This article by Allan Armstrong (RCN) was posted on this blog on 9.6.12, after being updated from an earlier version originally posted on 30.9.11. That article has become contaminated and so is being reposted. Although the most recent section has been superseded by the Scottish Independence Referendum, it still includes a lot of relevant historical material.

For links to more recent material see:-





i)      Why are there significant nationalist parties and a National Question in the UK in the twenty-first century?

          a)   England

          b)   Wales

          c)   Scotland

          d)   Ireland

ii)        The creation of a united British ruling class and its decision not to create a united British nation-state

iii)      The creation and expansion of hybrid British national identities amongst the different classes in these islands and the Empire

iv)       The appearance of independent national political organisations within the UK

v)        The retreat of the hybrid Irish-British identity in the face of new challenges and the maintenance of hybrid British identities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as long as British imperialism remained relatively strong

vi)       British ruling class attempts to maintain its power through reform of the UK in the face of the imperial decline and the further retreat of hybrid British identities, especially amongst the working class

vii)     The initial failure of liberal unionist political devolution and the entrenchment of Westminster Direct Rule by 1979

viii)     A failed liberal unitary Britain attempt to reform politics in Northern Ireland

ix)       The Irish Hunger Strike (1981) and the Miners Strike (1984-5) – a comparison between their long-term political impacts

x)        The British ruling class’s ‘New Unionist’ strategy starts and stalls under the Conservatives – differing situations in Ireland and Scotland

xi)       Welsh workers slowly learn the need to confront conservative unionist divide-and-rule tactics

xii)      New Labour fleshes out ‘New Unionism’ with its ‘Devolution-all-round’ proposals

xiii)     The contrasting political nature of the effects of ‘New Unionism’ in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

xiv)     The British ruling class is determined to uphold its ‘New Unionist’ deal, the better to maintain the UK state’s imperial position in the world

xv)      Obstacles to any SNP attempt to winning political independence in its proposed referendum

xvi)     The wannabe Scottish ruling class and the SNP will cooperate with the British ruling class and big business to prevent any radical break-up of the UK

xvii)    The SNP will play their part in upholding the hegemony of US/UK imperial alliance in the global corporate order


i) Why are there significant nationalist parties and a National Question in the UK in the twenty-first century?

In Scotland, the SNP is now the leading political party; in Wales, Plaid Cymru is the third (until recently, the second) placed party; whilst in Northern Ireland the top six parties identify themselves as either British unionist or Irish nationalist.  The answer to the question posed in the title of this section is to do with the nature of the UK state.

   a) England

The UK state was formed in a number of key stages. The dominant class in England, after 1066, was the feudal lords. They were mainly made up of descendants of the Norman-French conquerors, eventually forming an Anglo-French ruling class. It was not until 1336 that English became the official language of law in England. Under the Norman and Plantagenet dynasties, a more centralised feudal monarchy had emerged, although England still formed only a part of the successive dynasties’ wider territories. These  included Wales, parts of Ireland, parts of Scotland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and  also parts of France until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453, and Calais up to 1558. It was only then that the king and ruling class, in England, gave up any serious attempt to create a wider realm on both sides of the English Channel/La Manche.

   b) Wales

The beginnings of the wider territorial British state can be seen in the demise of the Welsh mixed feudal and kinship-based order at the end of the thirteenth century. The Norman-French and later Anglo-French marcher lords had already eroded away much of the geographic territory of Wales (it had never formed a politically united state), before it was finally conquered in 1284 by Edward I, the Plantagenet king of England and overlord of Gascony.

In 1536, Wales became absorbed into the centralised feudal, and by now definitely English state under the Tudors. It was divided into counties. What remained of the old Welsh ruling class gained representation in the English Parliament and eventually became part of the wider English ruling class. Wales did not become a political entity until the end of the nineteenth century. It was administered as if it was part of England under English law.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Wales remained an economically peripheral region of ‘England’, then later, of the UK. Indeed, it was this economic marginality that helped to ensure that the majority of the population remained Welsh speakers until the beginning of the twentieth century. Those speaking the Welsh language represented a considerably higher proportion of the population than those speaking Gaelic speakers in either Ireland or Scotland.

When Wales was absorbed into England, what later became British state development initially took a unitary state form. This state was still thought of as English by the overwhelming majority of the ruling class. However, the next two key stages in the territorial expansion of the UK state – the Anglo-Scottish regal union of 1603 and parliamentary union of 1707, and the Anglo-Irish regal union of 1534 and British-Irish parliamentary union of 1801 – took this state on to a different constitutional path – unionist. Unlike Wales at the time, British unionism recognised the subordinate political entities of Scotland and Ireland, when they became fully part of the UK.

   c) Scotland

In contrast to Wales, a Scottish state covering most the territory of what is today Scotland, did manage to survive attacks coming from England, but these were initially led by Norman-French, later Anglo-French, rather than by English led invaders. Although, the medieval Scottish kingdom was far less centralised and united than the kingdom of England, it was more centralised than the socio-political order in Wales at the time.

The post-1000 AD Gaelic dynasties had a shaky hold over the kingdom of Alba/Scotland. There were powerful challenges from different lineages pressing various claims. So David I, the incumbent king of Scotland, invited Norman-French adventurers to provide him with more muscle. Reinforced by these new well-armed and well-connected incomers, Scotland’s increasingly hybrid Gaelic/Norman-Scottish feudal ruling class was able to resist encroachments from England more effectively than the more fragmented Welsh petty kingdoms and chieftaincies.

To the north, however, the Scottish kingdom still faced challenges from the remaining Gaelic lordships and chieftaincies. Indeed, descendents of some of the Norman-French lords, brought in to buttress royal control, themselves ‘went native’, e,g. the de Friselles became Clan Fraser.  The semi-feudal, semi-kinship based Gaelic, Lordship of the Isles was not abolished until 1493. Furthermore, it was only the 1603 Union of the Crowns with England, which gave the Stuart monarchy the increased clout necessary to assert its effective control over this area, albeit often through proxies like the powerful Campbell lords, rather than directly.

Under the Union of the Crowns, the continued political interests of Scotland’s powerful feudal aristocracy were served by their influential position within the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament.  Scotland retained its own legal system and currency.  The seventeenth century was marked by a series of major political conflicts (1638-1660, 1666, 1680-92) which, beneath their religio-constitutional form, represented attempts by ‘lower order’ forces – merchants, smaller landowners, tenant farmers and artisans – to weaken or even to break the power of this feudal aristocracy.

The short-lived Scottish Parliament from 1690-1703 gave some representatives from these new economic forces a political voice (e.g. Fletcher of Saltoun), but it was still dominated by the old aristocratic interests. The franchise was even more restricted than in England. After a failed attempt to pursue an independent Scottish colonial policy through the Darien Scheme, and a series of famine years in the late 1690s, these new forces had lost their confidence.

The still largely feudal Scottish ruling class, worried about its own future in a turbulent world, made use of this situation of crisis and voted to end their parliament in Edinburgh in 1707. They settled instead for direct representation in the Union Parliament in London and transferred their very restricted Edinburgh Parliament franchise arrangements to Westminster. First though, they secured their autonomous control of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish legal system.  This was a unionist not a unitary political settlement, providing, in effect, national self-determination for the pre-existing Scottish ruling class within the new UK set-up.

This Scottish ruling class was now able to roll back some of the concessions they had been forced to make after 1690, in the face of more radical challenges from below. They used the new Union parliament in Westminster to reinforce their position by reimposing their patronage over the Church of Scotland in 1711. This was the first example of the resort, by one section of the British ruling class (in this case the Scottish), to getting assistance from its class allies at Westminster, to impose its will in the face of more popular domestic opposition. State backed aristocratic patronage in the Church of Scotland provided a focus for popular opposition for more than a century. Furthermore, it was not until the ending of Westminster’s (and particularly the obstructive House of Lords’) say over land ownership, that Scotland’s remaining feudal land tenure arrangements were ended in 2003!

The 1707 Act of Union was made, not only in the class interests of the majority of the Scottish aristocracy, but also of a rising class of Scottish merchants seeking imperial outlets. The 1603 Union of the Crowns had excluded Scottish-based companies from operating within the ‘British’ (still in effect, English) Empire, although they were allowed to trade in England. However, many Scottish merchants had taken advantage of the fact they could still join up with English merchants, or set up non-Scottish based companies in Ireland and the Empire. Here they were not subject to the strong feudal constraints on their activity which they faced back in Scotland. So Scottish merchants prospered, particularly as traders in tobacco from the slave-based plantations of Virginia. Although the English ruling class was overwhelmingly in favour of the 1707 Union, reservations were still expressed by some English merchants, who feared the Scottish merchants’ competition in the colonies.

The new Union also helped to secure the UK state, and both its English and Scottish supporters, from French-backed Jacobite threats after the installation of new Hanoverian dynasty in 1714. The UK, like its competitors – first Spain, then the Netherlands and increasingly France – became a global player in the mercantile capitalist order of the day. It partly financed its economic growth through various forms of imperial tribute, based on chattel slavery, plunder, colonial taxation and unequal trade. The new British ruling class also gained an additional advantage in the battle for the primitive accumulation of capital over its competitors. Domestic enclosures and the seizure of small farmer holdings contributed to the creation of low wage labour force, both for large commercial farms and for the new industries.

It was during this period, from 1688-1715, that the constitutional foundations of the present-day UK state were established. The UK became a constitutional monarchy (with considerable Crown Powers), which buttressed a unionist and imperialist state. It was financed by the creation of the Bank of England (contributing to the development of the City of London as the most powerful force in the UK economy), and was militarily backed by British army and naval forces, under a shared high command.

However, it was not until the final defeat of the Jacobites in 1746, that Scotland was fully assimilated into the new British mercantile, agricultural and embryonic industrial order in a capitalist ‘revolution from above’. This ended the power of Scotland’s remaining feudal aristocracy, although elements of feudal land law remained. These became subordinate elements within a dominant capitalist order, retained to cement an industrial/commercial landed capitalist alliance in the face of various ‘lower order’ challenges.

   d) Ireland

In the medieval period, petty kingdoms and chieftains had dominated Ireland to an even greater extent than Wales. They presided over an as yet barely feudalised order, where there was kinship control over communal landholding, exercised by the chieftains and their retinues. Some kings did try to impose their own power over others and become the rulers of greater territories. In 1169, the King of Leinster attempted to do what the earlier King of Scotland had done. He invited over Anglo-French lords and adventurers from Wales to help defeat other rivals. However, their leader, Richard Strongbow de Clare, soon manipulated himself into becoming the official heir to the throne.

Worried by the emergence of another possible royal competitor, the Anglo-French, King Henry II of England and Count of Anjou, Maine and Nantes, and Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine (showing the Angevins’ still strong French orientation), moved to take control in 1170. Henry became Lord of Ireland in 1175 and attempted to enforce feudal fealty upon Anglo-French lords and petty Irish kings and chieftains alike.  The Anglo-French lords went on take over considerable areas of Ireland. However, Ireland’s politically fragmented nature, with its many petty kingdoms and chieftaincies, made it harder to make that decisive blow, which would allow centralised feudal control to be more effectively exercised.

Compared to Wales, Ireland was also helped by being physically separated by the Irish Sea.  Similar social conditions in Wales could not prevent a complete takeover there. Significant areas of Ireland remained independent of both the Anglo-French crown and lords’ control. There was a resurgence of Gaelic lordships and chieftaincies. The King of England’s Irish Lordship was, in effect, forced back to the Pale around Dublin. Indeed, as in Scotland, some of those descended from the earlier Anglo-French invaders ‘went native’ (e.g. the de Burgos became the Burkes of Galway).

It was not until 1542 that Ireland entered a regal union with England under the Tudors. However, Ireland was not effectively brought under English control until the final crushing of its mixed Irish feudal and kinship order. Attempts were made to win over Gaelic chieftains on the basis of ‘Surrender and Regrant’. In return for recognising the Tudor kings and queens of Ireland, and hence a new centralised feudal order, these lords and chieftains were awarded English-style legal control over the lands, which they had previously held under Gaelic laws.

However, this English feudal imposition faced continuous challenges outside the old Pale up until 1607.  The political and military opportunity for the final suppression of the old Gaelic order was provided by the Union of the English and Scottish Crowns under the Stuart dynasty in 1603. Although the final conquest of Ireland coincided with the new Union, Ireland was ruled from England, and there was tension between the Scottish settlers, mainly found in Ulster, and the English government in Ireland.

In the process of conquest, the heartland of the old Gaelic order in Ulster was destroyed and thoroughly planted. A new more aggressive policy of Plantation followed from the earlier more tentative sixteenth century English and Scots Plantations in Ireland.  The Cromwellian occupation (1649-53) and the final defeat of James II in 1690 both greatly decreased native Irish land ownership. The ongoing dispossession of previously Irish-held land culminated in the Penal Laws. These were enacted from 1695.  What remained of the old Irish ruling class was faced with the choice of converting to the established Anglican Protestant religion, or of losing its lands. Only those Church of Ireland (Anglican) members were represented in the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

An Anglo-Irish Ascendancy ran Ireland in their own narrow interests. Although sections of this class were prepared, like their equivalents in England and Scotland, to act as ‘improving’ commercial landowners, others opted for the rack-renting of their tenants to finance an opulent aristocratic lifestyle. They faced continued and deep-seated opposition from a number of clandestine bodies – e.g. the Protestant (often Dissenters, e.g. Presbyterians) Oakboys and the Catholic Whiteboys. In response, the landlords frequently resorted to punitive measures, especially towards Catholic tenants, who were still seen metaphorically as being ‘beyond the Pale’.

In 1801, a Union of the British and Irish Parliaments was made in the shared interests of the British ruling class and the ‘Anglo-Irish’ Ascendancy, which by now owned virtually all of Ireland’s land. This was done to ward off the possible reoccurrence of the revolutionary democratic challenge recently made in 1798 by the United Irishmen – Catholic, Dissenter and (Anglican) Protestant – allied to revolutionary France. The Union also meant that the existing Irish Protestant elite could preempt the threat represented by any possible future Catholic voting majority in Ireland.

The United Kingdom now reached its maximum territorial extent, including England (with Wales), Scotland and Ireland. The parliament at Westminster dealt with the politics of both the British Union (UK) and Empire. Its business was confined to the members of a British ruling class drawn from all four countries.


 ii)   The creation of a united British ruling class and its decision not to create a united British nation-state

The elimination or cooption of non-English elites did not produce a united British nation though. Under the terms of the parliamentary unions, the Scottish and the ‘Anglo-Irish’ ruling groups were still able to maintain their own protected national institutions (e.g. the Church of Scotland and the Irish Yeomanry). At the same time, they worked as junior partners to the English members of a new British ruling class. They further developed their now shared UK state. This enabled them jointly to pursue the profits to be made from the British Empire.

