack would most likely remain unaltered, just as it did after 1922.

This brings me to Northern Ireland and Wales. If anyone’s been listening to Peter Robinson or Carwyn Jones recently, you might have got the impression they aren’t terribly thrilled at the prospect of Scottish independence, not least because it might weaken their status within the UK. Sensing this, Alex Salmond continues to cast “independence” purely in terms of England and Scotland, which is astonishingly simplistic. The United Kingdom comprises four nations, not two, and its history is a lot more complicated than many die-hard Nationalists, or indeed Unionists, seem to appreciate.

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  • sherdy

    ‘Astonishingly simplistic’ – I don’t think so Mick. Scotland is not ruled from Belfast or Cardiff, but from London, capital of England.

  • That final sentence of Torrence doesn’t go far enough. I’d be counting at least six “nations”, including Cornwall and noting the divide that still persists in linguistics and in attitudes between Saxons and the old Danelaw. Although the 16th century historians (Lambarde, Camden, Stow) designated a “heptarchy” in “England”, one way and another the count goes anywhere up to — and even in excess of — a dozen. Get Dewi to convince us that North and South Wales — Gwynedd, Deheubarth, Powys, Gwent … — are an indissoluble entity.

    During the Third Home Rule Bill crises all kinds of federal alternatives for the UK were proposed, including a highly-complex offering from Churchill (he was still at it in Sept 1913) for over a score of components. Yeah, yeah: between 1906-08 Churchill had a lot of Irish electors in Manchester NW, and as MP for Dundee (1910-22) he might have had an eye to other interests.

    Even Scotland, currently the most dynamically-popular of the “kingdoms”, however many you count, is an uneasy compromise of Highland and Lowland, with a third force in the Northern Isles not to be wholly dismissed.

    Back in November (and it’s there in the “Books” sidebar) Dewi was boosting Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms, citing:

    The traces fade with every tide, the echoes grow faint, the images are fractured, the human material is atomised and recycled. But if we know where to look, there is always a remnant, a remainder, an irreducible residue.

    A fine read, though Davies messes severely with Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game (page 666). As early as page 3, Davies is making the point for us:

    … when I came to write the history of The Isles, I began to wonder if the days of the state in which I was born and live, the United Kingdom, might also be numbered. I decided that they were.

    There are times in Vanished Kingdoms that I became impatient; but Davies’s final chapter, How States Die, is magnificent.

  • Count Eric Bisto von Granules

    If there are only 4 nations – which one is Peter and where does he and those of his ilk belong?

  • MrPMartin

    I’m surprised unionists don’t discuss repartition. Why would one want to build a nation where 20% of it don’t want to belong to it The same case can be made for nationalists when NI itself was created. Repartition would ensure that the new NI would be so overwhelmingly unionist that it would never be prey to being taken over by the enlarged republic. Then NI could relax and form a new normal political an civic society and indulge in the thing other relaxed happy nations do

  • Obelisk

    ‘I’m surprised unionists don’t discuss repartition’

    The late Horseman, at his Ulster’s Doomed blog, once did a series discussing the merits of repartition. It was fairly in depth and examined multiple options, but the conclusions he reached are that half of the north would go to the south, and the issue of increasingly Nationalist Belfast would make the whole exercise impossible.

    David Torrence is wrong in his assertion. There might be Four Countries in the UK, but there are more than four nations. I would argue that the Irish Nationalist community here represents a part of the Irish Nation in the UK. The Unionist Community are also a Nation. So there are two Nations in the north (and before anyone says this acknowledges the right to separate self-determination, it’s quite clear that we have mutually contradictory goals for our self-determination. That’s the crux of the whole problem. If you accept Horseman’s thesis in the link above, and it is pretty convincing, re-partition is not a solution as it is impossible).

    And as some have pointed out there are other regions of the UK which have a claim to nationhood. It’s not really clearcut.

  • MrPMartin

    Regarding repartition, I call it taking a new opportunity to drawing a sensible border so that over 95% of people who live on either side of it, have loyality to the state they now find themselve within it.

    There is partition between France and Spain (although noone calls it that) but we call it a ‘border’. The Republic however, did have this state of affairs after partition ; it didnt have a 30% pro-unionist minority who politically organised themselves into parties which espoused reunification with the UK. Had that happened, you would never have had Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Farmers Party, Labour etc. Instead, you would have had one single Nationalist party existing just to keep Ireland independant, with all the ensuring negativaties that would have been meted out to the minority – in other words, a mirror image of NI.

