A United Kingdom?
The eyes of the world will be on Britain in 2012 for a number of reasons. The London Olympics will focus attention on its capital, London, in an intense spectacle of sporting prowess and international competitiveness in a world city transformed for the occasion.
At the same time, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of the accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth will remind us – and those other several nations in which she is monarch – of the enduring significance of the UK monarchy as an historic point of symbolic continuity across the recent turbulent decades of British social history.
We expect that these events will provide important reference-points for the wide range of issues with which our conference UNDERSTANDING BRITAIN 2012: A United Kingdom? will be dealing.
The Formation of the United Kingdom
The process of creating ‘The United Kingdom’ from a group of island nations on the North-West edge of Europe took several centuries to complete. After long-term conflict across local borders, the union between England and Wales in the mid-1500s was followed, a century and-a-half later, by the union with Scotland in 1707, consolidating the unity of mainland ‘Great Britain’.
With its much larger population and financial clout, England remained the dominant partner. The smaller nations, surrendering national governance to London, continued their negotiations with
history, and their struggle for identity. An internal empire was thus growing apace as the wider British Empire
took shape across the globe.
The Complex Unity of the United Kingdom
In 1800 Ireland became the final member of what would henceforth be called ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. But this latecomer, separated by the seas, remained very much its own island. Here the tensions of Union led to stronger forms of resistance which in the early decades of the 20th Century erupted into an armed insurgency against the British, and then Civil War.
The outcome was the political partition of the country, in 1920, into the ‘north’ – the ‘Northern Ireland’ which would continue as the fourth region of the UK – and the ‘south’, modern-day Ireland. This contentious division, heralding the break-up of the British Empire which would accelerate in the post-WWII years, would create bitter and violent conflict in Northern Ireland - the 'Troubles'' - from the 1960s until the 1990s.
National and Regional Geographies
The United Kingdom was thus, from the outset, a complex of identities caught between the impulses of unity – ‘Britishness’ – and independence
(Welshness’, ‘Scottishness’, ‘Irishness’). The most powerful player, ‘England’,
inevitably found itself conflated with ‘Britain’ and hence, to widespread
confusion at home and abroad, ‘Englishness’ was erroneously conflated with ‘Britishness’ itself.
The four nations, of course, continued to experience their own internal
differences – in Wales, between the rapidly industrialising south and the more
rural north; in Scotland, between the urban arc of the lowlands and Eastern
coast, and the northerly and western Highlands and Islands; and across the sea,
by the intense artificiality of the divided Ireland. England began to bear the marks of its own north-south divide, between the de-industralised North and the South-East, dominated by the political and economic power of the capital, London.