Although the new unified British ruling class was able to forge a top-down, British national identity for itself, it did not create a new unitary British nation incorporating all the peoples of these islands – English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh; or a unitary British state, which reduced an older Scotland and Ireland to mere historical terms, like Aquitaine or Normandie in France, after the French Revolution. Instead of becoming a unitary state, as was originally the case when Wales became politically and administratively absorbed into England in 1536, the UK was further developed as a unionist state, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This built upon the 1707 and 1801 Acts of Union.

During the Industrial Revolution, a new middle class was formed from the owners of industrial, commercial and financial capital. They had been able to grow in number and economic weight during the eighteenth century. They were initially helped by state protection and government war contracts. Through a whole series of wars against France and Spain, the tributary states of India, and the tribal peoples and the slave rebellions in North America and the Caribbean, British capital became the dominant mercantile force in the world.

However, once confident of their economic position, the new industrial capitalist class then began to struggle for the removal of the existing state restrictions designed to buttress the older mercantile and landed capitalist order. They demanded that free trade be fully implemented at home, and old restrictions, such as guild regulations and tolls, be removed. They demanded ‘free’ labour  – free from chattel, indentured and other forms of open slavery, but not free from the more disguised form of wage slavery.

They were less successful in getting all land, still encumbered by semi-feudal restrictions, freed up for sale, because of the landed aristocracy’s still powerful position in the UK, particularly with the continuation of the House of Lords. The larger landlords’ position was also reinforced by their domination over Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. This situation arose from the largely external imposition of capitalist power in these areas, albeit sometimes with the cooperation of former clan leaders, who were now recognised by the UK state as the sole owners of the lands they formerly held in the name of the whole clan.

Eventually, a new rising middle class gained entry to a further extended British ruling class between the 1832 parliamentary Reform Act and the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1845. This signified the triumph of British industrial capitalism with its links to the City of London. However, these newcomers did not promote a unitary British state either, in the manner of the French middle class after 1789. They were much more cautious. As Radical liberals they were able to assert the economic hegemony of industrial capital over mercantile and landed capital; but in the political arena, these liberals abandoned one Radical principle after another – opposition to monarchy, the House of Lords and to established or state-backed religions.

This was because of the challenge from first, the plebeian wing of the Radical movement after 1815, then from the new industrial working class wing of Chartism after 1837; and also, from the turbulent Irish tenants contesting the landlords’ power and the state-imposed tithes to the Church of Ireland.   These movements were all seen as threats to the rule of property, whether it was in capital or in land.

Therefore, in the face of these dangers, those new liberal members of the ruling class, representing the rising industrial order, allied themselves with the old conservative members of the ruling class, representing the commercial and landed aristocracy, in the common defence of property – financial, industrial and landed. They accepted the inherited British unionist nature of the UK state, with its coercive Crown Powers, helpful for keeping control of the ‘lower orders’. They increasingly accepted the House of Lords, now that life peerages opened its doors to rich industrialists.

Many members of this new industrial capitalist class had been religious Nonconformists and had earlier faced a number of political (and social) disabilities. However, once these disabilities had been removed, most Nonconformists abandoned the earlier Radical demand for the creation of a secular political order, and accepted the remaining political privileges of the Church of England, highlighted by its bishops in the House of Lords. These Nonconformists helped to form the Liberal wing of a wider Protestant order. They were ready to mobilise anti-Catholic sentiments to help the UK maintain its control over Ireland; and to provide ethical reasons (e.g. the ending of chattel slavery) to provide cover for further imperial advancement.

These new members of the ruling class, representing industrial capitalism, were looking for more effective ways to profit from empire, particularly after the widened opportunities presented by the new colonial gains after the defeat of revolutionary and Napoleonic France in 1815.

Under the prevailing mercantile capitalism of the seventeenth century, Spain and Holland had vied for domination; followed in the eighteenth century by France and the UK. With mercantile capitalism, each imperial power sought its own monopoly of trade within an empire jealously guarded by navies and armies. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, British industrial capital came to economically dominate the world. It enforced a regime of ‘free trade imperialism’. Where economic might alone was not sufficient, then it could be supplemented by a little ‘gunboat diplomacy’. British hegemony was not confined to its formal colonial and commercial empire. Its economic tentacles extended all around the world.

The British ruling class managed all this politically through its control of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster with its Treasury, Home and Foreign Offices, and its domination of ‘law and order’ and local government; economically through its ownership of banking, commercial and trading houses in the City of London, and of industry and land; and militarily through the Royal Navy and British and colonial armed forces.

Nevertheless, the rise of a new industrial capitalist order had not gone unchallenged. A counter to these developments initially arose in the revolutionary democratic movements in the UK associated with the International Revolutionary Wave, which developed from the French Revolution initiated in 1789. At this time, a full-blown industrial capitalist order did not exist. Attempts to enclose the commons, evict tenants, to impose generalised wage labour, to end customary prices for basic foodstuffs and for labour performed, and to abolish outdoor relief were all fiercely resisted.

From 1792 onwards, many joined the United Irishmen, the United Scotsmen, the London Corresponding Society and other organisations, in an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, before this challenge was defeated in 1798 in Ireland. In 1820, the Scottish Rising and General Strike marked the most significant challenge to the UK state. It was part of a wider Britain-wide Radical challenge, which had led to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester of 1819. The last remnants of the United Scotsmen Scottish ‘internationalism from below’ tradition was highlighted in the ‘Scotland, Free or a Desert’ banner, carried by some of the insurrectionists. However, the defeat of this Rising handed the political lead over to the emerging Radical liberals, who sought reforms on an all-UK basis. They created the ‘British road to progress’ tradition, which later became transformed into a ‘British road to socialism’ under the British Social Democratic Federation and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

If there was a period in which Scotland could have been transformed into ‘North Britain’ this was it. Just as Daniel O’Connell, after the winning of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, claimed that he was prepared for Irishmen to become ‘West Britons’ if they were treated equally within the Union.

However, the overriding concern of the mainstream liberals, representing industrial capitalists, was to exclude the older small tenant farmers and artisans and the new working class from any political control, the better to exploit them mercilessly. The Chartists were formed in direct response to these liberals’ failure to extend the franchise to workers under the 1832 Reform Act, and their draconian imposition of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This was designed to create a fearful, low-paid and mobile workforce.

Wales became the frontline in the struggle against the UK state. Its position was emphasised by the Merthyr Rising in 1831, in the context of parliamentary reform; and the Newport Rising in 1839, in the context of a wider planned Chartist insurrection also involving the North of England, particularly Lancashire. Like the earlier Scottish revolutionary democrats, associated with the United Scotsmen, these Welsh social republicans drew on their own vernacular traditions of resistance and, in addition, made extensive use of the Welsh language in their organisations and literature. They too organised on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis, seeing their proposed 1839 Silurian Republic as part of a wider social republican order covering England and Scotland too.

When the UK government conducted its enquiry (the Blue Books of 1847) into the condition of Wales, it laid the blame for the strong opposition it faced there upon the continued existence of the Welsh language. Welsh speakers, who were the large majority in Wales at the time, were not perceived as being really British/English. However, taking on a particular UK identity, like the Scottish-British in Scotland and the Irish-British (previously Anglo-Irish) in Ireland, and becoming Welsh-British became  an option open to growing numbers of the Welsh the middle class, enfranchised under the 1834 Reform Act, particularly if they could speak English.

However, the state’s attitude towards Welsh language speakers, most strongly concentrated amongst tenant farmers, the new working class and small merchants, shows why there was both less support for ‘Britishness’ amongst the ‘lower orders’, and also a reservoir of support for ‘Welshness’ that was linked to a very different vision of society. Anglo-Welsh remained a very class-restricted identity, similar to that of the Anglo-Irish.

With the defeat of the Chartists in 1849, the recently extended British ruling class gained a new ascendancy, now that their new industrial capitalist order had finally triumphed. The UK was clearly the most powerful state in the world. The effect of British ruling class hegemony was to tame the earlier Radical and working class movements. The overwhelming majority no longer sought a new social order, but looked for a ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ within a capitalist system, or for opportunities of personal advance within the British Union or wider Empire.

Therefore, the failure to create a unitary British state and unified national identity was largely a reflection of the choices made by the British ruling class, including its distinct Scottish, Anglo-Welsh and Anglo-Irish components. They decided to join with the English, and later the already existing British ruling class (English and Scottish), for imperialist purposes, whilst retaining some of their earlier national privileges.  Their decision to retain a unionist form of state which encouraged some aspects of Scottish, Irish (and later Welsh) national identities was also designed to ward off various ‘lower order’ challenges, where appeals to a non-existent or still weak British identity, could not deliver the support they sought.

Many amongst the ‘lower orders’ still bore any ‘British’ identity rather lightly. They had never been willingly accepted into the ruling class’s ‘British nation’. The Conservative and Liberal Parties were both all-UK organisations, which represented the interests of the dominant class made up from the older or newer sections of the British ruling class. The geographical extent of the UK reflected the territorial extent of their class backers’ idea of the ‘British nation’. Although, the rise of the Liberals led to some strictly managed democratic reforms, ‘Britishness’ was still associated in the minds of many of the ‘lower orders’ (whether from Ireland, Scotland or Wales) with the old ‘upper class’, and with their legally subordinate status as  ‘servants’ to their ‘masters’, or as British ‘subjects’ under the Crown.

Therefore, the British ruling class opted instead to continue with their unionist state , the better to maintain their pro-property alliance in the face of various ‘lower orders’ class challenges, in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The UK set-up has allowed for subordinate national elites, and newly enfranchised sections from the ‘lower orders’ in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, to hold on to, or to create new perceived nationalities, but as subordinate elements of a hybrid British identity – Scottish-British, Irish-British (more recently ‘Ulster’-British) and Welsh-British. Various measures of administrative ‘home rule’ continued to operate, or were later extended, with the  intention of meeting the specific needs of particular national sections of the British ruling class or to incorporate ‘lower order’ challenges.

In Ireland, it was the repeal of the Test Acts (1828) and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869) that helped to widen the earlier more exclusive ‘Anglo-Irish’ identity by creating a new Irish-British identity, which could be adopted by members of non-established (Dissenter) Protestant denominations (also helped through specific government subsidies), and by some better off Catholics, after Catholic Emancipation in 1829. It took longer for hybrid identities to take root amongst those socially and politically excluded from the new order.

During the century of British imperial world domination stretching from 1815-1914, no UK political party considered bringing an end to the distinct forms of national rule resulting from the unionist form of the state. These sustained those hybrid British identities found in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. They were central to maintaining wider support for the UK as a unionist, as opposed to a unitary British state, even through the period of High Imperialism (1895-1916).  The division, which arose between the liberal unionists (the Liberal Party and its Irish constitutional nationalist allies) and the conservative unionists (the Conservative and Liberal Unionist parties), from the 1880’s, were over the best way to preserve the Union and Empire – political Home Rule or administrative Home Rule.

This division amongst the British ruling class was accentuated as the British Empire began to face serious challenges in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, initially from France, then from Prussia/Germany. British capitalists’ support for ‘free trade’ had remained unquestioned, as long they enjoyed the massive profits arising from being the first country to have undergone a successful industrial revolution. When inter-imperial conflicts intensified, voices advocating such protectionist measures as imperial preference began to be heard in the UK. This led to increased tensions between the financial and commercial capitalist interests focusing on the City of London, and the industrial capitalist interests stronger in the ‘provinces’.

However, these intra-class tensions were contained through their shared clamour for new imperial territories. Furthermore, many amongst the ruling class, who had recently accepted the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, began to harden their opposition to any further liberal unionist constitutional reform for the UK. This was because of the increasing doubts of the British ruling class about their previously unquestioning belief in the ‘natural supremacy’ of the UK and British Empire.

To this day, despite facing a number of subsequent serious challenges, the UK remains a unionist and imperial constitutional monarchy, presiding over English, Scottish and Welsh nations, part of the Irish nation (‘the Six Counties’), various Crown Dependencies (i.e. the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) and those remaining imperial Overseas Territories (e.g. the British Virgin Islands, the Falkland Islands and the Chagos Archipelago).   These Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories provide the British ruling class with tax havens beyond any effective UK government scrutiny. The City of London, protected from democratic scrutiny under the Crown Powers, dominates the Treasury. It has insisted upon keeping sterling as the UK’s own international currency, the better to levy financial arbitrage or ‘tribute’ from around the globe. As British industrial supremacy was undermined by competition from Germany and the USA, the City of London ensured that any possible protectionist defence was seen off, in order to maintain the City as a global financial and commercial centre.

More recently, as financial capital has taken the lead in the post-1970s global capitalist order, the City of London has further strengthened its economic and political position  at the expense of the remaining British industrial production. Furthermore, maintaining the City’s wider role as a major player in global finance still involves a commitment to continued imperialist wars. This has allowed for state support to a more limited industrial sector committed to ‘defence’ production, with major arms companies, like BAE. The geographical City of London lies beyond the control of the Greater London Authority, effectively on ‘onshore island’ controlled by global finance capital. This privileged position is protected under the UK constitution with its own special state official in Westminster answerable only to the City.

Thus British ruling class attempts – whether its members have thought themselves to be British or hybrid-British – to preserve their Union throughout these islands have been linked to their determination to maintain a wider imperial role.   The UK state maintains an overblown British military capacity, which includes nuclear weapons. It hangs on to its costly, top-heavy political, judicial and administrative system, with its royal court, aristocratic House of Lords, bemedalled military officers, bewigged judges, and aloof senior civil servants, all surrounded by pomp and ceremony. These people all declare their oath of loyalty to the Crown, not to Parliament, and certainly not to the people. This is because the Crown Powers provide the British ruling class with the constitutional means to bypass any formal democratic procedures, including Parliament, whenever this proves to be necessary for them.


iii)  The creation and expansion of hybrid British national identities amongst the different classes in these islands and the Empire

The economic change, from being a largely mercantile and commercial agricultural capitalist country before 1849, to being the dominant industrial capitalist country after, had the effect of widening existing or opening up new social divisions, which benefitted British unionism.

In Scotland, the Gaelic speaking areas of the Highlands and Islands were largely excluded from industrial development, whilst the Central Belt became an industrial powerhouse, with coal, iron, steel, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Here English (although still largely spoken in Scots dialect forms) was the language of the overwhelming majority.

In Wales, the increasingly English-speaking South also became more industrially developed, with its coal, iron and steel industries; whilst the largely Welsh-speaking North remained less industrially developed.

In Ireland, the main divide was between the newly industrialised north-east Ulster and the rest of the country. North-east Ulster developed linen and shipbuilding industries. Numerically, the Protestants dominated this area, but the rest of Ireland remained overwhelmingly Catholic. However, even here the English language, backed by Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic hierarchy, largely displaced Gaelic.

An all-UK unionism was able to create a cross-class alliance in those industrialised, largely Protestant and English-speaking areas of the UK, winning both Liberal and Conservative support amongst the working class. This was buttressed on the Right by various loyalist organisations, of which the Orange Order was the most significant in Ireland and Scotland.

