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Does Britain exist?


Even among British readers, there is some confusion about the differences between terms such as “Britain,” “Great Britain,” “The United Kingdom,” and “The British Isles.”  Foreign commentators no doubt use the terms interchangeably.  Each, however, refers to something specific, and so the terms are not interchangeable.  The term “the British Isles” refers to the geography of the islands adjacent to northwest Europe.  They include “Great Britain” – the largest of the islands, on which the nations of England, Scotland and Wales are located.  The British Isles also include the smaller “lesser Britain” – more often referred to as “the island of Ireland” these days – where the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland are located.  The British Isles also include the offshore tax havens of the Channel Islands, west of France’s Cherbourg Peninsula, and the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.  These are “Crown Dependencies,” and unlike the islands off the Scottish mainland, are not part of the “United Kingdom,” which is a legal union – initially by force of arms – of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The English effectively conquered Wales between 1277 and 1283, although the annexation was only formalised by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542.  Scotland – itself only taking its modern land area in the 1200s, prior to which the northeast tip of Great Britain, along with the offshore Islands had been under Scandinavian rule – had much more success in warding off periodic English incursions, but was eventually brought under English rule by the 1707 Acts of Union.  Ireland – which had been subjected to English incursions and partial occupations since the Normans arrived[3] – was the last part of the landmass to be brought under English rule via the Act of Union of 1800; by which time the British Empire was beginning its rise to global dominance.  The Government of Ireland Act 1920 together with the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, shaped the political composition of the modern UK by establishing continuing – but devolved – British rule over the six counties of protestant Northern Ireland (not to be mistaken for the nine counties of “Ulster.”) and the creation of an independent Irish Free State.

The turmoil that followed the partition of Ireland and the less well-known period of Scandinavian rule over northern Scotland point to the impermanence of arrangements which we all too easily treat as being eternal.  But England itself is a relatively modern construct stemming from the Norman conquest after 1066.  The Anglo-Saxon England that William and his offspring conquered was itself a relatively new realm.  Between 1016 and 1042, England had been ruled by Danish kings.  And prior to that, the land area of modern England was ruled by three large kingdoms – Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex – several smaller Saxon kingdoms – Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk – and the retreating Britons to the west in Cornwall.  These, in turn, had grown out of the ashes of Roman Britain, which encompassed England as far north as Hadrian’s Wall, Wales and Cornwall, but not Scotland or Ireland.

In geological time, of course, Britain is even less permanent.  The Great Glen – a geological fault line running southwest to northeast across northern Scotland – is evidence of a time when these rocks we call the British Isles sat atop the mid-Atlantic ridge, separating the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.  That is, the northern part of Scotland was once a part of North America, while the British Isles to the south were Eurasian.  As recently as the last ice age, the land we now think of as Great Britain was not an island, but was connected by a land bridge to France and to Germany by the vast marshy plains of “Doggerland.”  And in a future marred by sea level rise, large swathes of England, along with the coastal plains and lower river valleys of Scotland and Wales will be following where Doggerland led.  Even the land upon which we build our nations, then, is impermanent.

The illusion of permanence though, may be shattered far more rapidly as a result of economic, social and political change.  The geography of the industrial revolution in Britain was shaped in part by the corrupt, rentier economy of London in the eighteenth century.  The various by-laws, regulations and tax regimes in and around London largely precluded the establishment of new industrial processes.  This drove industrial investment to the midlands, and especially to the steep and narrow valleys of Yorkshire, Lancashire and South Wales, where there was abundant water-power to drive the new industrial machinery.  The need to efficiently pump water provided the impetus for the development of steam, driving industry forward.  In the early nineteenth century, the new industrial towns of the north and west experienced something akin to the gold rushes seen later in North America, for example, with workers from as far afield as Poland and Spain seeking a living in the burgeoning iron, coal and steel industry of South Wales. 

In the age of steam, the north prospered, but in the age of oil that followed World War Two, it was the old industrial regions of the north which fell into neglect as a new age of prosperity dawned for the beneficiaries of new, oil-based industries like aviation, automobiles, chemicals, electronics and pharmaceuticals established in the midlands and the southeast.  It was this “north-south divide” which emerged as a key feature of the economic crisis of the 1970s, and a political fault line in the 1980s, which threatened to undermine the United Kingdom.  Old nationalisms in Wales and Scotland were able to play on industrial neglect and apparently indifferent English rule from Westminster to raise the banner of independence – aided in large part by the umbrella of the UK’s membership of the European Union.  But the neglected ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small-town rural regions of England and Wales increasingly saw secession from the European Union as the best route to economic revival.  In order to see off the former, Blair’s Labour Party promised – and later delivered – limited forms of devolution to Scotland and Wales, and in a more complicated form to Northern Ireland.  To see off the latter, Blair had pushed for – but could not deliver – further integration with the EU by abolishing the pound and adopting the euro.

