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The Making of Britain

So what is it to be? The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; Great Britain; plain Britain; or could it be Little England? The forthcoming referendum on the island (or island and a bit’s) continued membership of the European Union will tell us something about the likely options when it happens. Not too many want to call the result just yet, though David Begg in today’s Irish Times thinks it will be a narrow Yes. Europhilia, however, in our neighbouring island, has become a love that dares not speak its name (and it’s not such a big thing in some other countries either: that may be partially because of some developments in the union itself ‑ on the whole developments the UK has been in favour of rather than those it has opposed).

It seems safe enough to say, however, that there is a marked difference between attitudes to Europe in Scotland and those in England. Unless many Scots decide to vote tactically, against their natural instincts, in an attempt to engineer a “catastrophist” result which will lead quickly on to a new independence referendum, we are likely to see emerging a sharp difference between the two countries over an absolutely vital question of foreign policy and the definition of national interest. The extent of the division will become clear in the referendum voting patterns.

In 1603, James VI of Scotland became, on the death of Queen Elizabeth, James I of England and Ireland, while retaining his Scottish title. (He was the great-grandson of Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor, who had married into the Scottish royal family, the Stuarts.) James Shapiro reports, in his new book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, that the words “England” or “English” appear 356 times in Shakespeare’s pre-Jacobean plays but only thirty-nine times after James took power in London. Conversely, “Britain” appears only twice in the Elizabethan plays but twenty-nine times in those written under James. For Shakespeare, Fintan O’Toole writes in a review of Shapiro’s new book in the New York Review of Books

... James’s arrival was double-edged. The new king and his wife were much more interested in the theater than Elizabeth had been and the most immediate beneficiary of James’s patronage was Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Almost immediately, James chose Shakespeare and his eight core collaborators to be the King’s Men. Their new title was not merely symbolic: as of May 1603 Shakespeare was an official of the court as Groom of the Chamber. He and his fellow shareholders were each issued with four and a half yards of red cloth to make the royal livery in which they were allowed to appear on state occasions.

The King’s Men performed for James nine times in 1603-1604, ten times the following year, and ten times again in 1605-1606. Shakespeare had been in a relatively fallow period in the opening years of the Jacobean era, concentrating, it seemed, more on his new life as a landowning gentleman in Stratford than on the London stage. But now he was under pressure not just to come up with new material, but to produce a new kind of material, which he did in the very British plays Macbeth and King Lear. O’Toole writes:

James’s big project was the political unification of the entire island. In his opening address to the London Parliament in 1604, he compared his accession to an indissoluble marriage: “What God hath conjoined then, let no man separate. I am the husband, and all the whole isle is my lawful wife.”

In the plays that followed the usurper Macbeth is finally overthrown by a joint English and Scottish army, while the plot of Lear, which features a legendary king of Britain, from before the time of the Anglo-Saxons, shows the folly of dividing a kingdom up into discrete parcels.

Political union was eventually (but perhaps not finally) secured in 1707 through the Acts of Union (the Union with Scotland Act, passed in 1706 in London, and the Union with England Act, passed in 1707 in Edinburgh). As is often the case in these matters, persuasion and the purse had to be assiduously applied to secure the right result in parliament: “We're bought and sold for English Gold, / Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation” was Robert Burns’s later verdict. Sir John Clerk, himself a convinced unionist, believed that the treaty was "contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom".

Economic considerations, and fears, certainly played a huge part in Scots’ rejection of independence (by 55.3% to 44.7%) last year. If, however, England is seen to stand between Scotland and the wider world; if, furthermore, it is increasingly seen as a polity that is disposed to have a permanent Tory majority, blocking egalitarian politics and indulging “the market”, then Scottish opinion seems very likely to shift again towards independence. Shakespeare! thou shouldst be living at this hour.

9/11/2015

Fintan O'Toole in the New York Review of Books: http://bit.ly/1KYTq0s