Furthermore, the population decline in the Gaelic-speaking areas, accentuated by the Clearances and the Famine, also worked to these areas’ disadvantage. Nevertheless, it is probably significant that the first demands for Scottish and Welsh self-determination emerged most strongly amongst land activists such as John Murdoch in the Highlands and Islands and Evan Pan Jones in North Wales. In Ireland, where a movement for greater Irish self-determination already existed, it was to take on a more radical form after the Land League struggles from 1879. Michael Davitt and other Irish republicans took a strong lead in this. They found a strong base of support in the Gaelic-speaking West.

Where such struggles did not directly contribute to new Irish, Scottish or Welsh national identities, they contributed to hybrid Scottish-British, Welsh-British and Irish-British national identities. Furthermore, as a result of the massive migrations from these rural to the industrial areas of the UK, such hybrid identities were given a new lease of life amongst significant sections of the working class too.

As long as the British Empire maintained its strong position in the world, this helped to provide the Unionists with the ideological cement to hold these hyphenated identities together. Later, when the Empire went into decline, support for the pre-hyphen national pole of these identities grew more strongly, as support for the post-hyphen British pole declined.

Thus, the specifically unionist form of the UK state allowed Irish-British and Scottish-British national identities to continue at elite level. Then these particular national identities were given a wider base of class support as the franchise was extended downwards to encompass different classes amongst the ‘lower orders’ in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In the prolonged period from 1801-1921, when the UK at was at its fullest territorial extent, it had a single imperial and unionist parliament at Westminster. Yet, because of the unionist form of the state, not only were Irish and Scottish administrations devolved further; the first elements of a new Welsh administration were also established.

Since the old Welsh ruling class had been absorbed into the wider English ruing class, when Wales had been incorporated into England, there was no political recognition of the Welsh-British until the franchise was extended to the Welsh middle class in the nineteenth century. Many from the ‘lower orders’ still spoke the Welsh language, which, along with membership of a number of Welsh, non-established, Protestant denominations, contributed to the emergence of this new Welsh-British identity. An alternative Welsh-British identity was also able to develop amongst an increasingly English-speaking working class, particularly in South Wales.

A more conscious political Anglo-Welsh identity also emerged in reaction to these developments, particularly amongst the English-speaking, larger landowning and middle classes. This Anglo-Welsh identity was buttressed by the Anglican Church of Wales, which remained established until 1920.

England was the dominant nation within the UK, with its own population exceeding the combined total of the other three constituent nations several times over. This meant that the emergence of an English-British identity was less clear-cut. For many English people, Britain/British meant England/English, and the two sets of terms were interchangeable; so those holding to Scottish, Irish and Welsh hybrid British identities were either supporting junior partners in Empire or subordinate and not fully British yet.

Class still divided those adopting British or hybrid British identities. Different classes imbued these identities with different meanings, celebrating their own alternative histories. Nevertheless, the wider political potential of any opposition, emanating from ‘lower order’ Radicals, Lib-Labs, Labourists and later, British Socialists, was constantly undermined by these parties’ acceptance of Union and Empire and the existing constitutional order, as the political framework within which to advance their interests.

The promotion of hybrid British identities has remained an important feature of unionist and imperial politics. This could be seen in appeals targeted at ‘Paddy’, ‘Jock’ and ‘Taffy’ to enlist in the British army before the First World War. Imperial wars have also been used to gain wider support for UK state institutions. This was highlighted when Irish Home Rule leaders, such as John Redmond and Joe Devlin, acted as recruiting sergeants for the carnage of the First World War. Today the SNP enthusiastically supports Scottish regiments, which have long served British (and now US/British) imperial interests throughout the world.


iv)  The appearance of independent national political organisations within the UK

In Ireland, the defeat of the 1798 Rising, and the introduction of the subsequent 1801 Act of Union, broke the United Irishmen, the key force behind the early revolutionary democratic challenge to the UK state. The United Irishmen had represented the first attempt to create an independent national political organisation in these islands, albeit one that consciously sought ‘internationalism from below’ alliances.

Daniel O’Connell led a later struggle for Catholic Emancipation. This was achieved in 1829. Whilst having its mass base in Ireland, this campaign was aimed at reform of the constitution throughout the UK, not just in Ireland. O’Connell worked in conjunction with the Whigs. He even considered the possibility of the Irish becoming ‘West Britons’.  O’Connell’s later attempt, through the Repeal Association, to remove Ireland from the parliamentary union, but still keep it under the Crown, failed in 1843. His politics remained subordinate to those of the Whigs. He was strongly opposed to any of the Chartists who showed more sympathy with the Irish seeking to end the Union. This was because of the particular class challenge they represented.

During the mid-nineteenth century heyday of British ‘free trade imperialism’, political competition throughout these islands was largely conducted between sections of the British upper and middle classes under Tory/Conservative and Whig/Liberal banners. This was true whether they came from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. The particular national poles of those hybrid identities, found amongst the upper and middle class Irish-British, Scottish-British and Welsh-British, were largely reserved for private, social and cultural occasions.

Both the existing and would-be members of the British ruling class were confident about their shared future, as they basked in an “Empire upon which the sun never sets”. This was why these hybrid British national identities did not take on any party political form at the time, except in Ireland. Before the last quarter of the nineteenth century, though, even Irish parties ended up as mere outriders for the Liberals and Conservatives.

It took until the 1880s for new independent national political organisations to appear in Ireland. The launching of the quasi-revolutionary Irish National Land League (INLL) brought the mass of tenant farmers into active politics. However, one of the INLL’s key leaders, Charles Parnell, brought about his own ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’ with the backing of the Irish middle class and better-off farmers. In 1882, after agreeing to call off the rent strike and other forms of non-legal action, Parnell established the Irish National League (INL) as a constitutional nationalist party. The INL pressed for a tenant buyout of Ascendancy-owned land, backed Irish-owned industry, and campaigned for Irish Home Rule within the UK and British Empire. However, an underground of committed Irish republicans still remained.

Michael Davitt, a key leader of the INLL,  promoted a ‘land and labour’ social republican ‘internationalism from below’ alliance. He took his campaign into Scotland, Wales and England. In 1885 the Highland Land League (HLL),  made the first attempt to break through the established two party system of the Conservatives and Liberals in Scotland. The formation of the HLL had been inspired by the socio-economic gains of the INLL and the political success of the INL. The HLL put up independent Crofter candidates and won four seats. They also gained support from workers and Radicals in the Central Belt. The HLL favoured Scottish and Irish Home Rule, with its most Radical leaders linking this to a vision of  ‘land for the people’.

Scottish workers were, in turn, inspired by the successful election of Crofter MPs. Scottish miners, in particular, extended the earlier, largely agrarian inspired notion of ‘land for the people’ to cover all land, including its mineral resources. This demand was to be promoted either by means of the taxation of mineral royalties (a Radical policy inspired by Henry George), or by land nationalisation (a Socialist policy advocated by the Social Democratic Federation). The miners, in their turn, led by Keir Hardie, were influential in forming the Scottish Labour Party in 1888, five years before the (intended all-UK) Independent Labour Party was launched in Bradford.

The rising middle classes of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (as well as in the ‘White’ British colonies) used their growing economic power to make increasing political claims for themselves. Key sections pressed for Home Rule within the UK (or British Empire) for their own nations (or territories which had yet to become full nations, such as the various Canadian and Australian colonial provinces and states). Their particular Home Rule reforms would provide them with ‘protected’ jobs in their existing or would-be nations, whilst still guaranteeing them access to the wider jobs and spoils of Union and Empire. In effect, this would have extended the national self-determination of the traditional Scottish-British and Anglo-Irish (later Irish-British) sections of the British ruling class under the Union to the middle classes of Scotland and Ireland, as well as conceding this to the Welsh middle class too. The middle class supporters of Home Rule within the UK, and of White colonial self-government within the wider British Empire, hoped that their suggested political reforms would also satisfy the ‘lower orders’.

However, these Liberals were constantly looking over their shoulders. They feared those workers and small tenant farmers, who might raise their own economic and social demands, and push for more advanced political change. They might create their own independent political organisations to achieve these ends, based on either a social republican, or later, a socialist republican perspective, which fundamentally challenged the UK state and British Empire.


v)  The retreat of hybrid British identities in Ireland in the face of new challenges and their maintenance in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as long as British imperialism remained relatively strong

In Ireland, the possibility of an Irish-British national identity gaining more widespread acceptance was greatly reduced in the aftermath of the disastrous Great Famine (1845-9), especially amongst Catholic tenant farmers.  However, Irish-British identity still commanded significant support from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and amongst the Protestant middle class, tenant farmers and artisans. This was particularly the case in industrial north-east Ulster, which played an important role in the British imperial economy. This link also helped to push the majority of working class Protestants to support the Union and Empire, encouraged by the Conservatives (and later the Liberal Unionists), the Orange Order, the (Anglican) Church of Ireland and Presbyterian street corner demagogues.

Amongst those largely Catholic Irish, the specifically Irish aspect of their national identities took on a greater political significance.  Middle class Home Rulers, though, still retained some attachment to the wider British Empire, buttressed by the Catholic hierarchy’s support.  The United Irish League’s (successor to the INL, which split after the Parnell/Kitty O’Shea scandal) opposition to the British imperial Boer War (1899-1902) (also matched by some British Liberals, and most ILP members and Socialists) was not maintained when it came to the First World War (1914-18).

However, a significant minority amongst the ‘lower orders’ rejected the imperial notion of a shared British national identity altogether, whether hyphenated or not. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) (first founded in 1858 and reconstituted in 1867) had promoted the notion of an independent Irish nation. This was to be formed by uniting Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters as the Irish-Irish in an independent Irish republic, as opposed to being Irish-British in an Ireland still within the Union and Empire.

When the IRB had accepted the ‘New Departure’, in 1878, this led to the formation of the Irish National Land League. The ensuing Land War provided the idea of an Irish republic with a wider political base of support. Republicans in Ireland differed amongst themselves over their visions of a future society. The most advanced amongst them, such as Michael Davitt, sought popular democratic control over their nation’s natural resources, especially land, and sometimes over its principal industries and transport. In their thinking, this would lead to the formation of a social republic. Davitt also pursued an ‘internationalism from below’ land and labour alliance in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

Later on, James Connolly moved beyond Davitt’s social republicanism and adopted socialist republicanism. He also developed the strategy of breaking Ireland from the UK and seeking allies elsewhere to oppose British imperialism. His first attempt to do this, the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896, faltered in the face of the High Imperialist offensive (1895-1905). However, after this, the class struggle intensified again. It culminated in the 1913 Dublin Lockout and the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, a workers’ militia. Socialist republicanism was to remain a force to be reckoned with, until marginalised as a result of the defeat of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave.

In contrast, the continued strength of the British Empire buttressed Scottish-British and Welsh-British identities, as well as reinforcing Irish-British identity amongst the Protestants of Ulster. These identities were to last for a considerably longer period than any hybrid British identity was able to do in most of Ireland outside Ulster. Like north-east Ulster, the industrial Clyde Valley and South Wales played important parts in the British imperial economy. After a succession of economic, social, cultural and political reforms, made to accommodate the ‘lower orders’, the UK state gained the support of Liberals and Radicals, Lib-Labs, and later of Empire-accepting Labour Party members and Socialists. They all pressed for their desired economic, social and cultural reforms within the existing unionist and imperialist order.

Even in Ireland, though, it took the shock of the First World War, with its exposure of British imperial weakness, to push small farmers, labourers and workers into concerted action to break from their previous majority support for Irish constitutional nationalism and to fight for an Irish Republic. James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, played key roles in initiating this Republican struggle, marked by the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

Following on from this example, John Maclean introduced the idea of the break-up of the Union and Empire to the Scottish working class. Previously adhering to the ‘British road to socialism’ of the British Socialist Party (BSP), Maclean first adopted James Connolly’s strategy in 1919. In that year he witnessed the resilience of the Irish Republican opposition (including the Limerick Soviet) fighting for political demands, and compared this with the relative weakness of the trade union opposition fighting for economic demands (the 40 hour week struggle of engineering workers) on Clydeside, both in the face of a UK state clampdown.

Having rejected the shortcomings of existing British socialist organisations, particularly the BSP, Maclean formed the Tramp Trust Unlimited, and toured Scotland to promote his pamphlet, Ireland’s Tragedy – Scotland’s Disgrace.  His endeavours, in this regard, eventually led to the foundation of the Scottish Workers Republican Party in 1922. These developments were curtailed, however, by his early death in 1923. Maclean’s final years also coincided with the ending of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, marked by the crushing of the Kronstadt Soviet in the infant USSR.

This same post-war period of political and economic setbacks witnessed the success of the British ruling class attempt to reassert its control over the working class upsurge, which followed the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In 1919, the challenge of the 40 Hours Strike of engineers on Clydeside and the Laganside was faced down. Tanks and English troops were used in Glasgow, whilst Loyalists evicted trade union militants (including Protestants) and Catholic workers from the Belfast shipyards. In 1921, militant miners, whose leaders were originally bought off by the Sankey Commission (hinting at the possibility of the nationalisation of the coal mines), were left isolated by the other members of the Triple Alliance of miners’, railworkers’ and transport workers’ unions on Black Friday, after the Commission failed to deliver.

Meeting considerably more resistance in Ireland, the British ruling class was only able to reassert its control over the situation in 1922. Previous to that, they suffered a major setback at the hands of the Republican resistance in the Irish War of Independence. This war had come about after the UK government’s refusal to recognise Sinn Fein’s overwhelming electoral victory in the 1918 General Election.  To counter the mounting challenge, the Black and Tans were launched against the Irish population in 1920. British state backing was also given to the Unionists who conducted pogroms in Belfast between 1920-22.

Eventually, though, a partitionist Anglo-Irish Treaty was imposed. The UK state armed the pro-Treaty forces in the 26 counties in order to crush the Republican resistance in the Irish Civil War (1922-3), and to keep the Irish Free State under the Crown. The British government recognised the Irish Free State in 26 counties, but also promoted a 6 Counties parliament for a new statelet in Northern Ireland, despite Unionists’ previous strong opposition to Home Rule. This new deal provided the UK with a means both to continue to manipulate politics in the Irish Free State, and to ensure that Unionists were given the primary role in securing British domination in the 6 Counties.

The now separate Ulster Unionist Party (albeit still part of the UK wide Conservative and Unionist Party) ensured that Stormont became, in effect, ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’. The Ulster Unionist majority went on to form a new hybrid national identity there. They became the ‘Ulster’-British (albeit at the cost of abandoning 3 Ulster counties), now that the old Irish-British unionist leadership had lost its political ascendancy over the other 26 counties, and the Irish-Irish had become Irish.