    Had NI been originally drawn up to have 90%+ pro union, then its political system would have fragmented and evolved into a healthy multi party system just like the Republic’s did (well to a point but you catch my drift)

    As for Belfast, well, one can have exclaves. They do exist and do function. Kaliningrad is one example. West Berlin was another.

  • MrPMartin

    Obelisk, thank you for providing that link. I havent heard of Horseman but his blog seems to be a wonderful resource and I am sure his loss was painfully felt to this blog and others he contributed to.

    If there are any Unionist politicians reading this thread, I would be greatful to any responses to the idea of repartition and if you are against it, why would you not want to create a more securely British, albeit smaller NI whose position in the UK would be infinitely more secure?

  • dwatch

    “The state might change its name, but the Union Jack would most likely remain unaltered, just as it did after 1922.”

    Disagree, if complete independance between Scotland from the remainder of the UK the present Union Jack would be altered. By the removal of the St Andrews cross of Scotland a new union jack would then consist of the three crosses of St George of England, St David of Wales & St Patrick of Northern Ireland.

  • PaulT

    Isn’t Wales a Principality? and Lord knows what to make of NI so yes the union (since Ireland left) is Scotland and England, Cornwall is a Duchy, Charles is a tad embarassed to admit it, but he does have a legal right to a % of any inheritance.

    MrP unionist politions won’t counter repartition because you can only repartition so many times before admitting defeat, Carson never lived in NI because he was tricked into partition by Bonar-Law, which became a repartition before birth when 3 counties were surrendered before creation, hence the baleful referrals to ‘our wee pravance’ and ‘ulster’ do you really want your grandkids referring to Antrim as the pravance or ulster, if it was a dog you’d bring it to the vet to be put down. probably should add something about Carson been sold a pup, but its too late and a rather interesting Cooley whiskey cries to be finished

  • Setanta

    Point of Order..The UK consists of 3 nations and a partitioned part of Ireland..1/5 of the Irish nation.

  • Byn Walters

    Two points: Cymru/Wales is no longer considered a principality but a country; and the French/Spanish border partitions Catalunya (the Catalans) and Euskadi (the Basques).

  • Byn Walters

    P.S. In June 1941 the French collaborationist ‘Vichy’ government partitioned Brittany. After the war the government was declared illegal and its ministers tried for treason; this hasn’t prevented Brittany staying partitioned with only the northern side officially Breton. Because the south lost its identity/name, legally there’s no partition only a shrunken country with a different border.

  • We’ve already hit an essential problem: the meaning of “nation”. Some see it as a purely political entity (closer to “state”), whereas I was taking it more as the original, the Latin “natio” which is nearer to “people” (as still used for the native Americans). I’d advance that, once we consider the break-up — inevitable, and in my thinking desirable — of the UK political “nation”, the remaining consideration involves the wishes and attitudes of the various “nationes” [recté] therein.

    PaulT 2 10:36 pm is off on a tangent, and a fruitless quest, if he intends to prove that Carson was somehow “tricked” by Arthur Bonar Law.

    Refer instead to Alan O’Day’s Irish Home Rule, 1867-1921:

    While staying at Balmoral Bonar Law had a private conversation with Churchill. Reporting their conversation on 18 September [1913] to Carson, the Conservative leader stated: ‘I have long thought that it might be possible to leave Ulster as she is, and have some form of Home Rule for the rest of Ireland. … The whole question as to the exclusion of Ulster really turns on this — whether or not out would be regarded as betrayal by the solid body of Unionists in the South and the West.’ Carson concurred, responding ‘on the whole things are shaping towards a desire to settle on the terms of leaving “Ulster” out. A difficulty arises as to defining Ulster and my view is that the whole of Ulster should be excluded but the minimum wold be the 6 Plantation counties and for that a good case could be made.’

    That acceptance of a Six-County “minimum” was on the basis of my concept of “natio” rather than any political “nation”.

  • Typo in final sentence of quotation above “would be”. My mistake, not O’Day’s (though the proof-reading elsewhere in that book can be wayward).

    The exact location of the quotation is O’Day, page 256. The two speeches therein are cited from Robert Blake’s biography of Bonar Law, page 156, and Patricia Jalland’s Liberals and Ireland, page 147.

  • An interesting quote from Carson, considering that the “plantation counties” were Armagh, Coleraine/Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Donegal and Cavan…

    Repartition is a non-starter for one reason: nationalists in West Belfast would regard it as abandonment.

  • PaulT

    “What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into Power.”

    To add, Law was the son of an Ulster unionist, Carson was an Irish unionist, Carson, was not overly fond of Ulster unionist traditions, not least the OO, Laws son became Lord Coleraine.

