Review of the BBC series Union, with David Olusoga…

David Michell is Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast. You can follow him on Twitter.

This compelling documentary series put me in mind of a support group for UK nations in which Ireland, Scotland, and Wales sit in a circle and discover that they aren’t alone in experiencing centuries of English subjugation. You were kicked off your land? We were kicked off our land! Your culture was erased? Our culture was erased!

Grievances are all too well remembered separately in these places. In Union, they are woven together into a single, revealing story. We see how very similar methods were used by the British state to bind the constituent parts of the UK. Why? To secure England from invasion. And to get and stay wealthy. For much of its history, the Union was a corrupt club of the tiny landowning and big-business class – men who, in all parts of the Union, saw a mutual interest in this arrangement, locking out ordinary people in all parts of the Union.

But that’s not the whole story. The UK would be a much simpler place if it had been built only on coercion.

We are told of the eighteenth-century Scottish Drummond family who, one generation, were rebels against the British government, and the next, wealthy London bankers. The capital, to this day, makes the whole of the UK a lot of money. The heavy industries of Belfast, South Wales, Glasgow, and northern England, which served the UK and its empire, gave jobs to tens of thousands. The nations fought side-by-side against Napoleon and in the World Wars. Maybe the peoples of the Union are ‘stronger together’, as the unionist slogan goes.

The history is vividly told, with a great script, lots of walking around, talking to historians, and pointing at old documents. Individual life stories are used to illustrate the impact of the Union. But the series wants to show how the past still shapes how people think about themselves in 2023, and so we see snippets of people from all parts of the UK reflecting on the history we are uncovering.

It turns out that Northern Ireland is not the only place where there are long memories and complicated identities. The Irish are still angry about the 1840s potato famine and partition, but the Scots are raging about the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Welsh are seething at the suppression of their language, and the Northern English resent the south-east. Some of them anyway. Other interviewees see the continuing value of the Union. A host of identity labels are chosen, combined, and ranked.

Ireland is covered fulsomely and excellently – as it should be of course, since, as we learn, in the early nineteenth century, one in every three people in the UK lived in Ireland. The Plantation of Ulster, 1798 and the Act of Union, the Great Famine, the border – this history is familiar in Ireland, but what the series does so well is show the centrality of these events in the development of Britishness and the UK state.

In the final episode, Olusoga is on Belfast’s Shankill and Falls Roads. He tells the stories of two families on opposite sides of the battle over the Union in the early part of the twentieth century. We see how conflict in Ireland was not about tribal hatreds (hatred though there was), but the justness of that big idea of the British state – the Union, an idea which has divided people elsewhere.

Does the Union have a future? This question is posed in the introduction to each episode and is left unanswered. But Union is very clear that although the peoples of the UK have accumulated much shared experience, the bonds that held the Union – war, faith, empire, working class solidarity, the post-war consensus around the NHS and other public services – are no more. Brexit sent us in different directions. At the same time, the Union was quite deliberately constructed, as all nation-states are. Equivalent stories of coercive centralisation and contemporary contestation could be told about the UK’s big European neighbours, its old foes.

All this makes the idea of dismantling the Union rather less unthinkable, though no less fraught, unpredictable, and risky. In Ireland, there may one day be a referendum on leaving the Union. The once-genuine differences between the UK and Republic of Ireland have been flattened, and new ones have appeared, especially on Europe.

But regardless of identity and political outlook, most people will finish this engrossing series with a sense that the story of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not over. Union is a proper history lesson.

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