In Scotland, at this time, the growing Labour Party was taking on a greater political significance than its pro-Home Rule affiliate, the Independent Labour Party, which had been founded earlier. The Labour Party took less interest in constitutional reform and concentrated on Westminster as the focus for its economic and social reforms, especially after the defeat of a Scottish Home Rule Bill during the first minority Labour government in 1924.

The infant CPGB, which had a small but influential base in the Central Belt of Scotland, took inspiration from another unionist state, the USSR. Here the CPSU leadership, drawn from a number of the Union’s republics, played an analogous integrating role in the USSR, to that of the British ruling class in the UK state. The CPSU was hostile to any meaningful exercise of national self-determination within its territorial boundaries. As in the UK, specific cultural identities could still be supported and celebrated within the union-state. However, following the CPSU in the USSR, the early CPGB adopted a similar oppositional attitude to any moves towards national democracy in Scotland (and also in Wales).

Therefore, the first fractures in the British unionist and imperialist set-up, which had been highlighted during the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave, were prevented from opening up further.  The British ruling class reimposed its control over these islands, and throughout its Empire. The British Empire reached its maximum territorial extent as result of the imperialist carve-up and redivision, which occurred after the First World War.

However, this territorial expansion helped to disguise the UK and British Empire’s weakening international position. It took several more decades for the majority of the British ruling class to realise this. They first thought that a rising Nazi Germany (from 1933) could be contained and redirected for their own purposes.  When this proved not to be possible, they had to turn to the pro-war  Winston Churchill, in 1939, to better defend the Empire. However, although the UK emerged as victor, the Second World War further weakened British imperialism, and led to the conclusive replacement of the UK by the USA as the dominant imperial power in the world.

Until the 1960s, the Nationalist parties, which had emerged over this period in Northern Ireland (the rump Nationalist Party began to take its seats in Stormont in 1924), in Wales (Plaid Cymru in 1925), and in Scotland (the SNP in 1934), remained fairly marginal, apart from occasional short-lived spurts (e.g. Robert MacIntyre’s SNP victory in the Motherwell by-election in 1945).


vi)  British ruling class attempts to maintain its power through reform of the UK in the face of the imperial decline and the further retreat of hybrid British identities, especially amongst the working class

The British ruling class had made real attempts to coopt other classes, in support of their wider imperial aims. In the process they were forced to concede some political reform of their Empire and Union, whenever they faced strong enough national democratic challenges.

In the case of Ireland, where direct political control was lost over 26 counties, after the War of Independence, the British ruling class first developed what would later be known as neo-colonial methods of control. These were exercised at a distance, through local parties that still accepted the wider British imperial hegemony, e.g. Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael.

Within the UK, reforms had been, or were later, introduced to give greater recognition to the national poles of the various hybrid British identities – Irish, Scottish and Welsh. This was also done to a greater extent in those parts of the Empire where British white settlers dominated, e.g Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, administrative devolution measures had been considered enough to achieve this within the UK itself (e.g. various Irish land reform agencies, a Secretary of State for Scotland in 1885, a Welsh Department of the Board of Education in 1907). During the era of High Imperialism, the conservative unionist majority (Conservatives and Liberal Unionists) amongst the British ruling class could still confidently obstruct any specifically political Home Rule proposals advocated by liberal unionists or constitutional nationalists – Liberals, Radicals, Lib-Labs, Labourists, the INL and its successors, supported by some Socialists – whilst also introducing further measures of administrative devolution.

However, conservative unionist intransigent opposition to constitutional reform had proved impossible to maintain during the International Revolutionary Wave from 1916-21 and the Irish Republican challenge to British rule. Therefore unwittingly, the earlier majority British ruling class’s unbending hostility towards political Home Rule contributed to the first phase of the break-up of the UK state, leading to the departure of the Irish Free State – albeit still with three British naval bases until 1938, politically under the Crown until 1948, and economically subordinate to the City until 1978, when the Irish punt was finally delinked from sterling.

As British imperialism went into further decline, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and particularly from the 1960s, the underlying historical trend towards the political break-up of the British Empire and the UK state and the erosion of ‘Britishness’ began to reassert itself.  In the UK, this occurred despite continuing economic integration throughout these islands, with big business (British, American and European) taking over many previous nationally based businesses, or driving them to the wall; and, as the network of shared transport, communications and media, which linked the constituent nations of the UK, drew ever closer.

The demands for greater Scottish self-determination (the Scottish Covenant movement from 1947-50) and for Irish unity (the Irish Anti-Partition League from 1945-51) did arise at the end of the Second World War. However, Attlee’s Labour government was committed to maintaining the existing British unionist order, and strongly opposed these demands.

The two consecutive post-war Labour governments provided the UK with a new lease of life, but now as a constitutional monarchist, social unionist, welfare state. To that old Radical Liberal workers’ commitment to  ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’ was now added Labour’s social democratic commitment to a state, which provided care ‘from the cradle to the grave’. For Labour, the culmination of this new conservative unionist deal, emboldened by the British victory over Nazi Germany, and by the opportunities for post-war economic reconstruction, was celebrated in the 1951 Festival for Britain (which was extended to Northern Ireland).

So strong was Labour’s support for the UK state and British Empire that it abandoned its earlier support for liberal constitutional reform, e.g. Scottish Home Rule and for Irish unity. It ignored John MacCormick’s mass-supported Scottish Covenant proposals in 1950, and copper-fastened Northern Ireland within the UK with the Ireland Act of 1949. It committed British troops to Greece, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), French Indo-China (Vietnam), Palestine and Malaya to suppress anti-imperialist challenges.

Labour’s social monarchist and imperialist unionism helped to buttress British and hybrid-British identities, particularly amongst the working class in the UK. This trend continued up to the 1974-9 Labour governments, despite the challenge of new national democratic movements in Wales, Scotland and the ‘Six Counties’ from the late 1960s. However, when New Labour itself became responsible, from 1997, for undermining the post-war, social unionist settlement, by attacking welfare state provision, then support for ‘Britishness’ began to recede amongst the working class, particularly in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales, whilst Northern Ireland remained polarised around ‘Ulster’-British and Irish identities.

The Conservative government was able to push this British unionism further in 1953, with the Coronation celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s  (whose regal numbering provoked a small, but publicity-savvy campaign from Scottish nationalists). Labour had already been forced to adopt a military retrenchment from Empire in India and Palestine (albeit still leaving these areas with a toxic ethnically-divided legacy, long promoted as part of British imperial divide-and-rule tactics). After the Conservative’s failure in Suez in 1956, they too began to move towards imperial retrenchment, highlighted by Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1960.

Despite the military victory represented by the Second World War, British imperial decline continued. The British ruling class still tried to uphold both the Union and its imperial presence in the world. To counter obvious British imperial decline, it sought to uphold a ‘Special Relationship’ with the USA. However, because of the relative balance of forces, this placed the British ruling class in a position of greater dependence upon the US state, whilst the American ruling class was free to pursue its own interests when these diverged from those of the UK state.

Thus, the US state increasingly asserted its imperial hegemony over the UK. This growing dependence was first underscored by the terms of the Lend-Lease Scheme made to the post-war Labour British government. US military forces went on to take over the British role in attempting to break the Greek national liberation movement. In 1949, the Labour government signed up to NATO, a US dominated, anti-USSR military alliance.

The US state clearly demonstrated who was the boss in this imperial alliance. It refused to back the UK’s (along with France and Israel) military attack on Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956. After this, a rueful British ruling class came to accept that its independent imperial role was now past. Although, the UK retained ‘independent’ nuclear capacity for imperial prestige, it still needed US state permission for its use.

From the 1960s, the territorial extent (with the loss of most of its colonies) and the effective political reach of British imperialism have gone into rapid decline. This contributed to greater numbers of workers and others in Scotland downgrading the British imperial part of their hybrid national identities and upgrading the specific Scottish national part. The first political indications of this were the SNP electoral breakthroughs. Winnie Ewing was elected to Westminster in the Hamilton by-election in 1967.

In Wales, during the 1950s, this process revealed itself a little earlier, partly due to the continued political significance of the defence of the Welsh language. However, the language issue also held back further national democratic advance.  The UK state was able to promote ethnic (cultural) enmity along language lines to divide English and Welsh speakers. Those Welsh cultural nationalists, who prioritised the defence of the Welsh language over democratic political reform, gave unwitting support to the UK state in its divide-and-rule endeavours. Nevertheless it was the impact of Plaid Cymru that first highlighted the rise of new nationalist parties in the UK. Gwynfor Evans was elected to Westminster in the Carmarthen by-election in 1966.

It was only in the Northern Ireland that a continued strong British identity – ‘Ulster’-British – was able to vigorously maintain itself, although almost entirely amongst the Protestant section of the population.  Significantly, this ‘Ulster’-Britishness has always been associated with an exaggerated support for the Empire, Union, King (or Queen) and the established Protestant religion. Furthermore, it required a starkly repressive Orange statelet (financed by UK state subventions), with its gerrymandered Stormont, a draconian Special Powers Act, a Protestant unionist dominated RUC, and a variety of Special forces drawn from Orange and other Loyalist organisations, to maintain this.

However, amongst the Irish section [1] of the population living in ‘the Six Counties’, a more confident Irish nationalism began to assert itself in the late 1960s. Local liberal and labour unionist attempts to woo those with an Irish identity in Northern Ireland were never that convincing, since their advocates quickly bowed to pressure from the conservative Ulster Unionists backed by various Loyalist organisations. These reactionary forces were determined to exclude Irish/Catholics (usually seen by them as being identical) from any political say in Stormont and most of Northern Ireland’s local councils.

The unionist Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) did win some limited Catholic support (which hinted at a possibility of cementing an Irish-British, as opposed to an Irish national identity in the North), but not in the West Belfast heartland, where Irish workers voted for Republican Labour candidates. The NILP was too ‘Ulster’-British to win over more Catholic support.

The initiators of the 1969 Civil Rights Movement sought the reform of Stormont, hoping to win working class Protestant backing. However, a significant section of the Republican Movement (later to emerge as the Official wing), who had been influenced by the Communist Party of Ireland (itself partitioned until 1970), supported this as a first stage to achieving a united Ireland (a strategy taken up again by today’s Sinn Fein).

Many, though, on the most radical wing of the Civil Rights Movement, led by Peoples Democracy (PD), had been influenced by the direct action wing of American Civil Rights Movement and by the heady days of ‘68’. Some PD leaders saw their struggle as the first phase of wider international revolution.

As in the period between 1919-22, any opposition emanating from the Irish national communities was met by a Loyalist counter-offensive, backed in 1969 by the RUC and the B Specials. The RUC attacked the Bogside in Derry. A Loyalist pogrom (including out-of-uniform Specials) was launched in streets off the Lower Falls Road in West Belfast, whilst the isolated Short Strand in East Belfast also came under armed Loyalist assault in 1970.

In the late 1960s, a determined UK state-backed, liberal unionist attempt to integrate the Catholic Irish economically, socially and politically into Northern Ireland, might have split and headed off any renewed specifically Irish national challenge.  If the Catholic Irish could still have found it hard to become ‘Ulster’-British, they might possibly have been won over to a wider British identity, in a similar manner to those considerable numbers of Catholic Irish who had moved to Scotland.

Such an attempt might have been possible if Stormont had been abolished immediately and a UK state programme of civil rights imposed upon Northern Ireland, in an analogous manner to the attempt by the US Federal Government to enforce civil rights in the South. However, the rise of national democratic movements elsewhere in the UK initially made the British ruling class nervous about the uncertainties opened up by constitutional reform, especially when they lacked enough reliable local moderate unionists to help maintain UK state control in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, the UK state continued to give backing to the intransigent but reliably loyal Ulster Unionists. The British ruling class also faced the added worry that Northern Ireland lay strategically on the northern gateway to the Atlantic, in the context of the ongoing Cold War, and Ireland was not signed up to NATO (although still very pro-US and anti-Communist). These two factors also ensured that much of the contact between Ulster Unionism, Loyalism and the wider UK state was conducted through the security services. The Crown Powers, which provide constitutional cover for such activities, proved extremely useful.

In Scotland, it had been the Labour Party, which provided those from a Catholic Irish background, particularly in the Central Belt, with a political conduit into local government and Westminster.  Many had been won over to support for the Union in Britain and, for a long time, they opposed any political devolution (as Home Rule came to be called) for Scotland. Scotland still remained a more hostile environment for the Catholic Irish, whereas such feelings tended to be more locally restricted in England, e.g. Liverpool – at least until the emergence of ‘The Troubles’.

It took some time before Scottish society began to open itself enough to permit the development of an alternative Scottish-British or Irish-Scottish identity for those from a Catholic Irish background. Before this many Catholics living in Scotland considered themselves to be Irish-British. They provided the strongest working class support for the unionist British Labour Party in Scotland.  This was partly as an insurance against their fears that any possible future Scottish Parliament could perhaps become another ‘Stormont’.

Liberal and labour unionism remained weak in Northern Ireland though. The one-party Orange sectarian regime had both regular and part-time Unionist armed forces at its disposal, whilst also being able to call upon bigoted Loyalist forces when necessary. Ulster Unionist and Loyalist intransigence blocked the door to any meaningful reform of Stormont, which could integrate the Irish and lead to an easier Catholic acceptance of an Irish-British or British identity.

In the absence of any other reliable support for continued UK rule, the British government sent troops to Northern Ireland, in 1969, to uphold the position of the now strongly challenged Ulster Unionists and their Orange statelet. Both the Labour government, and the following Conservative government elected in 1970, recommended some liberal unionist concessions to split the Civil Rights Movement, and to win over moderate middle class Catholic support.

But this was a bridge too far for most Ulster Unionists. They stuck by the old Loyalist certainties – “No surrender”, “Not an Inch”. And, as an indication that the Unionist regime enjoyed continued UK government support, it was permitted to introduce internment without trial. Arrests were confined solely to the Irish (Republican, Nationalist and Socialist), despite the murders, pogroms and other attacks made by Loyalists. Meanwhile the British military and security forces were given an increased role, with many of their activities, including links to the Loyalists, being conducted, under the Crown Powers, without any real Westminster scrutiny.


vii)  The initial failure of liberal unionist political devolution and the entrenchment of Westminster Direct Rule by 1979

The British ruling class has a long collective memory, and the re-emergence of national democratic challenges in the 1960s reminded some of them of the old Home Rule policies, which had emerged amongst the liberal unionists in the Liberal Party (not to be confused with the conservative unionist, anti-Home Rule, Liberal Unionists), in the face of challenges from the Land Leagues, the Irish National League and its successors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Therefore, in response to the growing national democratic movements in the 1960s, Harold Wilson’s Labour government set up the Crowther (later to be called the Kilbrandon) Commission in 1969.  Its work continued under Heath’s Conservative government and it reported in 1973. The Kilbrandon Commission recommended liberal unionist reform of the UK constitution. What had once been termed ‘Home Rule’ was now to be called ‘Devolution’.  Yet, the Conservative government and the Labour opposition saw no great urgency to implement these recommendations following the failure of the SNP or Plaid Cymru to make any further breakthroughs in the 1970 General Election, after their earlier by-election successes.