    I’m a cynic Malcolm, things went Law’s way far too many times for it to be coincidence, from accidently becoming leader of the conservatives to Carson apparently wanting the same for the 6 counties as he did

  • PaulT @ 12:11 pm:

    Yes, I’ve treasured that moment of Carsonian self-realisation for many years.

    As I was saying previously (permit me to quote myself):

    Carson was not enthusiastic about the Orange Order (though he joined while at Trinity) but his oratory made him the frontman for the Craig Cabal. So his signature was the first on the 1912 Ulster Covenant; and he was a prime mover in the Ulster Volunteers. His finger-prints were all over the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which created partition and set up the Stormont Parliament. Even the Times wrinkled its nose at the brazenness of this measure:

    … the bill as presented to Parliament , bears … evidence of painstaking adjustment to the susceptibilities of Sir Edward Carson and his followers.

    Once he was able to stand back, and contemplate what he had wrought, he recanted. His cry of anguish was Promethean:

    I did not know, as I know now, that I was a mere puppet in a political game .. I was fighting with others whose friendship and comradeship I hope I will lose from tonight, because I dod not value any friendship that is not founded upon confidence and trust. I was in earnest. What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power …

    The Conservative Party never yet took up a cause without betraying it in the end.

    [Back to the present] What got to me about that speech were the bits you conveniently omitted.

    Despite my certainty above, now I’m more ambivalent about Carson. He was, more than anyone except Field-Marshal French, the one who brought about partition. Yet, as PaulT @ 12:11 pm is saying, he regretted his achievement. Why?

    Well, one thought is that by 1918 his moment was passed. He had conveniently been brought into the War Cabinet in Jan 1917 (with no portfolio); and was as conveniently forced out of it (and pointedly not replaced) in Jan 1918. In effect, by then, Craig was calling the shots: it was he who stipulated to Lloyd George on 19 Dec 1919 the six counties arrangement, as the maximum area the Unionists could control.

    More than Bonar Law (who was a sick man by this point of time), I’d be nailing two others as prime suspects.

    First in the frame would be Walter Long, chairing the Committee of Ireland, who machinated himself as effectively the sole drafter of the Government of Ireland Bill. Now there’s a topic for further study and execration.

    Second would be Lloyd George himself, of whom Lady Carson, who might — just — have an intimate source, said. “He seems to be acting very slyly.”

    Still, they got what they wanted. We’ve had to live with it.

    Carson’s cross was to live with the recognition that, for all of his Machiavellian twists and turns (mainly intended, I am convinced, to derail the whole notion of Home Rule — at least as it resulted), he had unwittingly sold out the southern unionists

  • IrelandNorth

    The concept of unionism is not restricted to England & Wales and Scotland. Or Great Britain and Ireland for that matter. There is of course the United States of America (USA). The former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR/CCCP). More contemporaniously, the European Union (EU). What matters is whether the type of unionism is voluntary of coerced. Democratic or imposed. And a union between Great Britian and Ireland (or any part thereof) doesn’t have to be Anglo-centric. A pan-Celtic alliance between Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall (and Brittainy?) might well replace classical Anglo-hegemony. The St. Patrick’s Cross wasn’t removed from the union flag after Ireland ceceeded from the Act of Union, 1800/’01, an undemocratic piece of constitutional legislation. A case of England denying the fact symbolically.

  • giantstairs


    ‘Astonishingly simplistic’ – I don’t think so Mick. Scotland is not ruled from Belfast or Cardiff, but from London, capital of England.

    Yes Scotland is ruled from Belfast and Cardiff, and Birmingham and Dundee and Truro. People from all of those places go to a room where they vote on what the laws and policies in Scotland should be. The fact that that particular room has a geographical grid reference within the boundaries of England has no more relevance than if it where in Sealand, the North Pole or on the moon.

  • seamusot

    The entire partition project was conducted under gun barrels from a body (i.e. British Empire) upon which the sun never rested. It was a mad project driven by Carson who in later times agreed partition to be a calumnity. The county Borders used for this brutal partition of Ireland are themselves non-sensical. The simple reason was sectarian control of an unruly colony upset at the feudal treatment of its people by a powerful neighbour though gifted in it’s brave militarists – Collins etc.

    Sin e.

    So will we repeat this mad error and treat Belfast as a disposable ghetto? Madness!

    Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone will never vote to be other than Irish – which of course they are.

    The nonsense that Malin Head – the most northerly part of Ireland – is in the “south” – speaks volumes.

    That Emyvale is many Kilometres north of Crossmaglen (and Donegal further) shows the nonsense of partition though such analysis is faulty in acknowledging any legitimacy in the cruel partition madness.

