Interview: Linda Colley on the history and future of England, Britain and Britishness

Historian Linda Colley rejects the idea that British disintegration is inevitable but says a new constitutional settlement is needed to bind the nations and people of the United Kingdom together, and to help clarify its relationship with Europe. The English, she argues, would benefit from having a parliament of their own.

Linda Colley and Guy Lodge
10 October 2013

What does Britain's constitutional future look like?


Guy Lodge: The British state has experienced periodic episodes of expansion and contraction throughout its history. How does that history help us make sense of the tumultuous times we are living through at the moment, where we face the possibility of the break-up of Britain and perhaps also Britain’s exit from the EU?

Linda Colley: A historical perspective helps provide some deeper contexts for current debates. It’s not just a completely aberrant perfect storm at the moment: there are precedents. Take, for example, the panics over the meaning of ‘Englishness’, the claims that the Scots are getting too much money from the public purse, the fear that continental Europe is taking advantage of Britain. You can look at London newspapers in the 1760s and they’re making many of these same arguments and accusations. Similarly, if you look at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, there were lots of calls then for England to be granted home rule, as well as Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

I think what we are seeing now is not just a ‘Britishness was tremendously strong and now it has collapsed’ crisis. You can see these tensions bobbing up and down at different times in our history. Even when Britain was much more powerful than it is now, you had periodic interludes of panic, questioning, and debate.

GL: But isn’t Britishness particularly vulnerable at the moment? The ‘cements’ you have identified that forged Britons have all but evaporated: empire, warfare (against ‘the other’), religion, ‘cults of liberty’ – what is left? And isn’t this why those who argue for keeping the union together are forced to concentrate on instrumental rather than emotional arguments?

LC: To be an effective state – a state nation, which I think is what the UK is – you need not just economic wellbeing but also constitutive stories. The rise of nationalism in Scotland is not just explicable in terms of internal Scottish factors, but is also in part a ramification of a decline in, and insufficient attention to, British constitutive stories, because a state nation has to work on several levels. Its leaders need to look after the component stateless nations within their brief, but also sustain some kind of overarching narrative. It seems to me that an overarching narrative at the moment is not really there, and politicians have arguably been rather remiss in this respect. Gordon Brown tried with Britishness, but I don’t think you can just reinvent the wheel; you have got to think about and develop new constitutive stories.

These constitutive stories have to work alongside the more practical arguments: it’s not a zero-sum game. When you think about the case for keeping Britain together it seems to me that, while the UK is not perfect, it has nevertheless proved successful in getting the different peoples and the different parts of the union to work together. If one part gets into trouble, then – at present – the other parts will come to its aid. That seems to me to be one of the strongest prudential arguments for the UK. The EU, by contrast, hasn’t developed – perhaps it never will – the kind of governing machinery needed to make the different parts work together with the same degree of cohesion and solidarity that exists in the UK.

GL: What would the impact of a ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland be on the nations and relationships between people on these islands?

LC: I think it would come as a very great shock. Ever since the union of crowns in 1603 – some hundred years before the Act/Treaty of Union of 1706/07– there has been a sense that this large island of Great Britain is some kind of political unit. A ‘Yes’ vote would, of course, be a major divergence from that. On a map you would see the top bit blue, the bottom bit pink, or whatever cartographic colours are chosen. So much of the current debate about the referendum is dominated by the immediate economic implications, but this leaves out what could be the more profound effects on the future of a UK without Scotland. In particular, if Scotland secedes, what effect will this have on the regional dynamics in England itself?

Part of the reason for growing support of independence and for growing worry in the so-called ‘Celtic fringe’ has been the growing concentration of population in England.. This is much more the case than in the 19th century: London now holds as many people as Wales and Scotland together. Great Britain is a bottom-heavy island, and this affects relations within England as well as between the UK nations. One of the repercussions of a UK without Scotland would be what might happen in the north of England. Historically, parts of the north once belonged to Scotland, and often acted in tandem with groupings in Scotland. If Scotland gets sheared off, then the south of England becomes even more powerful. You would be more likely, at least in the short term, to get Conservative administrations in power in London. Given that the English north-east and large parts of the north-west are Conservative no-go areas, you might find fragmentation starting to work through England, prompting people in the north to say: ‘Well, you know as long as we had Scotland we were guaranteed regular periods of Labour government, but what’s going to happen now?’ And you could get the same feeling in Wales, too. Alternatively, if the north of England became a frontier region again, another possibility might be that this would do it good, because London would have to give it more attention.

