‘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.

In spite of the pressure, a lot of latitude was left by the system to the personality of the smaller nations. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British imperialism even encouraged such circumscribed patriotisms. A conservative pride in local colour and traditions went well with the grand design. Hence, until the secession of southern Ireland in 1922, a general formula of ‘Home Rule’ for all three countries was widely discussed and approved of. While the centre remained strong, such an approach did not appear too threatening. On the other hand, for the same reason—the strong, magnetic pull the metropolis had over its fringe lands—pressure for genuine self-government was not very great. Apart from the exception, catholic Ireland, it remained weak until the 1960s.

Since then, in only a decade, it has swelled into the major political issue of the 1970s. It is worth underlining how quite unexpected and puzzling this change has been. Vague expectations about a possible transformation, or even collapse, of the British system after the defeat of its empire had been commonplace not for years but for several generations. Worried prognostications of this order go back to the 1890s or even earlier. It never took much political imagination to grasp that: 1. Great Britain was quite unusually and structurally dependent upon external relations tied up with its empire; 2. Britain was due for demotion or outright defeat at the hands of the bigger, more dynamic capitalist states that expanded from the late nineteenth century onwards. Hence the loss of its critical overseas wealth and connections was bound to promote internal readjustments—or perhaps, as left-wing observers imagined with relish, a real social revolution. There was something suitable about this: the most inveterate and successful exploiters ought to suffer the most sensational punishment.