Uncanny Britannia

What on earth is up with British unionism? Although not especially reflective at the best of times, this ideology has recently been thrust into explicitness in disturbing ways. It’s often said that Brexit is in part driven by an upsurge of English nationalism, but I don’t buy that – if only because there’s no such extant thing (yet) as English nationalism. It is, rather, the laying bare of the nationalism that England has instead of its own, which is the nationalism of the UK – aka unionism. And while it isn’t necessarily worked out in any compellingly abstracted form, it is still not properly understood.

This nationalism is profoundly Anglocentric, to be sure, but its commitment to the United Kingdom is just as profound – when Theresa May insists that she won’t countenance dividing the kingdom in order to ensure an open border in Ireland she’s not just parroting the DUP’s lines. But the UK it has in its heart is one in which English dominance is taken as read, and which is hostile to any serious checks on the sovereign power located at Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution is fine as long as it can be overruled when necessary, and as long as it’s the centre that gets to decide when it is necessary. But everything touching on the constitution that has happened with the approach to Brexit makes clear that the Westminster government’s freedom to propose and dispose must be untrammelled and unchecked.

So we’re now arrived at a point when unionist politicians no longer bother even to pay lip service to the multinational nature of the UK. Conservative ministers speak of the Scottish parliament as no more than a tier of local government, while the Labour opposition are totally uninterested in devolution and have resiled from the Claim of Right that they signed up to nigh on thirty years ago.

Caroline Nokes, Minister of State for Immigration, equating the Scottish Parliament with Lincolnshire County Council

But what is this politics? Where does it come from, and how should it be understood? Unionism is so much part of the furniture that it might seem otiose to even raise such questions. However, once you try to reckon with it you realise that there’s a problem: hymning a UK one and indivisible is a little bit weird because, well – and it seems odd to have to point this out – it doesn’t actually exist. Indeed, there has never been such a thing. If we go right back to what looks most like its origin – the so-called ‘union of the crowns’ in 1603 – we can see it not existing in all its non-existent glory. But I say this not to try and conjure unionism away – instead, this is perhaps how we can best understand the hold it exerts even now (and it does).

A Jacobean Moment

In the middle of August 1618, an English visitor arrived in Edinburgh after travelling from London for more than a month. Having organised some lodgings for himself, he set out to have a look at the city. He admired the castle, set up on its rock at the western end of the high street, “so strongly grounded, bounded and founded, that by force of man it can neuer bee confounded”. A mile to the east, down the long slope of what became known as the ‘royal mile’, he arrived at Holyrood palace:

In the inner Court, I saw the Kings Armes cunningly carued in stone, and fixed ouer a doore aloft on the wall, the red Lyon being the Crest, ouer which was written this inscription in Latine,

Nobis haec invicta miserunt, 106, proaui.

I enquired what the English of it was? it was told me as followeth, which I thought worthy to be recorded.

  1. Fore-fathers hath left this to vs vnconquered.

This is a worthy and memorable Motto, and I thinke few Kingdomes or none in the world can truly write the like, that notwithstanding so many inroades, incursions, attempts, assaults, ciuill warres, and forraigne hostilities, bloodie battels, and mightie foughten fields, that maugre the strength and pollicie of enemies, that Royall Crowne and Scepter hath from one hundred and seauen descents, keeps still vnconquered, and by the power of the King of Kings (through the Grace of the Prince of peace) is now left peacefully to our peacefull King, who long in blessed peace, the God of peace defend and gouerne.

This is one of the most revealing moments in John Taylor’s Penniless Pilgrimage, his account of a journey to Scotland undertaken fifteen years after the King of Scots had succeeded in his quest to add the throne of England to the title he acquired when still an infant. At this point in his narrative he finds space to acknowledge, with almost exaggerated care and attention, a particular complex of historical claims with which many of his compatriots – then or now – would most likely be unfamiliar. The references to an unconquered kingdom, and to the unbroken line of more than a hundred Scottish monarchs which symbolises that kingdom’s continuity, are central elements in a specifically Scottish mythic history which was formed, or perhaps served, as a riposte to Anglocentric narratives of national emergence.

Such stories are sharply incompatible with the mythic history of Brutus and his sons made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which had long been pressed into service as a key ideological justification for England’s feudal superiority over its northern and western neighbours on the island of Britain. Indeed, the Brutish history of Britain had played such a role as recently as the eight years’ war of 1543-51 (the creepily named ‘Rough Wooing‘), as the Henrician and Edwardian regimes sought to reduce Scotland to a vassal state, and in English justifications for the execution of Mary Stuart in 1587. Despite the scepticism accorded such a story in the work of Polydore Vergil and William Camden, it was potent enough to provide the fabric for Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion in the early years of the seventeenth century. Indeed, the possible emergence of a new Britain once James became King of England gave the story a new pertinence.

Fergus I, King of Scots, engraving after an unknown artist. National Galleries of Scotland

The British king’s most alert mythographers, however, knew that this material was potentially problematic, and that it had to be handled with care. To expand the history of England into a history of Britain along the lines favoured by English mythographers could only be done at Scottish expense, since Scottish ethnosymbolism – emphatically restated by the sixteenth century historians Hector Boece and George Buchanan, and retailed in the work of the Scots poet John Johnston – postulated an incompatible story of an independent kingdom of the Scots traceable to King Fergus in the fourth century BCE.

Such a counter-narrative was a crucial element in the ideological resistance to English claims to superiority: hence its trumpeting in stone on the walls of Holyrood. While it is impossible now to know what impelled John Taylor to emphasise this feature, it is striking that in doing so he should cast his king as the man whose succession to the English throne secured, in particular, Scotland’s safety from the threat of conquest. The Stuart succession to England’s throne is here read from a powerfully Scotocentric point of view, despite the fact that the interpreter of this decorative detail is himself every inch a true-born Englishman.