GL: You have written that ‘the idea that Englishness should somehow stand in need of refurbishment is by many criteria extremely odd’. Can you say more?

LC: What I meant by that was that, at one level, it can seem strange that you’ve had these periodic panics about Englishness when superficially the English have got it made. England is the biggest part of the UK. It has always been the richest part of these islands. So why do elements within it occasionally say, ‘Oh God, who are we?’ What does it mean? It doesn’t seem rational. The fact that you do, at different periods in history, have panics about Englishness is a useful reminder that it isn’t just about prosperity and wealth, and that people do need something more to give expression to their identity. In recent years it seems all that British governments can do is offer ‘bread and circuses’. They give bread, in the sense of worrying about welfare and the economy, and they have circuses like the Olympics and the Millennium Dome. But peoples need more than bread and circuses. Prosperity is not on its own sufficient.

GL: Even if there is a ‘No’ vote in Scotland, it is often said that the nations will continue to drift apart, heading towards ever-looser union. Do you think disintegration is inevitable?

LC: No I don’t. You can invent different futures and they would all be feasible. The long view is quite helpful here. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a huge amount of discussion – partly provoked by events in Ireland – about Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland each having their own assemblies, and how there should also be (in the language of the time) an ‘imperial parliament’ that would deal with the British empire but also other areas of common concern in the UK. I don’t see why you couldn’t have something like that now. You would need a new English parliament – which should be based outside of London in my view – to complement the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Westminster parliament would be left to focus on the macro-economy, defence and foreign policy issues and overall constitutional issues. Such an arrangement could counter disintegrative pressures.

Also important here is the extent to which there will be calls to break the grip of London on political life outside the capital. For the bulk of its history, even though the state in Britain has been strong, it has not been particularly centralising. London was powerful, but it was only powerful in certain ways and left the localities to substantially run themselves. That changed in the 20th century, mainly on account of the two great wars (in which the UK was involved for longer than almost any other power). As a result of the wars there was a far greater concentration of power in London, and of course subsequent governments haven’t wanted to give that power up. So perhaps what we’re seeing today is, in part, regions and countries outside of London saying ‘enough is enough, we want some of that power back’.

GL: Can we now turn to Britain’s other union – that with Europe? You have suggested that Euroscepticism is a relatively new phenomenon, and that for centuries Britons, including the English, regarded themselves – at least for some of the time – as Europeans. So what explains the rise of Euroscepticism?

LC: You can certainly say that in British history – and I do mean ‘British’ – there has been marked opposition to some of the Catholic powers of continental Europe: France, Spain and so forth. But there’s a sleight of hand in Ukip/Eurosceptic arguments that Britain or England have always been ‘against’ Europe, as though Europe was some kind of totality. It isn’t like that. To be sure, in the 18th century for example, Britain repeatedly fought wars against France, but it was simultaneously ruled by a German dynasty and was often in alliance with various of the Protestant powers of continental Europe. So it’s been a much more messy picture than some choose to imagine. Britain went into the first world war, rightly or wrongly, to defend the rights of Belgium. There was a definite sense of European commitment.

I think the fact that there are no longer monarchies all over Europe has changed British dynamics a lot. Queen Victoria was called ‘the grandmother of Europe’ because the European royal dynasties were all closely related. They all visited each other, and because they all visited each other they often learnt each other’s languages, so there were lots of links there. The upper classes who dominated British government until the beginning of the 20th century also often viewed themselves as cosmopolitan. Gladstone, for instance, spoke six European languages, and corresponded with German and Italian intellectuals and so forth. British elites were deeply interested in Europe, and called themselves European in 1900 and even in the 1920s, because they saw Europe, rightly or wrongly, as the centre of the world. It’s not like that now. These trans-European linkages don’t exist in the same way, and the decline of Europe as a global power bloc means that it is no longer such a desirable address. Because those Eurocentric attitudes have gone – in many ways for good – it’s easy for Eurosceptics to argue, ‘Why keep putting all our eggs in a basket that’s falling to bits? Why aren’t we forging connections with India, or building links with the US, or Australia, or China?’, or whoever the flavour of the month is. The current economic difficulties over the euro just make such responses even more pronounced.

GL: How much do you think it is the pursuit of political integration that has soured our relationship with Europe?