However, the polarised situation in Northern Ireland, with the re-emergence of an armed Republican resistance, particularly after Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972; a more vigorous Nationalist party – the Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP); the rapid development of Loyalist gangs and paramilitaries; and further right Unionist parties – the right populist, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the semi-fascist, Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party (VPUP) – eventually forced the Conservative government to initiate constitutional reform (with Westminster cross party support) and to pass the Northern Ireland Constitution Act in 1973. This brought about the abolition of Stormont.

Yet this was only meant to be a temporary measure, before the setting up of a new power-sharing devolved assembly in Northern Ireland. A somewhat reluctant Brian Faulkner, leader of the conservative unionist Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), along with the Oliver Napier of the liberal unionist Alliance, and Gerry Fitt of the constitutional nationalist SDLP, signed the Sunningdale Agreement, hoping to bring about this reform of Stormont.

Once again, most conservative and reactionary Unionists and Loyalists strongly opposed any liberal unionist constitutional reform. They formed the United Ulster Unionist Council (with the rejectionist, further right section of the UUP led by Harry West, the DUP led by Ian Paisley, and the VPUP led by William Craig). The Ulster Army Council (UVF and UDA), and the Loyalist paramilitary-led Ulster Workers Council were also formed. These three organisations coordinated a campaign of political opposition, paramilitary intimidation and strike action. The UVF (probably with British security force assistance) undertook a major bombing campaign in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 people. This was a coldly calculated signal to the Irish government to keep out of the ‘Six Counties’.

Together, the official Unionists and unofficial Loyalists brought down the Sunningdale Agreement. This agreement, initially drawn up under Heath’s Conservative government, had become the responsibility of Harold Wilson’s incoming Labour government in 1974, highlighting these parties’ shared unionist approach.

Following the collapse of Sunningdale, Northern Ireland, like Scotland and Wales already, became subject to Westminster Direct Rule, albeit without having any UK-wide party there with direct representation at Westminster.  The Conservatives, Labour and Liberals provided Britain-wide parties in England, Scotland and Wales to address the interests of their various class backers within these constituent nations of the UK. (The UUP broke most links with the Conservatives in protest against Sunningdale.) The Northern Ireland statelet was left largely to the devices of the British military and security services, with consecutive Northern Irish Secretaries of State acting like colonial governors.

In contrast, though, electoral gains by both the constitutional nationalist SNP and Plaid Cymru, in the two 1974 general elections, persuaded the new Labour government to continue pursuing liberal unionist constitutional reform in Scotland and Wales. In 1978, they introduced Devolution Bills for the two nations. Both the SNP and Plaid Cymru supported these bills. However, Labour was presiding over growing British economic and wider imperial decline. Sections of the British ruling class began to mount strong opposition to any prospects of further ‘dangerous’ liberal reform. They wanted to batten down the hatches of ‘UK plc’ in the face of an increasingly turbulent international economic situation.

The repressive methods used to assert UK state control in Northern Ireland, in the attempt to break continuing Irish Republican resistance, appealed to some sections of the British ruling class. They thought that some of these techniques might have a wider application in the future.  They looked to the Conservative Party, pushing for a new right wing leadership under Margaret Thatcher. Labour’s incumbent Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Roy ‘Stone’ Mason, was also an advocate of UK state repression and a leading figure in Labour’s shift to the Right under Callaghan after his government kowtowed to the IMF in 1976.

Therefore, it was not surprising that there was a sizeable section of the Labour Party, particularly in Scotland and Wales, which opposed any liberal unionist constitutional reform. Politically, they represented an updated version of the Liberal Unionists who emerged to contest Irish Home Rule in the late nineteenth century. They were also permitted to campaign openly against the Labour government’s Devolution Bills. They were assisted by the Left British unionists.

In Scotland, Labour’s Tam Dayell, Robin Cook and Brian Wilson (who adopted a pro-Highland, but anti-wider Scottish position), and in Wales, Labour’s Neil Kinnock and Leo Abse (who adopted anti-Welsh speaking Wales positions), supported by some of the far Left (e.g. the ‘revolution not devolution’ SWP), tried to put a Leftist gloss on the conservative unionist counter-attack on liberal constitutional reform.

Those members of the ruling class opposing the Devolution Bills enjoyed a decided advantage. Under the Crown Powers, the UK constitution allows the ruling class’s agents in Westminster, the judiciary, the senior civil service and the military and security officers to bypass parliamentary scrutiny and to resort to some decidedly anti-democratic methods. These could be seen most clearly in Northern Ireland, where, in an attempt to defeat the Republican opposition and to cow the Irish section of the population, Diplock courts (with normal defenders’ rights suspended), internment without trial, shoot-to-kill and state backing for Loyalist death squads had been introduced.

Such draconian measures were not needed though in Scotland and Wales to face down the loose alliance of pro-devolution liberal unionists and constitutional nationalists. Instead, anti-devolutionists got Labour MP, George Cunningham, to put an amendment requiring the support of 40% of the total electorate before Devolution would be enacted. They wheeled out former Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Douglas-Hume, to promise a better devolutionary deal in Scotland under a Tory government in the future. Senior civil servants were told to bury any government reports or papers which might aid the nationalists.  Some mock military exercises were targeted at putative armed nationalist forces, and agent provocateur activity was promoted on the Scottish nationalist fringe. Attempts were made to divide English and Welsh speakers in Wales.  ‘Non-political’ ‘Elizabrit’ was persuaded to make an anti-nationalist Christmas Speech in 1977.

The two Devolution Bills were defeated in referenda held in 1979. This prompted a general election, which led to a Conservative government under Thatcher. The liberal unionist political impulse had been brought to a juddering halt. Thatcher was a conservative ultra-unionist, who warmly admired the political methods of the rejectionist Ulster Unionists. She enjoyed close links with the imperially trained British security services. Her new government, elected in 1979, soon stepped up the combined employer, unionist and imperialist offensives.


 viii)  A failed liberal unitary Britain attempt to reform politics in Northern Ireland

It might have been thought that, after the latest challenge from the Irish community and the failure of UUP one-party statelet, which had controlled Northern Ireland from 1922 until the abolition of Stormont in 1972, unionists in Northern Ireland would have appreciated the closer political links to the rest of the UK brought about by Westminster Direct Rule. Back in 1801, their Irish unionist antecedents had overcome Orange Order objections and accepted the abolition of the Irish Parliament, although they had also continued to give (sometimes clandestine) support to the Orange Order, as an insurance policy against Irish national ‘lower order’ challenges.

Furthermore, in Northern Ireland, even after the abolition of Stormont in 1973, as in Ireland after the 1801 Act of Union, devolved administrative institutions still remained in place. So ‘Ulster’-British identities could still have been preserved, under continued Direct Rule, just as Scottish-British and Welsh-British identities  received continued institutional support.

In an attempt to make political capital out of such possibilities, the Campaign for Equal Citizenship was launched in the 1980s with the involvement the British and Irish Communist Organisation and the prominent dissident Ulster unionists, Robert McCartney and Clifford Smyth. Campaigns were also launched within both the British Labour and Conservative parties, to get these two ‘mainland’ parties to organise directly in Northern Ireland, so that British ‘national’ politics could be conducted solely through Westminster.

After making some initial headway, these campaigns to encourage greater British political integration fell away.  The majority of traditional Ulster Unionists – whether UUP or DUP – were still wanting to maintain Protestant/’Ulster’ British supremacy and not confuse matters by extending rights to Catholics, particularly from an Irish background, which they enjoyed elsewhere in the UK.

The new Westminster Direct Rule arrangements in Northern Ireland hardly provided a successful liberal, or even a conservative precedent for any would-be British nationalists making the first tentative moves towards a more unitary British state. Successive British governments ensured that effective control in the province remained with the British armed forces and security services. Their powers to intervene even included the right to approve new building projects (this was to ensure the unimpeded movement of troops in Irish peopled areas).

Any economic and social concessions were only made in an attempt to placate workers and others who were often beyond effective state control throughout ‘The Troubles’. Ironically, the one thing which united the mainstream Unionist and Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, from the late 1980s, was an insistence on the return of Stormont, even if they supported this for diametrically opposed reasons.


ix)  The Irish Hunger Strike (1981) and the Miners Strike (1984-5) – a comparison between their long-term political impacts

The 1970s had initially seen a liberal state response to an increasing working class challenge, as well as to the rise of the new national democratic movements. The successful 1974 Miners’ Strike, which had brought down the Conservative government, led to a period of debate amongst the ruling class about how the working class challenge could best be contained. The incoming Labour government initiated the Bullock Report published in 1977. This adopted a liberal approach to industrial relations and recommended ‘worker participation’ in the running of industry.

In reality, these ‘workers’ would more likely have been trade union officials, especially at the higher levels of industrial management. Most of the Left opposed worker participation at the time, because it was understood to represent an opening to corporatism, under the auspices of the state, the employers and the trade union bureaucracy. Workers’ control of, not participation in, the management of industry was the answer for many on the Left.

Furthermore, just as the Labour government bowed to right wing pressure over liberal reform of Northern Ireland, so it ignored Bullock’s liberal ‘worker participation’ recommendations. Instead, under pressure from the IMF, the CBI, and an increasingly right wing Conservative Party, Callaghan’s Labour government tried to roll back workers’ pay demands in a period of rampant inflation. Under the Social Contract from 1974, and the Concordat following the 1978-9 ‘Winter of Discontent’, Labour looked for help from the TUC and trade union bureaucracies to discipline any shop steward and rank and file worker initiated independent (unofficial) action.

When the Labour government collapsed in 1979, after its Scottish and Welsh Devolution referenda debacles, the Conservatives were returned. Thatcher soon initiated a relentless campaign to break independent trade union power. Defeats of selected groups, such as the steel workers in 1980, and the Warrington print workers in 1983, paved the way for comprehensive anti-trade union laws.

‘Anti-trade union’ is a bit of a misnomer here, since the effect of these laws has been very different upon the trade union bureaucracy compared to the rank and file. The former has greatly increased its privileges at the expense of, and its power over, the latter. This bureaucracy has jealously protected its position by clamping down on any attempts to organise effective industrial action, which might jeopardise its position.

The Conservatives imposed a ban to prevent GCHQ workers from remaining members of their union in 1984. However, they also provided state funding for official trade union courses to encourage employee ‘responsibility’. They worked closely with right wing trade union leaders, such as those in the EEPTU, who signed deals that signed their members up to private health schemes.

The Conservatives’ real victory over the whole Trade Union Movement though came as result of the defeat of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. This was a titanic battle, and its leader, Arthur Scargill, attempted to thwart the draconian anti-trade union laws and state backing for scab unions – the UDM and EEPTU. However, he also thought that victory would come through winning the official support of the TUC and the Labour Party, rather than extending the  independent organisation of those many trade unionists and supporters who were giving their support to the miners.

Thatcher made it very clear that she considered the miners to be “the enemy within”, and that the miners’ industrial action threatened the UK state. Therefore, the worried leaderships of the very constitutional Labour Party and TUC did what they could to marginalise the miners. The Conservative government, in the meantime, made concessions to Scottish teachers, dockers and Militant Labour-led Liverpool Council to avoid fighting on too many fronts, knowing that, once the miners were defeated, they could pick off these groups later.

It had been but eight years between the British ruling class’s tentative support for the liberal industrial relations reforms, suggested by Bullock, to their total support for anti-trade union laws and state repression of the miners. So, how did their initial support for liberal unionist constitutional reform of the UK fare over much the same period?

The British ruling class’s strongest commitment to such liberal reform was shown between 1973 (the Northern Ireland Constitution Act and the Sunningdale Agreement) and 1978 (the Scottish and Welsh Bills to introduce Devolution). However, it has already been shown that ruling class support for liberal constitutional measures seemed dead in the water by 1979.  The conservative unionists had apparently triumphed earlier on the political front than they were later to on the industrial front.

However, in Northern Ireland, events then took a different course, leading to a changed British ruling class response. The Republican Movement, having suffered considerable setbacks, under both the Labour and Conservative governments’ criminalisation offensive, was able to win back wide support from the Irish community during the 1981 Hunger Strikes. This culminated in the election of IRA prisoner, Bobby Sands, to Westminster. Furthermore, the ensuing death of Sands and nine other hunger strikers did not represent the same massive defeat for the Republican Movement, as did the defeat of the miners, four years later, for the wider British Trade Union Movement.

After the Hunger Strikes, the Republican Movement was able to make significant political gains largely because, unlike the British Labour Party, it did not depend on the support of those who accepted the political limitations of the existing UK constitutional order. Between 1984-5, a minority amongst the South Yorkshire miners came to understand that the British state’s police occupation of their villages bore a striking resemblance to the British state’s army occupation of the Irish peopled villages in South Armagh. In a sense, they were coming to a similar conclusion to that of John Maclean 66 years earlier in 1919, when he realised that open political struggles against the state could sustain themselves more effectively than economic struggles.

And in Ireland, by the 1990s, as in the 1920s, the British ruling class was forced to go beyond the initial preferred policy of political marginalisation and repression, it had resorted to, to break the power of any major opposition it faced. In 1921, with regard to the working class, the British ruling class had been able to build upon its initial success, in getting the Triple Alliance leaders to climb-down on Black Friday, to go on to crush the General Strike in 1926; just as they built on their defeat of the Steelworkers’ Strike in 1980 to go on to break the power of the National Union of Miners between 1984-5.

However, when it came to the challenge represented by the Irish Republicans, in the two periods, the British ruling class had to move beyond their original 1920 Government of Ireland Act, when they came up with the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty; just as they eventually had to move beyond the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to accepting the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, despite initially resorting to armed repression in both cases.


x)  The British ruling class’s ‘New Unionist’ strategy starts and stalls under the Conservatives – differing situations in Ireland and Scotland

Soon after Margaret Thatcher became PM of the UK in 1979, Ronald Reagan became President of the USA. They undertook a combined global neo-liberal and anti-USSR offensive. By providing unquestioning public support for Reagan’s anti-USSR stance, Thatcher was able to get the US government to ditch its previously critical stance over Ireland. This gave her increased confidence.

After taking office, Thatcher first dismissed the constitutional nationalist SDLP in Northern Ireland and later, the 1984 New Ireland Forum proposals of Garret Fitzgerald’s centre right Fine Gael government in Ireland. These had offered the British government either a confederal or a joint authority solution for Northern Ireland. At this time, Thatcher was closely allied to the rejectionist UUP.

