‘External conflicts between states form the shape of the state. I am assuming this “shape” to mean—by contrast with internal social development—the external configuration, the size of a state, its contiguity (whether strict or loose), and even its ethnic composition . . . We must stress that in the life of peoples external events and conditions exercise a decisive influence upon the internal constitution.’footnote

Otto Hintze, The Formation of States and Constitutional Development (1902)

Only a few years ago, the break-up of Britain was almost inconceivable. Southern, catholic Ireland had broken away from the United Kingdom in 1922; but there seemed little reason to believe that the protestants of Northern Ireland or the other minor nationalities of Wales and Scotland would follow their example. Conditions were different in these other cases. Southern Ireland had been a conquered country, displaying most of those features which in this century have come to be called ‘under-development’. Upon that basis, and mobilizing the deep-laid cultural differences provided by Catholicism, a largely peasant society had produced the classical nationalist reaction against alien rule which ended in 1922. As the century’s history of anti-imperialist struggle unfolded, this seemed more and more a typical episode of it. Although unusually close geographically to the metropolitan centre, southern Ireland had in fact been separated from it by a great socio-political gulf, by that great divide which was to dominate so much of the epoch: the ‘development gap’.

For this very reason, it appeared improbable that other regions of the British Isles would follow Eire’s example. There were episodes of conquest in the histories of northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, true enough. But these had been followed or accompanied by episodes of assimilation and voluntary integration—and until the 1960s it looked as if the latter tendencies had triumphed. All three societies had, at least in part, crossed over the main divide of the development process. Unlike southern Ireland, they had become significantly industrialized in the course of the nineteenth century. All three had turned into important sub-centres of the Victorian capitalist economy, and around their great urban centres—Belfast, Cardiff and Glasgow—had evolved middle and working classes who, consciously and indisputably, gave their primary political allegiance to the imperial state.

Through this allegiance they became subjects of one of the great unitary states of history. Absorption, not federation, had always been the principle of its development. From the period of Norman feudalism onwards, the English state had expanded its hold over these outlying areas and peoples. Until in 1800—as one constitutional authority puts it—‘there existed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and in the process of its development there was not the smallest element of federation’. None of the constituent countries of this multi-national state ‘retained even a modified sovereignty: that of each was melted in the general mass’.footnote1

Such is the theory of the British state, and the notion of the British parliament’s total sovereignty still praised and defended in current debate. To understand it as more than that would be misleading. The ‘general mass’ has not, on the whole, been taken to mean civil society. The ‘unitary state’ in this form was compatible with civil variety in the different countries composing it: it did not necessarily seek to impose a uniform culture, language, or way of life. There have been examples of forced levelling, for instance in Wales or the Scottish Highlands; yet in the main ‘Anglicization’ was left to the slower, more natural-seeming pressures of one large central nationality upon the smaller peripheric areas.