Earlier this year, after more than a year of anticipation, the people of Scotland held a vote to determine whether their country would become independent from the United Kingdom. That vote was unambiguously in favor of remaining part of Britain, with pro-union majorities in nearly every county, but it revealed deep divisions within Scottish society and between Scotland and its hegemonic neighbor, England. Indeed, the histories of the various parts of the island group best known as the British Isles are surprisingly different, leading to persistent divisions that, in the past and into the future, define nations.
As with much of the rest of Europe, the British Isles were inhabited during the Stone Age by Neanderthals and by modern humans of unclear affinities. Perhaps related to the Finno-Ugric peoples of northern and eastern Europe or the Sivullirmiut of the American Arctic, these ancient peoples were eventually assimilated into Europe’s once-widespread ethnicity, the Celts. Celtic peoples migrated into the British Isles from the continent during the Bronze Age and diversified into many tribes. These tribes comprised two broad groups: the Gaelic peoples based in Ireland, and the Brythonic peoples in Great Britain. The division between these groups is evident in the Celtic languages and cultures still active today.
As elsewhere in Europe, this Celtic civilization would not persist unopposed. In addition to battles between tribes, the Celts of the British Isles faced colonization by the Romans. Roman armies began conquering Britain in 43 ACE, possibly ascending as deep into what is now Scotland as the River Tay. The Romans could not hold this territory against the legendarily capable Cruithne or Pictish warriors and were sequentially pushed back, establishing new frontiers at the sites of Antonine’s Wall and, finally, Hadrian’s Wall. Roman presence in northern Scotland and anywhere in Ireland was restricted to coastal influences and meddling in internal conflicts to try to gain a foothold. Elsewhere in Great Britain, Roman influence ran the gamut from near-complete Romanization in southeastern England to military occupation in northern Wales. Notably, nowhere in the British Isles was sufficiently Romanized to develop a Romance language, unlike the regions that became modern Romania, France, Spain, Portugal, and North Africa.
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In the 5th century CE, Rome began abandoning its territory in Great Britain, retreating first from the Scottish frontier and then from the Romanized south. In the following decades, several migrations and invasions shaped the cultural landscape of the British Isles. A Gaelic group from Ireland established the kingdom of Dal Riata, spanning from northern Ireland to the islands and highlands of western Scotland and the Isle of Man and clashing with the Cruithne / Picts over control of the Scottish interior. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from what is now Germany and Denmark invaded southeastern Britain, establishing Germanic kingdoms and squeezing the Celts farther and farther west. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, also known as Alt Clut, coalesced in the region between Antonine and Hadrian’s walls in southern Scotland, acting as a temporary buffer between the Picts and the Anglo-Saxons. It was at this time that the remaining Brythonic regions of Great Britain became known as “Wales,” from an old Indo-European root meaning “frontier.” The Germanic kingdoms absorbed more and more Brythonic territory, eventually reducing Wales to its modern size and forming a handful of kingdoms that grew and shrank in influence over one another and isolating another Brythonic region, Cornwall, from its neighbors. One version holds that the Brythonic peoples called the Germanic invaders in to protect them from the Picts, only to be betrayed and conquered. In Ireland, tribal affiliations shifted to a patchwork of larger-scale Gaelic kingdoms, largely separate from events to the east. Across the islands, Christianity spread, so diffusely and rapidly that which areas christianized first remains unclear.
Vikings and Normans
The Norse Vikings, another Germanic people, began invading the British Isles in earnest in the 8th century, as part of the same expansion that added the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland to their empire. The Vikings conquered most of what is now England, even as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms repeatedly allied and united in an attempt to repel them, and even managed to conquer Shetland, Orkney, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Man, and some coastal enclaves in Ireland from the Celts. In response to being effectively encircled by Vikings and to their newfound Christianity, the Picts and Dal Riata united into the Kingdom of Alba, which would later become known as the Kingdom of Scotland. This union was powerful enough to expel the Vikings from the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Similarly, the remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdoms united into a Kingdom of England to join forces against the Vikings, expelling Norse control over modern England. The emerging English entity was so powerful that it defeated the combined armies of the Vikings, Alba, and Strathclyde at the Battle of Brunanburh. Strathclyde was so weakened that Alba absorbed it, and England gained the newly enlarged Alba and the kingdoms of Wales and Cornwall as tributaries.