The UK’s relationship with the EU, and Scotland’s relationship with the UK have cast long shadows across the politics of the last thirty years.  Rule by Brussels being the proffered by its opponents cause of England and Wales’ continuing economic decline in the face of unfulfilled promises that EU membership would raise prosperity.  By the time the Cameron (Tory) government made the fatal error of allowing a referendum on EU membership, while London was the most prosperous place in northwest Europe, nine of the least prosperous regions were also in the UK:

This economic inequality largely determined the voting patterns in the Brexit referendum in England and Wales:

Only in Scotland and Northern Ireland – where continued membership of the EU was a central plank of the independence strategy – did a majority of the electorate vote against Brexit.  But the relatively small populations – the English (55.9 million) are 84.2% of the UK population – in Scotland (5.5 million) and Northern Ireland (1.9 million) meant that their pro-EU vote failed to count.

Historians may well come to view Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016 as the point at which Scottish independence became inevitable.  The result has solidified the Scottish National Party’s hegemony in a Scottish Parliament which was designed to prevent any one party from being hegemonic.  And in elections since, Scotland has become something of a no-go area for Labour and the Tories alike. 

It may, however, be Northern Ireland where the first fracturing of the UK occurs.  In May 2022, for the first time since the 1998 peace deal (which includes provision for a unification referendum if and when the catholic population outnumbers the protestant) the nationalist Sinn Fein look set to emerge as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.  In part drawing on resentment over the unsustainable semi-detachment of Northern Ireland in the Brexit deal between the UK and the EU – Northern Ireland remains in the UK, but is also in the EU single market, and thus subject to EU law – those seeking eventual unification with the Republic of Ireland may benefit from Unionist anger at their own leadership’s complicity in the current Brexit arrangements.

It is easy enough then, to imagine a very different Britain in just a few decades time.  The island of Great Britain would contain an independent Scotland subject to the laws governing the EU single market – either as a member or as a partner with preferential trading agreements.  To the south, only the union of England and Wales would remain.  And even within these governing arrangements, Welsh and northern English nationalisms may well threaten further disintegration.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Irish Sea either a new partition or the complete unification of the island of Ireland looks likely; particularly if the Irish economy fares better than the British in the aftermath of Brexit.

Looking further ahead, as the oil age comes to an end and industrial economies are obliged to re-localise and de-grow, the various stabilising international bodies – such as the United Nations, World Bank and the IMF – which were able to exist – as a result of the huge growth in energy from oil – after World War Two will become unsustainable – even the richest nations will lack the wealth and tax base to continue funding them, and the practicalities of operating them once intercontinental flight has been confined to history will render them unworkable.  The same goes for continent-wide bodies like the EU and NATO, whose technocratic rulers depend upon large contributions from member states, and whose writ will be ever harder to enforce as governments are obliged to enact local policies to deal with their internal crises.

For a state like the UK, which has been in relative decline since the late nineteenth century, and absolute decline since the 1970s, one can even envisage a return to something akin to the much earlier political divisions with, perhaps, a new Wessex emerging in the south, and a new Northumbria in the north.  Wales and Scotland may persist a little longer due to their legacy devolved parliaments and administrations.  But longer-term – particularly since the European Union will not survive the end of the oil age – there is no reason to believe that these too, will not localise into something akin to their earlier tribal components.

In the grand sweep of history then, imperial Britain and the United Kingdom – like the industrial age itself – are likely to be seen as an aberration; a brief interruption of simpler and far more localised political entities such as the Norman duchies and earldoms[4] (counties) or Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms.  And at each successive re-localisation, the functions and size of government will have to shrink accordingly – the entire government of seventeenth century England and Wales was smaller in numbers than the average county council today.  The only question to be settled today, is whether the technocracy will voluntarily downsize (extremely doubtful) or whether they will make the transition far worse by clinging tooth and nail to their perceived wealth and power.

Does Britain exist?… only temporarily.

[1] The ideas here are based upon Immanuel Wallerstein’s 1991 essay “Does India exist?” in Unthinking Social Science

[2] My non-British readers may want to consider the points made here in relation to their own countries and continents.

[3] Norman rule being one of the more enduring elements of modern Britain – the current queen being a direct descendant of William the conqueror.

[4] Under Norman rule, English counties were governed by an earl because of the indigenous English people’s habit of pronouncing the word “count” as if there was no “o” in the word.

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