LC: I certainly think that the government of the EU is a substantial mess, and that the EU is not well-managed, but this seems to cause more difficulty in England than in the Celtic fringe. There’s a variety of reasons for that. A lot of the enthusiasm for Ukip in England is in part a response to a kind of emptiness at home. People see the EU as more of a threat in England because they don’t feel sure about Englishness. This may be another reason for getting an English parliament going. Getting more federal structures going within the UK might help to make the European issue easier. What you need to get people thinking about is being able to hold together and reconcile different political identities, so that it’s not a zero-sum game.

I think it’s easier for Scots, for example, to think in this way because, since 1707, they have always had to have multiple identities. They have said, ‘We are patriotic Scots,’ and at least most of them for most of the time have also said, ‘We are also patriotic Britons. We owe allegiance to a state – Great Britain or the UK – and we also have our own nation, Scotland.’ It is rather like Russian dolls: they fit inside each other, not always comfortably, but they do fit together. When the EU came along, for Scots, it was like: ‘Here’s another Russian doll that we have to fit into, another layer of allegiance.’ But the English, because they have been so much the biggest power in the UK geographically and in population, and because they have London in their midst, they don’t have this Russian doll image of political allegiance. For them, multiple identities represent much more of a challenge.

GL: You have argued that a written constitution could help bind the people and nations of the union together, and clarify our broader relationships with Europe and elsewhere. Is that realistic?

LC: I live in the US, a polity with a written constitution. I don’t have any romantic illusions about the device, but I do think that when people consider written constitutions they should realise that ideally these instruments are more than a kind of car manual for running a state. A good written constitution can also be the text of a story, a narrative for a polity. It would be very difficult to create one de novo in the UK, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Lots of other polities have done this, and it seems to me that whatever happens with the vote on Scottish independence, we may see some reluctant moves in this direction.

If Scotland becomes independent, that is going to create all kinds of constitutional shockwaves. You won’t just be able to treat it like a sore thumb, bandage it over and say, ‘We’re just pretty much the same, we’ve just lost those Scottish MPs.’ Nobody has yet really worked out, or wants to work out, the implications for the rest of the UK, and we might well need a new kind of constitutional document. Ditto if Scotland turns down independence – if there is a sizeable pro-SNP minority, then presumably devolution in Scotland will have to be strengthened, Wales and Northern Ireland will then want the same, and the demand for an English parliament or assembly will be strengthened. Westminster and Whitehall don’t want to allocate the time and thought to all of this, but these issues may become unavoidable, and if they do become unavoidable, I think that – however difficult it is – a written constitution may come into play. The question then becomes how you can make such a document attractive and compelling, and not just a glorified car manual.

GL: Of course one thing that constitutions can do is enshrine personal liberties. Do you think liberty is less important to our sense of nationhood and identity now than in the past? And is one argument for a written constitution that it would better protect liberties?

LC: It is interesting that the response to the recent revelations about intelligence agencies’ snooping has been much more pronounced in the United States. I think this is partly because the tradition of written constitutionalism – and of curbs on the executive – is so much more pronounced in the US than in the UK. This is one of the areas where the obsession with the EU caters far too conveniently to British governments: you get people’s worries about British freedoms all being focused upon Brussels in a way that crowds out other concerns about the preservation of liberty.

GL: The monarchy appears to be the only British institution that is not currently in crisis: how do you explain the continued appeal of monarchy?

LC: The survival of the monarchy is partly a historical accident. If Britain had lost the first or second world war, or certainly if we had been invaded, the house of Windsor might well have gone. So when people say, ‘The popularity of the monarchy shows that the British are different,’ we should pause. Perhaps, but a lot of it may well be an historical accident, and what recent history shows is how up and down it all is. The monarchy may seem strong now, but it went through a very bad hiccup in the 1990s. Members of the royal family have usually found it easier to be popular when they’re young – you get the pretty marriages, the babies, the well-dressed, handsome people – and when they’re very old, because then they become national treasures. Rightly, there’s a certain respect that is still shown to the aged.

But what is always the tough phase for royals is the long period of middle age – witness Prince Charles’ problems in recent decades. Assuming that he does survive his mother (and she’s a tough woman!), it may be that when he eventually ascends to the throne he will be so senior that the ‘national treasure’ appeal will kick in. And he may be helped by people saying, ‘Well, it won’t be too long before Will and Kate take over.’ But it’s very up and down, and I do think there may be changes ahead. It is likely for instance that – after the death of the present Queen – more parts of the Commonwealth will become republics.

 This piece first appeared in Juncture, the journal of IPPR.

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