The Norse, now grown into the Danes in and out of England, remained enough of a threat that the English kings sought to ally with their neighbors across the English Channel. Those neighbors, the Normans, were themselves a Scandinavian people long established in what is now northern France. Instead of allying, the Normans used a familial connection between their and the English royal families as a pretext to invade. England became subordinate to Normandy and England’s tributaries became Norman tributaries. The Normans massively restructured English society, introduced feudalism, and added the enormous number of French words that English vocabulary now features. Using a similar pretext, the Normans also invaded and conquered eastern Ireland and exerted dominion over Wales, effectively appending the latter to England. In Scotland, they introduced similar changes, but on a reduced scale. The English, Welsh, Cornish, and Irish did not submit to their new feudal overlords quietly, requiring the Normans to build large castles and forts throughout their new empire to subdue repeated revolts. One revolt, by the famous Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr (Owen Glendower), succeeded in temporarily expelling the Anglo-Norman ruling class from Wales, and was the last Welsh revolt of its scale against English rule. Scotland cultivated an alliance with France as a bulwark against further Anglo-Norman intrusions into its affairs, which turned into the successful Wars of Scottish Independence, and a marriage to the royal line of Denmark, which added Orkney and Shetland to Scotland’s territory. The Isle of Man shifted between English and Scottish control, until 1399 when the English monarch claimed title of Lord of Mann and England and the Isle entered a personal union.
When conflict reached the Normans’ continental holds as well, they were forced to cede their original territory to other French powers, retaining only the Channel Islands. These islands became possessions of the English crown, but like the Isle of Man were not formally annexed into England, remaining partially independent. In this way, the Channel Islands became part of the British Isles and the Anglo-Norman ruling class began transforming into something distinctly British. They promptly became embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War, a war of succession and invasion that briefly gave the English control over parts of France. Because of the Scottish-French alliance, Scotland attacked England during these several wars, losing repeatedly. Scottish ill fortunes culminated in a long period of religious civil wars brought on by the Protestant Reformation/ and in a financial crisis, which led Scotland’s King James I to accept the English crown and enter a personal union of the two kingdoms. At the same time, both Scotland and England began forming colonial empires, the Scottish effort starting and ending with part of Nova Scotia and an abortive scheme in modern Panamá. England and Scotland turned the personal union into a genuine political merger in 1707, in the form of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Despite the monarch and ruling family being Scottish rather than English, the difference in power and population between the two kingdoms ensured that England would dominate Scottish affairs. The merger imposed much of the English legal and political system on Scotland, opened England more fully to Scottish trade, and allowed Scots to settle England’s growing colonial empire. Unlike England’s acquisition of Wales, however, the formation of the United Kingdom preserved Scotland as a distinct entity, rather than formally annexing the region into England.
The English’s conquering eyes turned now to Ireland, already partially within the English orbit thanks to Norman conquests. England and Scotland spent the next 100 years warring, negotiating, and declaring martial law on the various Irish polities until 1801, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Settlement by Protestant English and Scots proceeded apace, concentrated in the northeastern Ulster region nearest Great Britain and hotly resented by the Catholic, Celtic Irish population.
In Wales and Ireland in particular and to a lesser extent in Scotland, the Anglo-Norman and English governments imposed a series of “Penal Laws” and other restrictions that did not apply to English, often preventing the colonized peoples from owning firearms, living in fortified towns, or holding office. The Irish equivalents were specifically designed to suppress Irish Catholicism and Presbyterianism and dispossess Catholic landowners, making them particularly onerous and particularly sharp flashpoints of Anglo-Irish conflict. Their explicit goal was to Anglicize and absorb these non-English peoples, and particularly to suppress non-English languages in the archipelago. This reached an even crueler extreme in Ireland: Britain also deported 12,000+ Irish political prisoners into slavery in Barbados.
