Great Britain and Britishness

By Oliver Finnegan

In popular memory, the UK was born in 1707, with both England and Scotland passing their respective Acts of Union creating Great Britain. Union is seen as the recognition of shared nationality by two previously separate peoples and an acceptance of a shared history. It is a formal recognition of the existence of Britishness and a British people, yet with the current referendum in mind the idea of a truly British people appears to be on the wane. The 1603 Union of the Crowns and James VI becoming James I of England provides an alternative scenario and illustrates how Britishness could have taken a different course and perhaps even, why the British project has never been entirely successful.

In 1603, James brought with him a heritage he believed auspicious, claiming descent from both the Roman Emperor Constantine and Fergus MacEarc, the first King of Scots, emphasising an imperial heritage as well as an unbroken line of descent from Scotland’s earliest leaders. The steady conquest of Scotland by the House of Stuart over hundreds of years made them an expansionist dynasty, believing strongly in their own destiny to unite all of Scotland. The acquisition of England and Ireland by James was the culmination of this imperialism and the next step in the Stuart ascendency within Europe. Rather than King of England and Scotland, James was crowned ‘King of Great Brittaine’ hinting at his intentions in the years to come. He sought to create what he described as a ‘union of love’ between his kingdoms which would be achieved through a ‘perfect Union of Lawes and persons, and such a Naturalising as may make one body of both Kingdomes under mee your King’. While Britannia was a denomination ascribed to the British Isles by the Romans and the idea of Britain can be found in Medieval texts such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regnum Britannica, what James sought to do was construct a British identity to replace that of England Ireland and Scotland. For this reason the British project truly began in 1603, with the first attempts to engineer a new people.

In England and Scotland, James attempted to bring the two kingdoms together gently, through means such as universal citizenship (the 1604 Post-Nati law) and the attempted mixing of the English and Scottish aristocracy at his court. In Ireland his most significant impact was felt and he truly began to experiment. After 1607, James encouraged the migration of English and Scots to Ireland to settle on land the Crown had forcefully confiscated, with the vast majority settling in Ulster. The project was managed so that equal numbers of Scottish and English settlers were sent to Ireland, with the intention that the three populations would intermingle and inter-marry. He attempted to simulate the cross border migration and cultural hybridisation that he sought throughout his three kingdoms, a test case. There was a precedent for this in the Iberianisation of South America by the Spanish and it convinced James of how successful this form of social engineering could be.

Just as he sought to destroy social borders, he also had an ideology which intended to break political barriers between his kingdoms. He conceptualised his three kingdoms as an empire, in a far more traditional sense than his successors, a single political unit, ruled over by a single imperial leader, an extension of the Stuart’s imperial past. He worked to break the clan system in Scotland, whilst implementing English and Scottish systems of government in Ireland. He believed himself to be working to secure for ‘posterity this flourishing worthy and great empire’ and at his coronation he was portrayed as ‘James I, Emperor of the whole island of Britain and King of France and Ireland’. Thus to James, Britishness was about unity beyond the merely political, it was to be an empire of one people, destroying the previously existing nationalities.

The reception for these ideas however, was lukewarm. Crucially he was unsuccessful at convincing his heirs to continue his project, who instead of emphasising integration between all the three kingdoms, sought to dominate Scotland and Ireland, drawing the centre of cultural and political authority into England. He should not, however, be regarded as ineffectual, as the results of his ideology can be seen in Northern Ireland to this day. What is clear is that nobody has since shared the extent of James’s enthusiasm. While he was able to set in motion the process that led to union in 1707, the idea of a people who were exclusively British died with him. The limited nature of the subsequent pursuit of purely political and economic union can still be seen today, as when the political reasons for union begin to dissipate, Britishness is built on shaky foundations. Union in the end was never a cultural process as James imagined it, but a political one and English, Scottish and Welsh identities persevere to this day, remaining a challenge to the British project.


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