However, continued Irish Republican resistance, including the 1984 Brighton Bombing, and Sinn Fein successes in local council and Westminster elections, forced the British ruling class into a rethink. As a result, ‘the lady who was not for turning’ made a spectacular U-turn in 1985. She signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which involved precisely those Irish parties that Thatcher had so vehemently sidelined the previous year. It also meant distancing the Conservative government from the rejectionist Ulster Unionists.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement (the very name of which showed the low priority Thatcher’s Conservatives gave to the notion of administering three and a bit nations within the UK) revived the idea of a power-sharing Northern Ireland assembly. The ‘Ulster’-British would get the backing of the UK government, and the Irish government would provide some guarantees of representation to Irish living in ‘the Six Counties’, through the opening up of an office in Maryfield in Belfast. The Anglo-Irish Agreement represented the first hesitant step towards a British ruling class ‘New Unionist’ strategy of constitutional reform to buttress its position throughout these islands.

In protest, all the rejectionist UUP and DUP MPs resigned their seats at Westminster. Their party leaders, Jim Molyneux and Ian Paisley, organised massive ‘Ulster says No’ rallies against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. They hoped to repeat the success of those conservative and reactionary unionists, who had defeated the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. The Ulster Clubs brought together similar forces to the United Ulster Unionist Council, whilst Ulster Resistance was set up as a paramilitary force like the Ulster Army Council, but this time openly uniting Paisley’s DUP with the Loyalist UVF and UDA. However, with unemployment widespread, even amongst the unionist population, there was no equivalent of the Ulster Workers Council this time.

The British military forces did not give the Loyalist paramilitaries the same free rein to intimidate, which they had enjoyed in 1974.  The security forces still continued to target the Republican Movement though, resorting to the full range of repressive measures that they had been using against them for years.

The Conservative government wanted to create the space for more moderate Unionist and Nationalist political forces to emerge. As it happened, the moderate constitutional nationalist SDLP gained one seat, Armagh and Newry, from the UUP, in 1986, in the string of by-elections prompted by the UUP, DUP and other Unionist resignations. This was not exactly the outcome sought by the rejectionists. Thatcher suddenly became a hate figure amongst Ulster Unionists.

In Scotland, this was the final straw for the remaining Orange Order and UUP-supporting members in the Conservative and Unionist Party (there had been an organisational break between the C&UP and the UUP in 1974).  The Federation of Conservative Students had tried to make links with UUP rejectionists, and some Scottish members hoped to re-establish the party’s traditional links to the Orange Order in Glasgow, to shore up sliding Conservative electoral support.

The Orange Order, though, transferred its support to the new Scottish Unionist Party. This remained a strongly pro-Ulster unionist organisation and continued to reject Scottish Devolution, even after the Conservatives came to accept it following the 1997 Devolution referenda results.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement only improved the electoral position of the constitutional nationalist SDLP and the liberal unionist Alliance for a short time. The rejectionist Ulster Unionists remained entrenched, but with support moving from the UUP to the even more hardline DUP. However, despite the stepped up repression of the Republican Movement, and some initial setbacks for Sinn Fein, both in local council elections and at Westminster, the IRA was able to continue its armed resistance, and Sinn Fein retained considerable support amongst the Irish section of the population. Therefore, once Thatcher had been forced to stand down, in November 1990, in the aftermath of the Conservatives’ poll tax defeat, John Major’s incoming Conservative government dramatically extended the scope of ‘New Unionism’.

A further consideration in the Conservatives’ tentative ‘New Unionist’ moves was the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989. With the threat from the USSR rapidly receding, the British ruling class could reassess its strategic reasons for upholding Ulster Unionist ascendancy (however awkward that had proved to be due to their inflexibility) in Northern Ireland.

Already, in November 1990, Peter Brooke, the Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary, issued a statement that “Britain has no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. Much has been made of the ambiguity of that word “selfish”. However, more revealingly, is what the statement misses out – not so much the “strategic or economic”, but the UK state’s political interest in holding on to Northern Ireland.

Continued UK control of Northern Ireland provides the British ruling class with some political purchase over 26 counties Irish governments. More importantly, it underpins the British ruling class need to maintain the full extent of its wider UK state, if it is to continue to uphold an imperial role in the world. A state that can not hold together its own territory is hardly likely to be seen as a significant  imperial contender by others.

The threat from the USSR had been one of the main concerns in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when both Labour and Conservative governments decided to buttress the Ulster Unionist regime in Northern Ireland. However, with that threat now removed, after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the maintenance of the UK state’s full territorial extent moved once more to the centre of British ruling class attentions, in the face of the threat posed by national democratic movements, including those now reviving in Scotland and Wales .

Under the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, signed by John Major, the UK Prime Minister and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Fianna Fail Taoiseach, the Republican Movement was invited to help set up and participate in a new power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly, on the condition of their verified disarmament. The Loyalists were also invited.

The Declaration was met by opposition from both major Ulster unionist parties, big sections of the Loyalists, and from some in the Conservative Party. With Major’s authority slipping daily, he was unable to deliver. The IRA leadership still faced internal pressure, as well as the possibility of dissident breakaways. With little apparent progress, the IRA called off its ceasefire and undertook the Canary Wharf Bombing in 1996.

The Conservatives had tried to bottle-up constitutional reform within Northern Ireland. In Scotland and Wales they still retained a traditional conservative unionist approach to such reform by completely opposing political devolution. However, the combination of the devastating impact of Conservative de-industrialisation policy in Scotland, and their decision to test out the poll tax here first, put the Scottish Conservative vote into tailspin, especially after 1992. Indeed, this attempt, an example of British ruling class unionism being put into action (using the Tory majority at Westminster to give succour to the Scottish Tory minority) did much to raise the issue of Scotland’s democratic deficit, and its relationship with the UK state.

The Thatcherite loyalist, Michael Forsyth, now Scottish Secretary, took a leaf from the Welsh Conservatives, hoping that a little cultural nationalism could head off the growing demand for political reform. The Stone of Destiny, removed from Scone Palace by Edward I and installed in Westminster Abbey in 1296, was returned to Scotland on the seventh centennial anniversary of its removal. This theatrical gesture impressed very few people.  Conservative support in Scotland continued to fall. Voices demanding more democracy for Scotland grew.


xi) Welsh workers slowly learn the need to confront conservative unionist divide-and-rule tactics

There was not the same sense of impending electoral collapse in Wales, but support for the Conservatives, which had held up better outside the traditional (but now rapidly declining) industrial areas, than in Scotland, began to fall-off. Furthermore, Welsh Conservative attempts to make inroads into Welsh-speaking Wales were being reversed, due to the devastating impact of their economic policies in rural central and northern Wales.

Conservative support became more confined to the English speaking Welsh Border, and their extensions along the North coast and South coast (Vale of Glamorgan and south Pembrokeshire) and the better-off in the Cardiff commuter belt.

Those defining themselves as Welsh-British, whether in North or South Wales, had been the slowest (apart from the ‘Ulster’-British) to downgrade or abandon support for the British pole of their hybrid national identities. The newfound support for Devolution, which emerged in Scotland, particularly after the Conservatives tested out their hated poll tax here in 1989, was slower to show itself in Wales. To split English and Welsh speakers, the Conservatives continued to promote a divide-and-rule agenda after its possibilities had been shown during the 1979 Welsh Devolution referendum.

Due to the continued strength of the Welsh Language Movement, the Conservatives had begun to move away from their traditional Anglo-Welsh approach, hoping to benefit from playing up the linguistic divide. They started to make concessions to Welsh cultural nationalism. The Conservative gain of the Anglesey/Ynys Mon parliamentary seat in North Wales by a Welsh language learner, in 1979, had signalled the tentative beginnings of this process of rapprochement.

After Gywnfor Evans’ hunger strike in 1980, the Welsh language, Sianel Pedwar/Channel Four TV station had been set up; and after persistent campaigning by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg/Welsh Language Society, the Welsh Language Act was enacted in 1993, both under Conservative governments. This rapprochement, signalling a partial abandonment of the traditional Conservative Anglo-Welsh approach, was perhaps most publicly consummated in the marriage of Conservative leader, William Hague, to Welsh speaking Ffion Jenkins in 1997.

The Conservatives’ growing support for measures of cultural devolution was not matched, however, by any commitment to promoting the socio-economic conditions under which either English or Welsh speaking workers or small farmers could thrive. By the mid-1980s, a mutual recognition of shared economic interests, amongst largely English-speaking South Wales miners (on strike from 1984-5) and Welsh-speaking North Wales slate quarriers (on strike in Blaenau Ffestiniog from 1985-6), began to emerge, in the face of relentless Conservative attacks. This began the process by which Welsh workers’ North/South, ‘Gogs’/’Taffs’ antipathies, and their majority previously shared hostility to the exercise of Welsh national self-determination, began to be overcome. The earlier antipathy had been encouraged by many Welsh Labour figures. Support for Welsh Devolution, which was very much a minority interest in 1979, began to rise in trade union and Labour circles.


 xii)  New Labour fleshes out ‘New Unionism’ with its ‘Devolution-all-round’ proposals

Once the Conservatives had been exposed as increasingly corrupt and divided, following four terms in office, Blair managed to persuade the majority of the British ruling class that New Labour would be the best bet for maintaining their influence. New Labour would continue and extend neo-liberal economic policies, but these would need to be repackaged (sometimes a mere relabelling was enough – from Private Finance Initiative/PFI to Public Private Partnership/PPP). The trade union leaderships had long been tamed, so could be safely brought on board in a distinctly subordinate role, through ‘social partnerships’.

Backed by both the majority of the ruling class and workers, New Labour gained a massive electoral victory in May 1997. They showed more commitment to constitutional reform than the Conservatives had. The House of Lords was reformed in order to create a major source of patronage for the New Labour government.  New Labour Chancellor, Gordon Brown, effectively removed any remaining government scrutiny over the City of London.

Blair’s government had inherited the Conservatives’ ‘New Unionist’ combined ‘Peace Process’ and constitutional reform strategy for Northern Ireland. However, New Labour fleshed out this ‘New Unionism’ to cover the whole of the UK. The central constitutional reform, though, was ‘Devolution-all-round’, coupled to the ongoing ‘Peace Process’. Together, these were designed to create the optimum political conditions throughout these islands to maximise corporate profits.

After the defeat of the miners in 1985, Labour had abandoned even the token actions they had mounted against the Tories under the rubric of ‘New Realism’. When they took office, New Labour took a leaf from Fianna Fail governments in Ireland, and encouraged ‘Social Partnership’ deals between the government, employers and trade union leaders. Social partnerships largely reduced trade union leaders to acting as a free personnel management service for the bosses. These trade union leaders on the ICTU’s Northern Ireland Committee, the STUC and WTUC, also endorsed the new political partnership proposals under ‘Devolution-all-round’, with their equivalent imbalance of power between those participating in the social partnerships.

Northern Ireland remained at the heart of New Labour’s concerns, precisely because the national democratic challenge had been most intractable there. Blair was able to take advantage of the refusal of the UUP to enter into direct negotiations with Sinn Fein. He privately persuaded the previously rejectionist David Trimble, leader of the UUP, that under New Labour’s proposals, Ulster Unionists had the fullest UK government backing for maintenance of the Union, and that Blair would stand firm against any Republican Movement departure from the ‘New Unionist’ script he had set out for them under the ongoing ‘Peace Process’.

Heavily prompted by Blair, but still with considerable hesitation, David Trimble brought the majority of the UUP on board. He remained concerned though that he might end up in a similar position to Brian Faulkner, the ditched pro-Sunningdale UUP leader of 1974. Therefore, against Ian Paisley and the DUP, Trimble used the argument that the ‘inclusive’ intentions, of what came to be known as the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, could better be thwarted from inside rather than outside New Labour’s proposed institutions, as Ian Paisley was arguing.

With the Republican Movement, Blair emphasised that there was constitutional provision should a majority in Northern Ireland ever express its desire to join the Irish Republic. He, no doubt, remained confident that the original 1921 Partition boundaries, drawn up to prevent such an eventuality, would still do their job. Furthermore, by tying the official acceptance of Republican participation in the running of Northern Ireland to the ending of the 26 counties Irish state claim, under Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, Blair was also ensuring that future Irish governments would continue to confine their Northern Irish policy to what was acceptable to the UK state.

Scotland played a pivotal part in New Labour’s extension of ‘New Unionism’. Support for constitutional reform was strongest here, and Labour was the dominant party, so it could hope to control any changes. ‘Sectarian’ – in reality ethnic/cultural – divisions were much less marked compared to Northern Ireland. Whatever their national/religious identity or party politics, the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland consider themselves to be Scottish (whether hyphenated with British or not).

Such an acceptance of at least some shared identity was not found in Northern Ireland, where the division is between those considering themselves to be ‘Ulster’-British and those who consider themselves to be Irish. The Scottish Unionist Party, which had tried to build on those ‘sectarian’ divisions that still exist, has had little wider influence in Scotland. Even the Orange Order eventually transferred its support to the British Labour Party in Scotland, seeing it as the largest and most effective upholder of the Union.

After the bitter disappointment of the earlier 1992 UK general election, Scottish Labour leader, Donald Dewar, had set about heading off any prospects of radical constitutional reform. He insisted that the radically inclined Scottish Constitutional Convention, set up in 1989, which had produced the Claim of Right, should fall in behind British Labour’s more moderate liberal Scottish Devolution proposals. In particular, he rejected any notion of a multi-option referendum, which would have allowed a vote for independence, which the SNP wanted.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru was more than happy to fall in behind Labour in supporting Welsh Devolution. Plaid Cymru remained relatively weak in the populous traditional industrial South, where Labour dominated. There still remained considerable internal conservative unionist opposition to Devolution within the Welsh Labour Party. These people went on to front the ‘No’ campaign, which also included the Conservative Party.

New Labour was taking a chance in Wales, but Blair wanted to give the new UK constitution some appearance of overall coherence. This meant giving political recognition to the nations of Scotland and Wales, and to the unique position of Northern Ireland [2], in an attempt to take the sting out of the existing national democratic challenges. The extent of the powers to be devolved from Westminster, to each of the three other constituent parts of the UK, reflected the perceived level of support in each area. This amounted to a version of the asymmetrical devolution originally pioneered in post-Franco Spain, which had also been confronted by significant national democratic challenges in Euskadi and Catalunya.

Another way of looking at Devolution is to see it as an updating of the liberal unionist Home Rule proposals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – providing national self-determination for the middle classes of Scotland, Wales, and more ambiguously of Northern Ireland (given the contested nature of the nation in question) whilst preserving the Union, and the now the British/US imperial alliance.