The formation of the United Kingdom and the annexation of Wales and Cornwall to England nominally ended many of the anti-indigenous punitive measures, but they were specially retained in Ireland until the introduction of home rule in 1910. Opposed by English and Scottish settlers and by many Irish Protestants, this partial autonomy was difficult to implement and led to the Easter Rising and the brutal three-year Irish War of Independence. The war nominally ended in 1921 with the establishment of the Irish Free State, an autonomous dominion like Canada that retained the Queen of England as its monarch, and with the roughly immediate withdrawal from the Free State of mostly-Protestant, heavily colonized Northern Ireland. This compromise did not satisfy all Irish militants, and the dissatisfaction of the Irish Republican Army in particular led rapidly to the Irish Civil War, between supporters of the Free State and supporters of full independence. At least 2000 people died between all sides in the two wars, and the matter was eventually settled democratically by the 1937 vote to establish a new, fully republican constitution. This constitution also established Irish as an official language, providing legal grounding for its promotion and protection ever since. IRA violence continued into the late 1990s in the form of the Troubles, aiming to restore a unified Irish Republic and therefore directing particular animus at the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. Instead of a fully mobilized civil war, this period took the form of serial fire-fights, bombings, and other provocations between the Irish Republican Army and other separatist paramilitaries versus, primarily, unionist paramilitaries. It was during the Troubles that the IRA and its allies developed their reputation for large-scale, somewhat poorly-aimed violence. IRA tactics prominently featured car bombs delivered to British installations in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, and elsewhere in Europe and to Catholic-owned businesses in disputed Northern Irish neighborhoods. The unionist opposition, for its part, engaged in union-busting and more than a few shootings of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. The violence led the United Kingdom to suspend the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972. The IRA cause was weakened in 1985 by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which set up cooperative institutions in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The IRA considered itself largely defeated and accepted a lasting ceasefire in 1998 when the Irish constitution was amended to abandon any claim to Northern Ireland that did not come with solid irredentist votes on both sides of the border and to create a new Northern Ireland Assembly to replace the lost Parliament. While sporadic separatist violence continues to this day, it no longer has the character of an organized and powerful separatist movement.
Wales’s and Scotland’s recent history is much quieter. Welsh histories tell of the annexation as a boon for the then-largely-agrarian country, permitting industrialization with English money. However, the Welsh educational system under English rule languished, and even when the English did build and maintain schools they excluded the Welsh language and the high population of Welsh-only speakers. Welsh as a literary and even a spoken language persisted in large part due to the Welsh-language churches that became popular at the same time, though English became more prominent over time regardless. Wales did not gain status as a constituent country of the United Kingdom until 1997, with the establishment of a National Assembly of Wales and devolution of some powers from the UK Parliament, and Welsh did not become an official language of Wales until 2011. In Scotland, an attempt at a devolved parliament was made in 1979, but failed due to insufficient voter turnout. Scotland finally acquired its Parliament in 1997 after a much better-populated vote and a much better understanding of the potential petroleum riches beneath the North Sea.
Because the Isle of Man never signed an Act of Union or Welsh-style annexation agreement, it never became part of the United Kingdom. Instead, it remained a separate jurisdiction with the same monarch, much as Scotland was in the period between the merger of the crowns and the Act of Union and much as the various independent Commonwealth Realms, such as Canada and Australia, are today. However, later legal decisions in both places give the United Kingdom much greater authority over the Isle of Man than the (none) it has in fully independent Commonwealth Realms. The United Kingdom is responsible for the Isle of Man’s armed defense, there is no separate Manx citizenship, and the Parliament of the United Kingdom has ultimate authority over the Manx Tynwald and other government bodies of the Isle. While the Isle of Man nominally cultivates its own international presence, including being outside of the European Economic Area and European Union, in practice it defers to the UK. The two Channel Island jurisdictions, Guernsey and Jersey, have a similar relationship, stemming from their initial status as separate possessions of the Anglo-Norman ruling line. Like the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey maintain their own parliaments over which the UK Parliament has ultimate authority, but they are also part of the European Customs Union and otherwise partially responsible for their own international affairs.
