The challenge to the UK state

Peter Berresford Ellis uncovers the myths surrounding the creation of the United Kingdom and looks at the weaknesses at its seams

WHEN DID the state called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland legally come into being? It may shock many readers to know that it was not in 1922 but 1927; midnight on April 12, 1927, to be precise. The Irish Free State came into being on December 6, 1922. In fact, the state that came into being on December 6, 1922, was a 32-county Irish Free State.

It was on the following day, December 7, 1922, that the unionist MPs in the six counties sent a petition to King George V to ask that the powers of the Irish Free State parliament should no longer extend to 'Northern Ireland'. Thus, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of 1921, they withdrew from the established Irish Free State with nationalist and republican MPs boycotting the unionist institutions.

Many historians overlook the fact that, for a period of at least 24 hours, a 32-county Irish state existed in December 1922.

However, legally, the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' was not created until the 'Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act, 1927', which changed the name of the state from the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland', came into effect at midnight on April 12, 1927. (See Vol. 10, Constitutional Law (Pr. 2), p70.

As will clearly be seen by the title of the state, Ireland and Northern Ireland were never part of Britain and therefore were not 'British'.

The UK state which formally came into being in 1927 is still being challenged today and even more vehemently by the constituent nations of that state.

The Good Friday agreement, if allowed to survive, is slowly making the border on the island of Ireland an irrelevancy. Reunification by osmosis seems possible within a decade.

Moreover, the establishment of a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales has started to concentrate the mind wonderfully on the future of all the nations which share these islands.

It has been no secret that I, since the early 1960s, as a socialist, have argued not only for the reunification of Ireland but, as an anti-imperialist, for self-government for all peoples -- not excluding the other nations of the United Kingdom.

Today, we have come some way down the road from those benighted days when the only time the Welsh and Scots were regarded as nations was when they played rugby or football or when one of their number appeared in a police court. If they did anything commendable then, of course, they were 'British' but if they fell foul of the law they were Welsh, Scots etc.

Today, indeed, we find the popular media pastime is a debate on who are the English -- never mind who are the Scots, Welsh and Irish. Even Jeremy Paxman became involved in his book The English: A Portrait of a People (1998) which he began with the words: 'Once upon a time the English knew who they were...'

Apparently, the English no longer know. Why the re-emergence of the Welsh, Scots and Irish as 'political nations' should have such an effect, I am at a loss to understand. The English always knew who they were. It was the other peoples in these islands who they tried to hoodwink into the concept of a 'British' nation.

Of course, no such nation existed and a British state only lasted, technically, for less than a century -- from 1707 until 1801.

The latest contribution to all this English navel contemplation is Nationalism, Devolution and the Challenge to the United Kingdom State by Arthur Aughey, Pluto Press. Aughey is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster.

He points out that the British constitution is currently undergoing a period of dynamic transformation. I would have agreed if he had called it the 'United Kingdom' constitution.

The only British constitution that I know of are the Acts of Parliament confirming the treaty of 1707 in which it was agreed that the states of Scotland and English dissolve their sovereign parliaments and institutions to merge into a single state. The state was to be called the United Kingdom of Great Britain -- hence a British state. The names 'England' and 'Scotland' were to be consigned to history.

The Act ratifying and approving the Treaty of Union of the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, January 16, 1707, with its 25 clauses and further Act for Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government, provided the first and only written constitution of a British state.

However, its provisions were immediately broken by England who imposed their will by having an in-built English majority in the parliament: "We have catch'd Scotland and would keep her fast," chortled the Speaker of the English House of Commons in 1708.

Scottish uprisings in 1708, 1715, 1719, 1720, 1725, 1745, 1797 and 1820 were ruthlessly suppressed. QED: Scotland became a colonial conquered country.

The constitution, notwithstanding the addition of Ireland in 1801, is a farce. It resorted to what the Levellers had once declared to be 'a Sepulchre of Precedents'.

In spite of overlooking a great deal of the main influential literature connected with his subject, Arthur Aughey makes an interesting contribution.

While I would like to have seen evidence that he had taken on board important works like Edwards, Evans, Rhys and MacDiarmid's Celtic Nationalism (1968), or Hechter's Internal Colonialism (1975), or Bere's Towards a Political Confederation of Celtia (1989) or, indeed, essential connected political theory such as the works of Kohr and Schumacher, there is much in this book to recommend it, even if you don't agree with the calm reassurances of how nice the English administrations have been to the people they share these islands with.

We are told that 'Britain' and 'Britishness' will survive so long as people in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, but especially England, continue to believe in it and support it.

