There is a case – made quietly by some, loudly by others, and passionately by a vocal few – for the dissolution of the United Kingdom.
Few could deny it. It is among the most pressing problems of our time. Greater calls for independence can be heard from across the border and the Irish Sea, accusations rightly levelled at the shortcomings of the Protocol and the disreputability of the present British government.
The seriousness of this issue demands respect from all sides of the debate. Yet it has become disturbingly common for people to conflate an understanding of history with a ‘fact-finding’ exercise aimed at providing legitimacy to viewpoints already held. This is a dangerous and noxious notion, and one that is proliferating. Today, too many are willing to have conversations that are expedient, rather than necessary.
To fight imagined foes, rather than real enemies.
I found myself ruminating on these matters a few months ago when writing a report for the Constitution Society, examining some of the more contentious writings of the Oxford law and government professor-turned-quasi-constitutional advisor to the Johnson ministry, Richard Ekins. There I raised concerns about the damage that an ahistorical or ‘weaponised’ understanding of the British political constitution can have for public discourse, and the importance we should place on speaking with greater care about political terms.
When reading an article the other week titled ‘The case for dissolution’, I was confronted by a similar feeling. The piece, which argues that the United Kingdom is akin to an ‘English Empire’, trades in absolutes. Cheap references to genocide and ‘national abolition’ punctuate Mr Heath’s prose – contextless, partisan, political arguments dressed up in historical garb, casting the English as the oppressors and the other nations as the heroic oppressed.
The attempt to introduce a bastardised theory of ‘Norman Yokeism’ into the Anglo-Welsh relationship raises eyebrows. The idea of ‘the Yoke’ emerged in seventeenth-century revisionist literature, claiming that the Normans, upon their conquest of England, tyrannically oppressed the ancient rights and liberties of the Anglo-Saxon people. Not even the most Whiggish of Whigs today would characterise the Conquest in the manner as Mr Heath does the incorporation of Wales. They would be laughed out of the room. Wales was, for many centuries, a region engaged in near-constant warfare with the Marcher Lords of England.
The Anglo-Scottish relationship, from Roman Britain through to the Auld Alliance and Civil War, was little different. Geographical, cultural, and political differences accounted for an array of tensions between the shifting feudal lordships in these regions for centuries, as they do today.
Yet, like the Conquest, the relationship between these great nations was born of the complexities of human conflict, diplomacy, and compromise, one which would influence not only the politics of the British Isles but also that of Anglo-French and continental relations throughout the Hundred Years War and beyond. The idea that the either were especially oppressed by the Laws in Wales Acts or the Acts of Union is at best misleading, and at worst disingenuous.
The portrayal of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland from a hard-line nationalist perspective is particularly egregious. By all serious accounts, the war saw vile atrocities committed at scale by either side, often as retributive actions scaling in tit-for-tat exchanges, or a means to secure particularly seditious provinces without recourse to further bloodshed. We should not marginalise nor trivialise the horrific massacres perpetrated by the Parliamentarian forces under Cromwell, but we should recognise them in their context.
The war was a fairly unexceptional conflict by the standards of the time – the only standard by which we can measure such actions. Trite remarks about genocides and oppression by fractious competitor states are little more than sparse historical bunting to adorn what is, at its core, a deeply unorthodox portrayal of Anglo-Irish history. Casting a contemporary eye back on such events is, in the truest sense, an intellectually bankrupt way of assessing the past.
People disagree, sometimes ferociously, over their views. Civil disagreement is the cornerstone democratic society, and a central purpose of the parliaments and parlements that developed so incrementally as chambers that temper governmental power. This is not an excuse to irresponsibly press-gang history into the service of ideology. We all have perspectives influenced by experience, but one can hold a position on a matter without letting it compromise the essence of their historical faculties.
One may quite properly conclude that the UK government’s approach to the Northern Ireland situation since 2019 has been deeply inadequate, and that its woefully cavalier attitude to overt Scottish nationalism has left the Union in a precarious state. That the government’s willingness to break the international law on which world order relies has brought its integrity and reputation into serious question.
These are all valid criticisms of what has been, for the last seven years, a growing problem at the heart of the British constitution. They do not require ahistorical allusions to accomplish.
Politics is the art of persuasion. In times such as ours, one might excuse Mr Heath and others like him for thinking that rhetoric can carry one further than an honest, faithful, accurate account of humanity’s historical experience. It cannot. These concepts matter for public life, and for public discourse. This truth is often forgotten. Political journalism is not, and must not, be an activity for the partisan. Nor should it be a perpetual hunt for the next ‘Watergate’, the next schism or scandal.
The province of journalism has been, and always will be, to hold an unblemished mirror to society. To place events in context, not for this-or-that particular objective, nor to serve this-or-that audience, but for the good of civil society. Without it, we are all the poorer, and more vulnerable to those who seek to do us harm.
In these polarised times, when people of all persuasions are finding it harder to differentiate between what is true and what is expedient, Mr Heath’s may be an understandable, even a forgivable, offence.
But it does not make it right.