The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

7.2 On Britishness

Earlier in this course I considered how Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland came to be included in the UK. That incorporation was often not free from conflict, resistance, war and military intervention. Hence, as well as cooperation and a common fellowship, suspicion, lack of trust, sometimes hatred, expressed in various forms, have characterised the relationship between England, the leading power, and those nations which were annexed or conquered by it or amalgamated with it.

Modern nationalism in Scotland and Wales has been fuelled by the desire for democracy to be strengthened, for citizens to have a voice and proper representation, and by the wish for greater prosperity, investment and economic development to reverse the peripheral role of these areas, compared with England (and with London in particular). Nationalism has also been fuelled by memories of oppression, a lack of recognition, and having insufficient power and resources to develop their nations and the elements that constitute their specific identities. This, among other issues, could account for the precarious survival of Gaelic and the low number of Welsh speakers. A situation that, when applied to the English regions, could also account for the practical disappearance of Cornish.

Most UK nations enjoyed some of the benefits the British Empire brought to the centre. The empire was so vast, diverse and rich it conferred an unprecedented world status on the British as a whole. In this instance, the formation of another periphery, the empire, helped for a time to smooth over differences between the earlier centre and its peripheries.

In the twenty-first century, however, Britishness seems a fragile concept. Many factors are affecting British identity, among them decolonisation, the questioning of the monarchy, the setting up of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and, perhaps most significantly, Britain's increasing ethnic diversity, prompted mainly by the settlement of large migrant communities originating from the former British Empire, in particular the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. A further ingredient might be the decline in the habit of equating British with English, an equation automatically excluding non-English people. Thus, at a time when the Scots and the Welsh are reasserting their separate identities, the English will have to reconstruct their own distinct identity. Being British requires a more inclusive definition of Britishness, one capable of embracing all the peoples of the UK regardless of regional and local allegiance. Being English, Scots, Welsh and Irish in Northern Ireland is just one way of being ‘British’. Finally, UK membership of the EU and the prospect of further European integration, not least the possible adoption of the euro, has served to question an already increasingly uncertain British identity. So much so, passionate reactions against European integration has led some to portray the EU as a threat to UK sovereignty and its historic identity.

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