However, it is no longer a question of 'if' but a question of 'when' most people will finally wake up to the idea that 'Britain' was conjured as a propaganda label to pacify the national emotions of England's near neighbours.

Are these emotions truly pacified? Are we all content to be 'British'? I think not.

I HAVE been reflecting on the results of the general election of June 2001 because we have been assured by the London media that moves towards independence in Scotland and Wales have been 'checked'. The grounds for this statement have been that in Scotland, SNP lost one seat in Galloway while in Wales, Plaid Cymru lost their seat in Ynys Mon, although they gained a seat in Carmarthen East.

But the pundits don't go further than a cursory look at the first past the winning post results. They fail to tell you that overall in Scotland there has been a swing to the SNP. The SNP may be down to five MPs but in 25 other seats there were swings ranging up to 5 per cent. In many places the Lib-Dems and Conservatives were beaten into third and fourth places.

And what of the seat which they lost to the Tories in Galloway? Sadly, this seemed a classic case of split voting.

The Tory came in with a slim majority of 74 votes over the SNP -- with 12,222 opposing the SNPs 12,148. It was not mentioned that another Scottish nationalist stood in the same constituency and took 588 votes which might have gone to the SNP.

In fact, the fledging Scottish Socialist Party put up candidates in all seats and took a total of 68,239 votes in support of a Scottish socialist republic. That has been dutifully ignored by pundits.

In turning to Wales, we find that a similar underlying movement is being played out. Plaid Cymru still have four MPs, having lost one and gained one. Labour won Ynys Mon with a swing of 4.28 per cent which is, admittedly, creditable. However, in 12 other seats there was a swing to Plaid Cymru of between 5.61 per cent to 11.80 per cent which are impressive swings.

The point that I am making is that the move to further separation from England in both Scotland and Wales cannot be dismissed as having been 'checked' nor even sidelined by devolution policies.

With everyone bothering about Wales, Scotland and Ireland, there has been a tendency to completely overlook the smallest group of Celts in the United Kingdom.

I do not mean the Manx because the Isle of Man is a Crown Dependency constitutionally outside the United Kingdom with its own Parliament. No, I mean Cornwall.

Conquered in AD 927, their native rulers were finally deposed after the Norman Conquest but laws had to be enacted 'in Anglia et Cornubia' until Tudor times. Uprisings against Tudor centralisation occurred when, in 1497, a blacksmith and a lawyer led a Cornish army against England, defeating an English army at Guildford commanded by the King's Lord Chamberlain, Lord Daubeny.

Henry VII himself had to take the field at Blackheath, Kent, where the Cornish insurgent army arrived in June. Henry finally defeated them. But this was not the last Cornish uprising. Two more followed.

The last was in 1536 when the English language was imposed on them and this time the ethnic cleansing after their defeat was more severe.

Cornish died out as a community language in the early 19th century, but by then a revivalist movement was in place. Political nationalism followed in the 1930s but Mebyon Kernow, today's main political party, came into being in 1951. Its aim is merely devolutionist and it won several seats in local rural and county council elections seeking a Cornish assembly.

In the 1960s, three out of Cornwall's five MPs claimed to be members of Mebyon Kernow as well as the Liberal Party.

This June saw MKs three official candidates take only 3,199 votes between them ranging from 1.82 per cent in one constituency to 2.34 per cent in another. While they did not stand in the two other Cornish constituencies, unlike previous years, there is one interesting fact that has been overlooked.

The Liberal Democrat, Andrew George, who took the seat for St Ives, securing 51.58 per cent of the votes with an increased majority over his 1997 win there, is a Cornish-speaking former Mebyon Kernow member who decided to pursue the aim of a Cornish assembly through the Lib-Dems as having more chance of election like other MK members in the 1960s -- Peter Bessell and John Pardoe among them. Even David Mudd, at that time, maintained membership of MK while being elected as a Tory MP.

George had already astounded the House of Commons by addressing it in Cornish, trying to secure rights for the language and recognition for Cornwall which only became an 'English' county in the late 19th century. He has recently launched a petition for a Cornish assembly as opposed to New Labour's idea to lump Cornwall into a Southwest region. The petition has already reached 75,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, even Candy Atherton, Labour MP for Falmouth, who was parachuted into Cornwall from south-east England in 1997, and has been zealous in her denunciation of Cornish nationalism, has now been seen at a commemoration of the 1497 uprising actually waving a Cornish national flag.

The challenge to the United Kingdom continues.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-07-30 10:09:27.
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