    “Unionists” will possibly in time split into the Gold Coast communities of Down and the richer farms of Antrim. They will abandon the “working classes” of East Belfast, Portadown etc.

    In time the border will be as relevant as Hadrians Wall.

    Energies should be directed at ecumenism and respect.

    Time to move on.


  • IrelandNorth

    Unionism is all fine and dandy, if it is voluntary. Alas, in the case of Ireland/Northern Ireland, such was not the case. Essentially bribing the Lairds of Scotland to subvert the democratic process, followed shortly thereafter by deja vu with Ireland’s landowning gentry to vote their national parliament into extinction is a poor form of unionism, or democracy for that matter. Therefore, Ulster unionism seeks to perpetuate a democratic fraud by perpetuating the link with the United Kingdom of Great Britain (UKGB), (i.e. England & Wales and Scotland). A Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) therefore, is a contradiction in terms.

  • IrelandNorth, Cosgrave and Craig reached agreement on the Border in December 1925 – long before the DUP came into existence:

    Churchill: Then came the labours of the Boundary Commission, and now suddenly the two Parties have settled the matter out of Court. The issue is finished, and so is the work of the Commission. The work of the Commission had led to this settlement. ..

    MR. COSGRAVE said he would like to add his appreciation of the way in which the Commission had met them. It would be at least of some satisfaction to them that it was through their agency that he and Sir James Craig had come together and made peace.

    SIR JAMES CRAIG endorsed what Mr. Cosgrave had said. The Commission had done splendidly.

  • IrelandNorth

    Cheers, Nevin. Appreciate the promp/comprehensive response. Material for a conference, I propose. The devil is in the details, it appears. The probability that partition was agreed prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921/’22 is surely democratically dubious, given that the Union was of Great Britain and Ireland as a whole, and not any neo-provincial part thereof. Did Sinn Fein not receive an all island majority for cessession. And if op-out clauses exist for all such Constitutional changes, could this not be an argument for re-partition?

  • IrelandNorth, this DIFC source is new to me. Here’s an interesting exchange between Collins and Craig on 23 January 1922 where there appears to be mutual recognition and a desire to work together for the good of the island:

    (2) Without prejudice to the future consideration by his Government on the question of tariffs, Mr. Collins undertakes that the Belfast boycott is to be discontinued immediately, and Sir James Craig undertakes to facilitate in every possible way the return of Catholic workmen – without tests – to the shipyards as and when trade revival enables the firms concerned to absorb the present unemployed. In the meantime a system of relief on a large scale is being arranged to carry over the period of distress.

    (3) Representatives of both Governments to unite to facilitate a settlement of the railway dispute.

    (4) The two Governments to endeavour to devise a more suitable system than the Council of Ireland for dealing with problems affecting all Ireland.

  • IrelandNorth

    ‘Nationalism’ is not peculiar to the Irish variant thereof, though its use in a British/Irish idiom would tend to infer such. There is after all Scottish, Welsh and, dare one say it, English nationalisms. Indeed, a combination of English, Welsh, Scottish and northern[ised]-Irish ‘unionist’ nationalisms make up a macro- or generic British nationalism, a hybridised variant which constituted the imperial project that counterbalanced its Germanic comparator in National ‘Socialism’ (an ideological oxymoron to internationalists). The acid test of true unionism is – was it democratically conceived, or was it a gunshot constitutional wedding.

  • IrelandNorth

    An impediment to progress in the constitutional relationship between these islands is a species called homo-imperialis from the home counties of old Anglo-Saxonia. The English-British ruling class just can’t get past the egocentric-enthnocentrism of their ethnocentic egotism. As their first and last colony, they just can’t let go of Ireland, or any part thereof. The fact that they never removed the Saint Patick’s Cross (of Nationalist Ireland) from the Union flag after it elected to leave the Union is indicative of this. Why else retain the emblem of an absent member. Why continue calling formations of ones armed forces the ‘Irish’ this that and the other. Why else retain the harp (a symbol conferred upon a codified Ireland by Henry VIII as its cultural emblem), after she has long since left. And if the sun never sets on the British Empire, why do they say in their Rembrance Day Ceremonies: “At the going down of the sun and at its coming up, we shall remember them.”

  • IrelandNorth

    Revisionist history and designer propagandistic press and media keep citizens (and subjects) in a state of false consciousness. Elections and referenda are subjectively reported are hardly free or fair. Printed media massage public opinion with seemingly interminable opinion polls to manufacture the appropriate consent. Repeated surveys do not represent pubic opinion. They represent the opinions the political establishment want the public to have. It seems we have not only cafeteria Catholics, but now delicatessen democrats.