Under New Labour’s ‘Devolution-all-round’ proposals, three separate referenda were organised consecutively in Scotland (September 11th, 1997), Wales (September 18th, 1997) and Northern Ireland (May 22nd, 1998). The order in which they were conducted was a reflection of the different degrees of difficulty likely to be confronted in winning a majority. It was hoped that any positive earlier vote would influence each later referendum result in turn. Under New Labour’s referenda, held between October 1997 and May 1998, 74.3% voted ‘Yes’ in Scotland (with 63.5% voting ‘Yes’ to an additional tax raising option), a very narrow 50.3% voted ‘Yes’ in Wales, and a large 71% voted ‘Yes’ in Northern Ireland (where government propaganda had skillfully made it into a vote for or against ‘Peace’). However, plans to devolve some powers to regional assemblies in England were abandoned due to lack of interest there.


xiii)  The contrasting political nature of the effects of ‘New Unionism’ in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

The ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’ rounded out the British ruling class ‘New Unionist’ strategy to cover all of these islands.  This strategy has been understood to represent a liberal response to national democratic challenges, but it is not that clear cut. In Northern Ireland, the burning desire for peace, amongst the majority of both the Irish and ‘Ulster’-British populations, has obscured a significant political feature of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement (1998), with its further ‘tweekings’ under the St. Andrews Agreement (2006) and the Hillsborough Agreement (2010).

Under the liberal guise of bringing about peace (for now), these agreements are designed to manage a ‘sectarian’ (in reality, national) divide, rather than to overcome it.  They amount to constitutionally recognised Partition, but this time within Northern Ireland. The new constitution for Stormont entrenches the position of Unionists and Nationalists when it comes to crucial votes. These votes require that at least 60% of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) agree with the proposal, and that this overall vote must include at least 40% from each of the two groups of constitutionally designated MLAs – Unionist and Nationalist.

Yet Northern Ireland includes people with other politics – e.g. Socialist (who do not consider themselves Irish nationalists), Greens and Feminists. There are also sections of the population who do not completely or partially identify themselves as ‘Ulster’-British or Irish.

The British government’s promotion of such divide-and-rule measures represents a long-standing conservative unionist (and wider British imperialist) strategy for maintaining ruling class control. The main difference, between pre-1972 and post-1998 Stormont, is that now the UK state has to exert its influence by brokering between the political representatives of two ‘communities’, rather than depending only upon the Ulster unionists, as in the past. Therefore, it is only liberal in the sense of representing a concession made towards the opposition, rather than an attempt to address the real problem, which is the maintenance of the national/’sectarian’ divide, albeit now on a different political basis.  And, if necessary, the UK state can still override the reformed Stormont, by resorting to the anti-democratic Crown Powers.

After the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 1998 and 2003, the UUP formed a loose governing coalition with the SDLP, with the shrinking hope of marginalising the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively. By 2007, the former revolutionary nationalist, but now constitutional nationalist, Sinn Fein was able to form a new Stormont governing coalition with Paisley’s previously famously rejectionist, right populist DUP (which had recently won over much of the remaining rejectionist support in the UUP).

The DUP took up office, finally convinced that Sinn Fein was prepared to rein in the aspirations of its own base, and support the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) (as the RUC was now rebranded) when required. The DUP’s leading members, who now extended well beyond Paisley’s original fundamentalist Protestant base, also wanted to cash in on the ‘fruits of office’. The latest 2010 Hillsborough Agreement showed though that the DUP remains committed to watering down even the original Good Friday Agreement. Since then leading DUP figures, e.g. Ian Paisley Junior and Nelson McAusland, have been involved in corrupt business deals.

The Northern Ireland settlement ensures that all Stormont government partners, whether British unionist – like the DUP, UUP and Alliance, or Irish nationalist – like Sinn Fein and SDLP – work together to run Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Whenever differences arise between Unionists and Nationalists, they turn to the UK government to arbitrate.

However, the prospect for any long term ‘Peace Dividend’ has faded, especially in the context of economic crisis and public sector cuts.  These particularly affect the most marginalised communities. This has contributed to the return of the use of physical force both by Loyalists and dissident Republicans.

Meanwhile, the current furore in Scotland, over Rangers and Celtic FC supporters’ clashes, represents a knock-on effect, ‘over the water’, of the still unresolved clash of British and Irish national claims in the post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland. Successive Scottish governments (Labour/Lib-Dem and SNP) have attempted to portray and address the Rangers/Celtic or ‘Old Firm’ ‘troubles’, and the threat to Celtic’s Northern Irish-born Catholic manager, Neil Lennon, as an issue about Scottish Protestant/Catholic ‘tribal’ antipathies. However, the problem has relatively little to do with any remaining Protestant antipathy to ‘papists’, or any still lingering Catholic antipathy to ‘prods’.

Catholics, who have come to accept an Irish-British identity, or who now accept a Scottish-British identity within the UK, have been able to make marked economic and social progress in Scotland for some decades now.  Those old Scottish ‘Protestants first’ employers have largely gone with the closure of their traditional industries. State and local government (a major source of employment in Scotland) do not discriminate on ethno-religious grounds when recruiting workers. Of course, anti-Catholic attitudes still remain, both in Scottish establishment circles and in wider society. However, strong religious identification has weakened throughout Scottish society, and mixed marriages and other mixed relationships are common.

Successive Scottish devolved governments have distanced themselves from ‘sectarian’ behaviour, and have officially sponsored an anti-‘sectarian’ programme of education and legal reform. Church of Scotland and Conservative Party have ditched their Orange wings, and made positive overtures to Catholics. The SNP has made real efforts to overcome its earlier perceived Protestant/Presbyterian identity. It has tried to woo Catholic hierarchy support to encourage more of their church members to consider themselves as Catholic Scottish, in preference to Irish-Scottish (or Catholic/Irish-British – the old Labour legacy).

The Labour Party in Scotland had been the major avenue for Catholic political advance in Scotland, particularly in the West. Such avenues were largely blocked to Catholics in Ulster Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland. The Catholic hierarchy in Scotland has also managed to carve out an influential niche for itself. It has publicly pushed for laws that would impose anti-abortion and anti-gay measures upon non-Catholics (which more secular-minded Catholics have resisted and, which some traditionally anti-Catholic Protestant fundamentalists have supported).

In the process, the Catholic hierarchy has encouraged its co-religionists to become either Irish-British or, more recently, Scottish-British subjects, who accept the legitimacy of the UK state.  The hierarchy has also encouraged Catholics in Scotland to reject any strong political (as opposed to sentimental) identification with Irish nationalism, particularly Republicanism. It is conceivable, in the future, that the Scottish hierarchy could encourage Catholics to become Scottish, just as the Irish hierarchy belatedly accepted the move from an earlier Irish-British to an Irish identity, during the War of Independence, both to maintain its own power and to rein in any more radical politics.

However, in attempting to achieve its reactionary social agenda, and also to maintain its controlling position over separate educational provision, the Catholic hierarchy has also helped the upholders of the UK state to disguise the real nature of the divide. This results not so much from a sectarian Scottish Protestant antipathy to Catholics, but from a national clash between supporters of British unionism and Irish nationalism, with perceived Protestant and Catholic identities acting as subsidiary, and often not consistent, national markers. The Catholic hierarchy characterises this divide, not as being due to the political mobilisation of ethnic/national identities, but as being the result of an ingrained anti-Catholicism endemic to Scotland. In its special pleading, it is noticeable that the hierarchy has offered no support to Scottish gays (indeed the opposite), who face serious discrimination, nor much concern about the oppression of women.

Such a stance is also an obstacle to the secular approach needed to move beyond the continued existence of separate schooling on a religious basis. By maintaining that anti-Catholicism in Scotland is deep-seated and irreformable, the hierarchy is able to justify the continued need for separate Catholic provision on defensive grounds. The fact that state ‘non-denominational’ schools remain linked to Protestantism is all grist to the mill, both for the Catholic hierarchy and for Protestant supremacists. Socialists have to fight for genuinely secular schools.

However, the wider social forces, which have contributed to the current conflicts, are not based primarily upon religious convictions, but have to do with national identities. Scotland’s remaining strong family links with Ireland and Northern Ireland, ensure that, what is usually portrayed as a clash between Rangers and Celtic football fans, or between Protestants and Catholics, is really a clash between ‘Ulster’- (and Scottish-) British Unionists and Loyalists on the one hand; and Irish, Irish-British, and increasingly Irish-Scottish Nationalists and Republicans on the other.

This division will not be overcome, on the basis of the distorted analysis and misguided policies put forward by the unionist Labour Party, the constitutional nationalist SNP, or the Catholic hierarchy; nor without ending the constitutionally entrenched ‘sectarian’/national divide in Northern Ireland, which allows such enmities to fester and spread.  The SNP government’s 2012 Offensive Behaviour Act, based on the inappropriate ‘sectarian’ model of Scotland, has proved to be controversial because of the resulting inconsistent penalties imposed by the courts against ‘offenders’. As in Northern Ireland, tensions could yet worsen, in the context of the economic crisis and the massive public sector cuts. These particularly hit the most marginalised communities in Scotland’s Central Belt.

Compared to the new Stormont in Northern Ireland, though, the post-1998 Scottish Devolution settlement is a more genuinely liberal unionist measure, in that it does not constitutionally underwrite ethnic difference. Every MSP’s vote in Holyrood is held to be equal; there is no ‘ethnic’ head count. Both the Labour Party and the SNP have taken the opportunity to put forward Asian Scottish-British or Asian-Scottish candidates for Westminster and Holyrood. Unlike Northern Ireland, the political promotion of ethnic identity is not encouraged.

Although Scottish Labour assumed it would remain in full control of Holyrood (and found no real challenge to this from their Lib-Dem Coalition partners in the first two coalition governments), by 2007 they were replaced by an SNP minority government. This greatly upset a Scottish Labour Party used to all the perks of office, and to the extensive patronage it had dispensed at national and local level.

However, the Devolution set-up has also been designed to tame the Nationalist parties, and to get them used to participating in the running of the UK state’s devolved machinery of government. The SNP, like the even more timidly constitutional nationalist, Plaid Cymru in Wales, and now the former revolutionary nationalist, Sinn Fein, has warmed to this role, and become decidedly ‘Independence Lite’ in the process.

It is probably in Wales that Devolution has shown its most liberal face. For, unlike Northern Ireland, where ethnic divisions have become more entrenched through their constitutional recognition under the Good Friday Agreement, the political trajectory in Wales has been away from ethnic/cultural division. The cultural divide, earlier promoted by British unionists, Right and Left, between English speaking and Welsh speaking Wales, could still be seen in the results of the 1997 Welsh referendum, where the strongest support was shown in the Welsh-speaking areas and where opposition was strongest in the English-speaking, middle class areas.

Consecutive  Labour/Lib-Dem and Labour administrations initially ran the new Welsh Assembly, which had been narrowly approved in the 1997 referendum. As in Scotland, the main concern of Labour was to assert effective British unionist control over the process of change and to limit its scope. In Wales, Blair took advantage of the sex scandal involving Welsh Labour’s initial strongly pro-devolution First Minister, Ron Davies, to impose a reliable New Labour loyalist, Alan Michael, in 1999. Davies had been an advocate of further devolutionary measures; Michael a supporter of imposing Westminster control.

However, with Labour not enjoying an Assembly majority, the Welsh Assembly opposition was able to remove Michael from the First Minister’s post in 2000. In the consequent election for First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, seen to be, like Davies, a supporter of further devolutionary reform, was elected.

After the 2007 Welsh Assembly election, Welsh Labour’s Morgan even entered into a One Wales coalition with Plaid Cymru. It is difficult to imagine such a liberal unionist/constitutional nationalist alliance being formed in Scotland at a national level, where conservative constitutional unionism (with its willing subordination to the British Labour leadership), especially under Scottish Labour leader, Ian Gray, has remained just as marked under new leader, Johann Lamont.

Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru cooperated in preparing the ground for a new Welsh Bill. This recommended devolving legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly, in a similar manner to those already existing in Scotland. The March 2011 referendum result, undertaken by the new Cameron/Clegg coalition government was much more convincing than in 1997, and the earlier territorial cultural divisions had largely been overcome.  Even the Welsh Conservatives ‘went native’ and supported the measure, although there was still a combined minority Conservative and Labour conservative unionist opposition organised as True Wales. Plaid Cymru is such a moderate nationalist party, that to many it appeared to have reached the limit of its constitutional ambitions.

Once the new legislative Assembly had been agreed, Plaid Cymru’s vote fell in the following 2011 Assembly elections, and it dropped to third place behind the Welsh Conservatives. This has permitted Welsh Labour to once more form a single party government. This means its leaders once more have a greater number of offices to hand out to their own party’s careerists.


 xiv)  The British ruling class is determined to uphold its ‘New Unionist’ deal, the better to maintain the UK state’s imperial position in the world

The overwhelming majority of the British ruling class has rallied around the New Labour initiated ‘New Unionist’ ‘Devolution-all-round’ strategy. This is highlighted by its continuation under the Con-Dem coalition. Any opposition, to the already achieved limited liberal unionist reform of the UK state, has largely been confined to the Tory Right wing, a few Labour unionist diehards, and to UKIP.  Significantly, they have met with little success. In Northern Ireland, the cerebral conservative unionist Cadogan Group, followed by the more recent, reactionary unionist, Traditional Unionist Voice, have remained committed to continuing ‘Ulster’-British majority rule. Yet, they have been unable to halt the advance of further power (in reality office) sharing. This is because some amongst the Right have come to appreciate the words of Enoch Powell, that wily old advocate of a British unionism in a period of imperial decline – “Power devolved is power retained”.

The historical break-up of the UK is not an inevitable process in the short or medium term. To delay this prospect, the British ruling class has come to appreciate that changes are necessary to retain as much of its influence as possible throughout these islands, and that die-hard conservative unionism could prove counter-productive in achieving this end.

However, British ruling class preparedness to make concessions depends on the strength of the opposition it faces. Above all, it remains committed to maintaining an imperial role for itself. This is because it still greatly benefits from imperial profits. Today these are extracted, not so much by importing cheap primary products and by exporting higher value manufactured goods, but from finance and commerce; whilst the continuation of off-shore tax havens greatly augments ruling class incomes.

The City of London is less concerned with holding British imperial territory, and more concerned with the projection of global  military power, with the UK acting in alliance with the US. The British ruling class efforts to maintain its ‘Special Relationship’ with the US state, at all costs, has meant that the UK now acts as US imperialism’s number one ally in helping to maintain the current global corporate order. Under Blair, the British liberalism of New Labour entered into a symbiotic relationship with the American conservatism of Bush’s Republicans. This provided cover for the Neo-Cons’ gung-ho imperialism, in Afghanistan and Iraq. UK military forces have been locked into the very centre of NATO – US imperialism’s armed wing. Baron George Robertson moved from being New Labour’s ‘Defence’ Secretary to head up NATO.

US governments have taken their senior partner role quite seriously. Democrat administrations, in particular, have played a key part in nudging the majority of the British ruling class into acknowledging the necessity for some limited political changes in their Union in regard to Ireland, and for it to address its earlier strained relationship with Irish politicians.

President Clinton underwrote the ‘Peace (in reality pacification) Process’ by making Sinn Fein politically acceptable. He personally visited Belfast in 1995. In May 2011, President Obama triumphantly followed up ‘Elizabrit’s more hesitant visit to ‘26 counties’ Ireland, in their joint attempts to ‘normalise’ political relations in these islands, i.e. to gain complete acceptance in Ireland of the US/UK role in maintaining the global corporate order in the north east Atlantic.