The British Isles are already a fragmented region. With an unusually well-defined and well-understood history of immigration, settlement, and ethnogenesis, the British Isles contain a large number of distinct nations, few of which have their own states thanks to the expansion of the United Kingdom. Only Ireland has gained independence, as part of the same wave of decolonization that freed many of the UK’s colonies in the early 20th century. The other nations within the UK—Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey, Cornwall, the Gaelic-speaking Scottish highlands, Orkney, Shetland, and perhaps even more—have varying degrees of recognition and autonomy within the UK framework, amid frequent requests for more.
Next to Ireland, Scotland has the most recent memories of independence of the lot, having been part of the UK for just over 300 years to the others’ ~1000. Defined in substantial ways by English suppression of Scottish cultural elements like the Scots language, Scotland has developed a different political culture from its hegemon, remarkably more liberal. An effort at a home-rule Parliament like Ireland’s stalled in the 1910s because of the outbreak of World War 1, and then died. The discovery of substantial oil fields in the North Sea, growing resentment over being used as a nuclear submarine base despite local opposition, Scotland’s resurgent economy in other areas after Thatcher-era austerity, and the sensation that Scottish liberalism has mostly helped save England from itself rather than improved Scotland, brought the issue to the fore once more. Still, despite a highly publicized independence campaign this past year Scotland narrowly remains part of the United Kingdom. The vote was close enough to earn greater autonomy from the UK and will likely pay further dividends in upcoming years, but as Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond himself admitted, the question of independence is “settled for a generation.”
Within Scotland, independence was particularly distrusted in the remote islands of Shetland and Orkney. These islands’ people somewhat resent the imposition of Gaelic bilingualism throughout Scotland, as they are a distinct Norse-based cultural group with no Celtic connection, and additionally depend on exports from England for many of their needs. Indeed, if one marriage in 1472 had gone differently, Shetland and Orkney would likely be part of Norway or Denmark today, similar to or included within the nearby Faroe Islands; their status as part of Scotland within the UK is incidental to this part of their identity. These are polities that are likely to seek regional autonomy of their own in the not-too-distant future.
Elsewhere in the UK, pro-independence sentiment is minimal. Welsh separatist sentiment hovers in the 17% or lower range, kept down by Wales’s economic difficulties and the fact that Wales was not a single cultural or political entity before the English takeover. Movements in Northern Ireland and independent Ireland to separate the north, whether as its own country or as a restoration of a united Ireland, are fringe stances with even less support, thanks to violence only recently quieted. Cornwall still agitates to reach the same level of recognition that Wales and Scotland have within the UK, with full independence most likely impossible for such a small region. The likeliest new independent states to emerge from the United Kingdom’s shadow are the crown dependencies. With native languages tenuously preserved, a measure of freedom to cultivate their own international affairs, and pressure from the UK to become more independent, the three crown dependencies may yet join Europe’s sovereign microstates like Malta and Monaco. While the Channel Islands share ancient cultural ties with France and the Isle of Man with Scotland, these entities have been separate long enough that joining their near neighbors more fully would represent a massive loss of long-maintained power and autonomy. Fully integrating with any neighbor is, politically, out of the question, not least because all three crown dependencies have their own languages that are already endangered, and which they would almost certainly lose if they formally joined England, Scotland, or France. Independence-flavored rhetoric in England tends to be associated with far-right parties like the UK Independence Party and British National Party, who focus on being cartoonishly racist and trying to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
In the fullness of time, the United Kingdom will see changes in its internal organization—of this there is no doubt. Cornwall, Shetland, and Orkney are regional identities with real claims to nationhood, and their eventually acquiring regional autonomy or greater is virtually guaranteed. These small entities have no history of independence, however, and are unlikely to attempt to sever themselves entirely from England and Scotland. It is possible that, if Scotland and Wales succeed at the independence referenda they will almost certainly launch in the next century, Shetland, Orkney, and Cornwall will try to jump ship—Shetland and Orkney to England, Cornwall to Wales—but this is far more speculative. Similarly, England itself may become a federation like Germany, its former kingdoms turning into federal states that are much more autonomous than the current counties.
Whether the United Kingdom experiences a Yugoslavia-like disintegration on peaceful, democratic terms; becomes a federation like some other multiethnic states; adds a handful more autonomous regions for its minorities; or something else entirely, this seemingly stable and highly industrialized Western country will remain an interesting place to watch.