Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, III: British Superiority?

Continuing from my last post, before getting on to the pre-Waterloo history of Britain, some remarks on Britain as an exceptional and model state from the Hanoverian period (rule of the German Hanoverian dynasty who continued to be sovereign princes in Germany, 1714-1837) onwards. Isolating any one period as the one in which modern Britain emerges is inevitably hazardous, but there are precedents for selecting this period such as Linda Colley’s influential book, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 1992).

The defeat of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 provides a good moment for the formation of modern British state, or perhaps better the moment at which a process of formation ends. The Jacobite Uprising was an attempt to restore the Catholic Stuart Dynasty, which had its starting point in the Scottish Highlands. It reached into the Lowlands and then England before being beaten back and then decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by forces loyal to the Hanoverian dynasty, which was Protestant and was reigning in Britain because it was the closest in line after Catholics were excluded from inheriting the throne.

Not only was it confirmed that Britain would continue to be an officially Protestant country, with a German royal family, harsh and violent measures were taken to crush the social base of Jacobitism in the Highlands. The autonomy of traditional clan chieftains (hereditary local landlord rulers), who were operating a kind of confederal state of often conflicting clans within Britain, was abolished. Soldiers were stationed in the Highlands to enforce an assimilationist state policy in which the Gaelic language was repressed, as was traditional dress and customary laws. The violence and forcible assimilation faded away once British sovereignty in the region was assured, but that does not detract from the way that the British state was stabilised through force and military occupation, not through consent and building on ‘traditional’ liberties. The idea of a British state uniquely founded on consent to institutions in a context of laws and liberties emerging from ‘tradition’ rather than state action is essential to the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of Britain and its history under examination here.

The forcible full incorporation of the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles into the British state system comes out of the attempts of the British monarchy to create an integrated Britain out of of the union of English and Scottish dynasties, which goes back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England as James I. James wanted a unified, integrated Britain from the beginning, and his wish was granted, if more than one hundred years after his death and the overthrow of his dynasty. The attempts of his son Charles I to impose religious uniformity on Scotland led to a war which was the prelude to the English Civil War. The two wars, and others, are sometimes grouped as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The powerful man of state to emerge from these wars was Oliver Cromwell, who incorporated the third kingdom, Ireland, into the British state, in a culmination of a history of war and colonisation going back to the Twelfth Century. This was also a process of forcible land transfer creating a Protestant English landowning class dominating a Gaelic Catholic peasantry. As in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, assimilation into the British state led to the decline of the Gaelic-Celtic languages into very small minority status, so to large degree an old culture was lost.

The forcible incorporation of Ireland into the British state system culminated in 1800 with the Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom, in abolishing the Irish parliament (not much of a loss, it only represented Protestant landlords) so that the Westminster Parliament (or crown in Parliament) had unlimited sovereignty through the islands of Britain and Ireland. The process did not bring clear benefits to the Irish before of after the Act of Union. The Great Famine of 1845 to 1852, when the British imposed a landholding system in Ireland and the whole British state system failed to prevent hunger and starvation for a large part of the Irish population and could be held to be at least in some measure responsible for the famine, is well known. Less well known is the Irish Famine of 1740 to 1741, which led to the deaths of an even higher proportion of the population than the Great Famine. I do not think that the Irish peasants of the eighteenth and nineteenth century felt lucky to be part of the British state system, or would have recognised it as some unique force for good in the Europe and the world.

The troubles of the Gaelic peasants of the Scottish Highlands did not end with the state reaction to the Jacobite Uprising. The disruption of traditional customs and restraints enabled the clan chieftains to forcibly remove peasants from land that had been theirs for centuries, starting a process of emigration to other parts of the British Empire. A situation in which the British state had abolished the power of chieftains to resist it while taking away traditional restraints on their power over the peasantry, led to an intensified period (“Highland Clearances”) in which peasants were sometimes taken straight from their customary homes to boats leaving Scotland for the Empire. In the later Nineteenth century, legal reforms were undertaken to improve the rights of Scottish and Irish peasants, but any discussion of the merits and otherwise of the British state system in relation to the rest of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, must take into account horrors of calculated state violence combined with laws and property rights biased towards a landowning class close to the state, that led to sufferings as great as any encountered in any European state of that era.

Next post, Britain as a supposed model European state after Waterloo, comparisons

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7 thoughts on “Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, III: British Superiority?

  1. […] There had been an associated appeasement of Fascist Italy, particularly with regard to its invasion of Ethiopia, the one African state which was fully recognised and fully independent at that time. Britain also acted to prevent aid to the Spanish Republic during the Civil War of 1936 to 1939 against the alliance of traditionalist conservatives and fascist Falangists led by Francisco Franco, though Franco received a high level of aid and military assistance from Germany and Italy. It would add too much to this long series of posts to get into the issues round the Spanish Civil War, but being as brief as possible it has to be said that the Civil War came about through extreme polarisation, sometimes violent, between left and right, and was not a simple case of a bunch of fascists overthrowing a model democracy. Nevertheless, the left was in power in 1936 due to elections, and was not in the process of abolishing democracy in Spain, which was abolished by Franco, including the destruction of autonomy of the most distinct regions of Spain, and associated cultural repression. This followed not only the use of military force, but many massacres of prisoners of wars and civilians. This is hardly a glorious moment for British influence in Europe, unless support for far-right dictatorship in preference for a highly stressed but real democracy is glorious, and does not really support any picture of a uniquely moral and beneficial Britain. […]

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