7 When was Britain?
So far, I have provided a brief historical background for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, one that accounts for their distinctive identities and for the origins of their differing role within the UK. I have also defined devolution as an asymmetric decentralisation process which responds to the claims advanced by the nations constituting the UK state. What, then, do we mean by Britain? Is it a nation? If so, when did the British nation begin to exist? The historian Linda Colley locates the birth of the idea of Britain after 1707. She describes war, religion and the prospect of material advantages as the three main factors that called the British nation into being.
War played a vital part in the intention of a British nation after 1707, but it could never have been so influential without other factors, and in particular without the impact of religion. It was their common investment in Protestantism that first allowed the English, the Welsh and the Scots to become fused together, and to remain so, despite their many cultural divergences. And it was Protestantism that helped to make Britain's successive wars against France after 1689 so significant in terms of national formation. A powerful and persistently threatening France became the haunting embodiment of that Catholic Other which Britons had been taught to fear since the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Confronting it encouraged them to bury their internal differences in the struggle for survival, victory and booty.
… the Protestant worldview which allowed so many Britons to see themselves as a distinct and chosen people persisted long after the Battle of Waterloo, and long after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 as well. For most Victorians, the massive overseas empire which was the fruit of so much successful warfare represented final and conclusive proof of Great Britain's providential destiny. God had entrusted Britons with empire, they believed, so as to further the worldwide spread of the Gospel and as a testimony to their status as the Protestant Israel. And this complacency proved persistent. Well into the twentieth century, contact with and dominion over manifestly alien peoples nourished Britons’ sense of superior difference.
… impressive numbers of Britons did make the step from a passive awareness of nation to an energetic participation on its behalf. But they did so in the main not just because patriotism was recommended from above, but also because they expected to profit from it in some way.
(Colley, 1992, pp. 387, 388, 391)
According to Colley, the British nation is a recent invention, created in 1707, and superimposed on much older allegiances. In Britain, localism remained strong until the introduction of conscription in the First World War. This explains why, for more than 50 years after the Union, the relationship between Scotland and the rest of Britain was fraught with suspicion, as was the relationship between Lowland Scotland and the Highlands. But the lucrative gains to be obtained from the expanding British Empire, as well as the passage of years, contributed to smooth internal differences within the Union, though they never faded away completely. Yet, as Colley argues, ‘by 1837, Scotland still retained many of the characteristics of a distinct nation, but it was contained within a bigger nation. It was British as well as Scottish. By contrast, Wales was rather more distinct. Possessed of its own unifying language, less urbanised than Scotland and England, and – crucially – less addicted to military and imperial endeavour, it could still strike observers from outside its boundaries as being resolutely peculiar to itself’ (Colley, 1992, pp. 393–4).
Scottish and Welsh distinctive cultures and languages initiated a progressive decline after the Union with England; such decline was only partially altered by the influence of the romantic ideas about the value of distinctive cultures and languages which spread throughout Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Romanticism contributed to the assertion of Scottish and Welsh identity and gave rise to embryonic nationalist movements that, in the first instance, defended cultural objectives which, in time, evolved into fully fledged nationalist movements demanding self-determination.
Ireland enjoyed quite a different relation with the British Empire due to it being treated by London as a colony. The Catholics outnumbered the Protestants and since the invention of Britishness was so closely bound up with Protestantism, with war with France and with the acquisition of empire, Ireland was rarely able or willing to identify with it.