What is the Union?

For this first in our series looking at the future of the UK, we talk to the historian Colin Kidd about the origins of the Union and the ideas that underpin it. Is the island of Britain a natural territorial political unit? Is nationalism compatible with Unionism? What changed in the 1970s? Plus we discuss how the shifting character of the SNP has shaped the arguments for and against the Union.


Talking Points:


Historically, the Kings of England considered themselves rulers of the whole island.

  • But any large community must be imagined. It’s inherently artificial.
  • Those who have tried to impose unified rule over the island by force have historically struggled.
  • England has served as a quasi-imperial power on the island.


The union in 1707 was a product of contingency, part of a succession crisis. 

  • At the time, the real drama was Jacobitism, not the English versus the Scots.
  • What united Britain in the 18th century is not so much positive factors, but an ongoing series of wars.


The height of British consciousness came during the two world wars.

  • What happened in the 60s and 70s that made the union look less attractive?
  • The 70s with the election of Thatcher are the crucial decade. 
  • Asymmetrical devolution has been destabilizing for the union.


Secularization led to Scots moving away from private identities being linked to denominational allegiances to a broader, more secular national identity.

  • The SNP in the 1930s had little traction; the communists were more influential.
  • It’s only in the 1960s that the SNP made a breakthrough. 


For at least a time, there was a sense of coexistence between patriotism and Britishness.

  • The BBC from the 1920s to 1970s helped cement an authentic sense of British nationhood.
  • Labour played an important part of this story; British patriotism was tied to collective war experiences, the welfare state. When those things came under pressure in the 1970s, finding an outlet for union patriotism became more difficult.


The SNP is a curious hybrid: it includes hard-core nationalists, but also social democrats, like Sturgeon, who think the best way to preserve the welfare state in Scotland is by going it alone.

  • The unionist/nationalist binary might not be helpful; arguably the most important binary is within the SNP itself. 


Mentioned in this Episode:


Further Learning: 


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:

See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.

Become a member at https://plus.acast.com/s/talkingpolitics.