In return, successive US governments have provided their backing for the British ruling class’s ‘New Unionist’ settlement for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’ together provide the best political framework to advance both states’ interests throughout these islands.

Just as US state backing for Israel prevents any meaningful political solution to the Palestinian problem, or indeed to the wider crisis-torn Middle East, so US backing for the British ruling class is a major reason why the underlying historical trend to the break-up of the British Empire and the UK state is still being held back.

The combination of US state threats (i.e. the warning to the SNP by Lisa Vickers, the former US Scottish Consul, that Scotland could not just leave NATO without consequences) and the UK’s Crown Powers (which enable the British ruling class to bypass Westminster) provide a formidable obstacle to any attempt to win Scottish political independence.


xv)  Obstacles to any SNP attempt to winning political independence in its proposed referendum

Since the May 5th 2011 election the SNP has formed a majority government at Holyrood (3). This has raised the prospect of the promised independence referendum, put on hold under the previous minority SNP government (significantly, with the backing of the SNP’s big business backers).  So, how far will the British ruling class be prepared to move to accommodate the new SNP government’s demands?

With sufficient pressure, the British ruling class could be pushed into accepting further devolutionary measures. The recent successful referendum to achieve legislative powers for the Welsh Assembly showed that the possibilities for further liberal unionist political reform have not yet reached their endpoint. Whether the SNP’s recent Holyrood election success will persuade the British ruling class to beef-up its very limited Calman Commission proposals, for further devolutionary measures in Scotland, remains a moot point.

However, if any independence campaign does get off the ground, the British ruling class and the mainstream Unionist parties still have the option of placing their formidable weight behind a ‘Devolution-Max’ option, to ensure that all the most important political and economic powers remain under their central control.

Both the Labour and Conservative Parties have advocates of greater political devolution such as Henry McLeish and Murdo Fraser respectively. However, they will be opposed by such constitutional conservatives as John McTernan (Scottish spin-doctor) and Baron Foulkes in the Labour Party, and by Lord Forsyth and Jackson Carlaw in the Conservative Party.

The Liberal Party keeps the option of a ‘federal UK’ in its locker, only to be wheeled out, on behalf of the ruling class, when pressures to break-up of the UK become really serious. However, at present, it is the neo-liberal ‘Orange Book’ and conservative unionist wing of the Lib-Dems who are in control, highlighted by the obstructive role of the Con-Dem Coalition’s Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, over the SNP’s proposed independence referendum.

Defence is likely to remain a thorny issue between British Unionists and Scottish Nationalists. With regard to the continuation of nuclear bases and facilities at Faslane and Coulport, there would be significant opposition from a British ruling class, still wedded to having its own ‘independent’ UK nuclear force for purposes of imperial posturing. Yet, with enough mass pressure, it may still be possible to have Scotland moved out of NATO’s nuclear frontline, in line with current SNP policy (although for how long?)

With the demise of the USSR, the USA has closed down North Atlantic military bases (e.g. Holy Loch in Scotland and Keflavik in Iceland). However, the USA expects Scotland to remain in NATO’s Orwellian-named ‘Partnership for Peace’. This would allow its military bases to be used as required (e.g. for rendition flights or staging posts for continued imperial airborne sorties), in a similar manner to the Irish government’s permission for the USAF to use Shannon Airport.

Although, American owned (and other) corporations would also be quite happy if Scotland became a low tax haven, many in the British ruling class would see this as a possible threat to the economic prospects of the other constituent nations and regions of the UK. However, if the Conservatives’ ultra-free market right wing came to dominate any future British government, this could encourage an economic ‘race-to-the-bottom’ between the different nations and regions of the UK, with the promotion of competitive tax-cutting to benefit the corporations and the rich.

The major international oil corporations could also quite easily consent to North Sea Oil being transferred from UK to Scottish political control, especially if any new Scottish government was prepared to cut corporation tax even further. Salmond has been avidly courting the oil companies, opposing both the Con-Dems’ proposed one-off windfall tax on their profits and downplaying the effects of Shell’s recent North Sea oil spillage.

However, North Sea oil still provides substantial tax revenues for the UK government. Therefore, any British government will strongly oppose such a move. Indeed, so important is this in their economic calculations, that the UK government has already unilaterally redrawn the England/Scotland boundary, as extended into the North Sea, to ensure it still controls much of these major oil and gas reserves.

Furthermore, the British, US and key European (German, French and Spanish) ruling classes are all currently united behind the existing British ruling class ‘New Unionist’ strategy to maintain its power over these islands. The notion of a Scotland not reined in by the UK state Crown Powers and not participating in NATO is anathema to the British ruling class and its international backers.

Despite any differences of interest mentioned earlier (over US military needs in the North East Atlantic and over the global corporations’ desire for the lowest taxes), the British ruling class is likely to retain wider international ruling class backing for whatever measures it deems fit to prevent the emergence of a politically independent Scotland.


xvi)  The wannabe Scottish ruling class and the SNP will cooperate with the British ruling class and big business to prevent any radical break-up of the UK

So, how do the Nationalist parties fit into the ongoing decline of British imperialism and the longer-term historical tendency towards the break-up of the UK?  Ironically, those wannabe ruling class members, amongst each of the national middle classes, will cooperate with the British ruling class to ensure that as much as possible remains of i) the UK state machinery – by upholding the Crown Powers; ii) of the City’s economic control – through the maintenance of sterling; and iii) of the state’s military capacity – with, in the SNP’s case, saltire-flagged British regiments and shared military bases.

Right wing SNP government minister, Michael Russell, has termed this strategy as seeking ‘Independence within the Union’. Basically this means giving all the institutions of the UK state, located within Scotland, a good lick of tartan paint. Or, another way of looking at it is to see this as the SNP leadership’s acceptance of a future ‘Scottish Free State’, with all its British imperial limitations, which the UK ruling class could only impose upon Ireland, after their backing for the wannabe Irish Free State ruling class in their struggle with the Republican opposition during the 1922-3 Irish Civil War.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of High Imperialism, hybrid identity British liberal unionists in Scotland and Wales, and constitutional nationalists in Ireland, had advocated Home Rule within the UK and British Empire. Today their equivalents in Scotland support self-determination for the wannabe Scottish ruling class, or  ‘Independence Lite’ under the Crown, the City of London and the British High Command. They fully accept the current global corporate order and are increasingly prepared to work within NATO.

Today’s constitutional nationalists are also constantly looking over their shoulders. The absence or the continued decline of British national (including hybrid) identities amongst workers (and others) in the large areas of the ‘Six Counties’, in Scotland, and increasingly in Wales too, has given rise to more radical economic and social visions associated with more advanced national democratic aspirations. Meaningful national self-determination for the working class involves the break-up of the UK state with its repressive Crown Powers, subservience to the City and its commitment to high military expenditure and constant imperial wars. Such thinking leads to support for social republicanism or even socialist republicanism.

In the current period of working class retreat this can be obscured. However, following from the defeat of the Conservatives’ hated poll tax in 1990, tested out first in Scotland, and the unforeseen Conservative electoral victory of 1992, a Daily Record poll recorded 56% support for a Scottish republic amongst its largely working class readership in 1997.

Nationalist leaderships, of the SNP in Scotland, of Plaid Cymru in Wales, and of the SDLP and (especially post-Good Friday Agreement) Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, have tried to contain and manage any working class aspirations. Like those liberal unionists (Liberal, Radical and Lib-Lab) and constitutional nationalists (INL and its successors) in the past, they fear workers may raise their own economic and social demands, and push for more advanced political changes, by creating their own independent political organisations.

The main concern of today’s Nationalist parties is to negotiate and manage the further break-up of the UK state, in a manner that leaves their wannabe ruling class backers in control within their own national territories, but still leaves them free to profit from the existing global corporate economic order. This order is primarily maintained by the US/British imperial alliance.

Not having their own independent state power at present to ensure their control, or possibly the necessary reserves for coercion in the future, these Nationalist parties have to resort to getting the support of the UK, USA and EU states and their economic and military alliances.  That is one reason why the Nationalists do not challenge the anti-democratic Crown Powers, since they too may need these to handle any future significant working class resistance. The Crown Powers provide those resorting to them with a whole array of anti-democratic weapons beyond any meaningful parliamentary scrutiny.

Therefore, we can see why the incoming SNP majority government has emphasised its commitment to the monarchy. This provides decorative cover for the use of these Crown Powers. The recent banking crisis also witnessed SNP-supporting Sir George Matthewson quickly rushing into the arms of the then British Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to prop up his ailing Royal Bank of Scotland.

This is why the new SNP government has highlighted its commitment to sterling, i.e. the City and its imposed economic straitjacket. The SNP has long been committed to support for the Scottish regiments of the British army, which have served British imperialism from Culloden to Crossmaglen, and from the Heights of Abraham to Helmand Province. It also supports the retention of British RAF bases in Scotland, such as Lossiemouth and Leuchars.

Therefore, it is easy to see why the new SNP government wants to share British military bases and facilities in its ‘independent’ Scotland. And the SNP government has welcomed the Con-Dem government’s promise to post 6,000 British troops, currently stationed in Germany, in Leuchars to compensate for the closure of the air base there. British ‘Troops In Now’ is not a traditional national democratic demand!


xvii)  The SNP will play their part in upholding the hegemony of US/UK imperial alliance in the global corporate order

Furthermore, in addition to its attempts to manage the break-up of the UK, in a way that still leaves its major controlling institutions intact, the SNP has also sought allies amongst the major global corporations and the US state. The main attraction the SNP offers is to dangle major tax concessions before the global corporations, making Scotland a low tax haven. The SNP government’s promises to potential big business backers are far more sincere than the electoral ‘promises’ made to win working class support. The current SNP government is so tied to corporate tax concessions that its principal demand upon the Con-Dem Coalition, under their proposed Calman-initiated reform bill, is to get the powers needed to cut corporation tax.

There is strong evidence that the majority within the SNP government considers the realistic outcome of the proposed Scottish independence referendum would be the achievement, not of ‘Independence-Lite’ (4), but of ‘Devolution-Max’, particularly the implementation of fiscal autonomy. This would also satisfy the SNP’s recent big Scottish business backers – including Sir George Mathewson, Sir Tom Farmer, and Sir David Murray (their commitment to all the trappings of privilege are shown by their knighthoods).  It would also largely satisfy prominent SNP figures such as Michael Russell and Kenny MacAskill.

Furthermore, SNP Finance Minister, John Swinney is known for his support for that ultimate neo-liberal measure – flat rate taxes. So, if the SNP were able to steer the Scottish economy even further down the neo-liberal road, the demands of big business and the ultra-rich for such measures would undoubtedly increase (even to the extent that the SNP’s best-known backer, Sir Sean Connery, might be persuaded to return from tax exile!)

The SNP has a paper policy of opposition to NATO. However, this has been abandoned as an election commitment, in a similar manner to an earlier New Labour promise to renationalise the railways. There is nothing the SNP’s Defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson, likes better than to be photographed in the cockpit of a Tornado plane at Lossiemouth, in his Moray constituency!

As yet, the SNP is still opposed to the continuation of nuclear military bases in Scotland, something the USA could easily live with. However, in its concern to appease the junior partner of US imperialism, the UK, there has even been talk in the SNP about the possibility of leasing out such military bases. Scotland would then have its own ‘Guantanamac’ bases. Former SNP firebrand, Jim Sillars, has publicly argued for a bonfire for this and other remaining radical SNP policies. He naively hopes that if the US and British ruling classes are sufficiently appeased, they will not obstruct any independence campaign.

The SNP does not oppose the current imperial wars in Afghanistan or Libya. Now that Barack Obama is US President, and is prepared to have the UN (which the USA can dominate through the Security Council) front US/NATO military initiatives, the SNP has also dropped its former opposition to the UK’s, and hence Scottish regiments’ participation in imperial wars. It looks like the new American consul would not have too much to get upset about in any SNP ‘Independence Lite’ Scotland.

Although unlikely to achieve ‘Independence-Lite’, it is possible that the current SNP government could create the pressure to bring about further liberal unionist political concessions – ‘Devolution-Max’. The SNP’s Kenny MacAskill and Labour’s Henry McLeish have jointly written, Where the Saltire Flies. This indicates the possibility of forming a tacit constitutional nationalist/liberal unionist alliance to use any independence referendum to achieve, not the SNP’s first option – ‘Independence Lite’, but a second option – ‘Devolution-Max’.

Either scenario would leave the British ruling class and its US allies with extensive powers, but the latter would have the additional attraction to big business and many of the better-off in Scotland that it would put a firmer brake upon the underlying historical tendency towards the break-up of the UK and the continued weakening of British imperialism. It would also avoid any unsettling international consequences for the British ruling class, corporate capital and Scottish business, e.g. Scotland’s relationship with the EU and NATO, and the implications for continued UK membership of the UN Security Council if there was a curtailment of the UK parliaments’s authority over a significant area of its territory.

The UK’s principal imperial ally, the US state, is aware of its need for continued British support, as it too now enters a period of relative economic decline, and possible new imperial contenders, such as China. The ever-increasing readiness of US governments, whether Republican or Democrat, to resort to their state’s overwhelming military power highlights their need to compensate for declining US economic power. The dangers associated with this strategy ensure the need for a more, not less rapid break-up of the UK, to help to undermine this dangerous imperial alliance.

Today, the swingeing cuts being imposed on all parts of the UK, and the impending constitutional crisis, offer Socialists an opportunity to build up our strength once more. Only this time we must not hand over any fruits of victory to Labour or the Nationalists. This means a commitment to a socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’ strategy to break up the UK state and to unite workers in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. It also means joining with workers and those other exploited and oppressed peoples of the world in an anti-imperialist alliance against corporate global rule.


Allan Armstrong, 30.9.11 (further amended on 9.6.12)


[1]             The term ‘Irish’ is used in preference to ‘Catholic’ or ‘nationalist’, since, although the overwhelming majority of those considering themselves to be Irish are Catholic nationalists, their number includes Socialist Republicans and others, who do not necessarily consider themselves to be either of these two things. Amongst these people are those who adopt a more internationalist class perspective.

[2]             Perhaps the New Labour architects of ‘Devolution-all-round’ thought that Northern Ireland would take on more of the characteristics of a ‘nation’, once a collaborative Irish government, as part of the ‘Peace Process’, had won its own referendum to remove the controversial clauses 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution laying claim to Northern Ireland.

[3]             see

[4]            ‘Independence Lite’ would put Scotland in a similar position to the old Irish Free State after the end of the Civil War in 1923. In contrast to ‘Devolution-Max’, just as the Irish Free State was entitled to a seat on the League of Nations, so the new ‘Scottish Free State’ would be entitled to seats on the EU and UN.