No Union

There are several points of broader significance that can be drawn from this vignette. Perhaps most obviously, it alerts us to the extent to which the coming of ‘Great Britain’ at the beginning of the seventeenth century was as much the fracturing or splitting of perspectives as it was a work of unification. In fact, there was no ‘union’, not even a union of crowns – the king of England and the king of Scots remained distinct, despite their conjunction in the person of Charles James Stewart – to give James VI and I his proper name. Even the iconography of ‘Great Britain’ had no choice but to acknowledge this doubleness: the joint royal arms, and the union flag, differed depending on where one stood – Scottish sources accorded heraldic privilege to Scottish emblems, while the more familiar (to us) English alternatives did the opposite. This doubleness is still preserved in the archaic emblems of monarchy we sometimes see around us.

The Royal Arms of Scotland on the back of a van in rainy Edinburgh – note the precedent position accorded to the saltire, and compare with the English version!

Yet the event of 1603 also brought these perspectives closer together than ever before, creating as it were a continuous space – the rectangle of a flag, the heraldic escutcheon – within which their incommensurability might be starkly, kaleidoscopically evident. Such spaces could be habitable, as the binational court created by James VI and I at Whitehall demonstrated; yet that did not make them harmonious, as the many instances of specifically national tension and quarrelling recorded over the years of the reign demonstrate. And as the verdict in a test case brought in London made clear, while the crowns of England and Scotland remained in some ways distinct, the respective polities were nonetheless opened up to each other through their subjects’ common loyalty to the same man – the king’s person, crucially, was not to be understood as categorically separate from his offices. Hence, Scots born after 1603 were not strangers in England, even as they were not English. ‘Great Britain’, James’s preferred name for his two chief realms, was a thing and no thing – it was born as a realm of the political uncanny. Such a status, I would suggest, was neither abolished nor overcome by the uneasy settlement of 1707, and has never been dispelled. But that’s a longer story.

What is also evident, but perhaps too obvious at first to be thought worthy of comment, is that the incommensurable perspectives thrust in this fashion into a deeply uncomfortable proximity were, and were understood to be, national. Despite their ecclesiastical differences, the majority of both Scots and English at the outset of the century shared an allegiance to what might be called everyday Calvinism, while Catholicism persisted stubbornly both north and south of the Tweed; their main vernaculars were for the most part mutually intelligible, and the English spoken in that nation’s north shared lexical and other features with Scots. The educated wrote a similar strain of neo-Latin which also embedded them alike in a wider European intellectual and artistic culture.

Nonetheless, such overlap did little to obliterate the intelligible and operative difference between English and Scot. The persistence of different realms alone ensured that this difference remained a potent and pointed one. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that its articulation across a range of fields of endeavour amounts to the voicing of a pair of mutually reinforcing nationalisms. But at the same time, the experience of conjunction under one monarch, and the later violent convulsions of the 1640s and 1650s, gave form to different visions or templates of what ‘Great Britain’ might – or should – be. In insisting on the historical intelligibility of these three nations we are not writing merely of what was, since they are fundamentally at odds with each other – we must instead acknowledge the importance and power, and thus the operative (sometimes, perhaps, inoperable) – realness, of the normative or performative dimension in any speaking of nations.

The History of What We Want to Be

To put it more pithily: the history of any nation is also the history of what it wants to be. It is the history of this wanting, and – crucially – of various arrogations of its capacity to want. There is no nation, therefore, which is not also its sometimes competing or conflicting projections, manifested not only in institutions but in the demand for institutions, in the would-be constitutive as much as in the actually constituted moment. There is no nation, in other words, that is not also at least, and at least implicitly, one nationalism.

This is what we need to note to about contemporary unionism. There have been times when unionism has been at ease with the fractures and asymmetries of a multinational polity. There have been moments when it was capable of accommodating itself to the reality of a state that has never been uniform, and never quite added up to itself. But that has now changed, perhaps for good. Unionism has sharpened and defined itself rapidly in the face of the pressures exerted firstly by the campaign for Scottish independence after 2011 and secondly by the absurdities of Brexit.

Prominent within it are related tendencies to equate defence of the ‘precious union’ with a hostility to the more pluralist fin-de-siècle spirit of the devolution settlement and a to resent or overlook the limits on British sovereignty accepted as part of the Good Friday agreement. To see demands for the accommodation of national differences within UK governance as necessarily ‘separatist’ in their aims and effects – which is, sadly, the reflex position now of both the main UK-wide political parties – is not the defence of any kind of status quo but a drive, instead, towards the creation of a Britain hardened against its multinational history and character. It is the indulgence of the incorporative dream both encoded within and denied by British history.

Billy Mitchell, UKIP candidate, flute-band Loyalist and BBC Question Time favourite – the face of unionism?

Better Together pitched itself as sticking up for, and sticking with, actually existing Britain, while Brexiteers are animated by the urge to bring back a Britain they feel has been carelessly or wickedly lost. But both of these political forces are in fact yearnings for a union that isn’t really there, and has never really been there, except as an ever-present urge – an uncanny union, in fact, that has always been more than it is.

But that doesn’t mean that we can make it go away, as if by turning on a light. To stress the fact that it’s a protest against history isn’t to downplay unionism as a force in the political imaginary. Precisely the opposite, in fact – unless unionism as understood as nationalism, as an urge towards a Britain that has never yet existed, neither its historians nor its critics will be able to get to grips with it.


This is an edited and augmented extract from an essay in Political Turmoil: Early Modern Literature in Transition, 1623-1660, vol. 2, edited by Stephen Dobranski and published by Cambridge University Press.

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