Reading Note: Colin Kidd’s ‘Union and Unionisms’

One of the most important books about devolution to have been published in the last 12 months isn’t really about the practice of devolution at all, as it stops in 2000.  It’s Colin Kidd’s Union and Unionisms: Political thought in Scotland, 1500-2000Kidd is a historian of political thought, Professor of Modern History at Glasgow University and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and the book is an expanded version of the Carlyle lectures Kidd gave at All Souls in 2006.

cover image (c) Cambridge University Press

Kidd’s concern is to explore the nature of unionist political thought in Scotland since 1500.  He discovers a long and rich history of thinking here – not really a surprise, when Scotland had had to work out ways to live with its larger and richer southern neighbour since the foundation of English and Scottish states.  His starting point is that, for much of the period since 1707, unionism has been the dominant ideology of most people in Scotland, to the point that it became a ‘banal unionism’, meaning it was part of the ‘wallpaper’ of Scottish life and ‘so dominant that it does not need to be demonstrative’ (p. 30).  The general argument is developed most fully in chapter 3, and in subsequent chapters Kidd shows how it was applied in such fields as religion (central to much of Scottish life from the Reformation, through the 1843 Disruption, to the earlier twentieth century) and the law.  He also argues that it has been an important feature of nationalist thinking, particularly in the early days of the national movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and latterly also in the thinking of such figures as the late (and much missed) Neil MacCormick.  But the overall argument is set out most clearly in the conclusion:

Scottish unionist political thought is not reducible to an unambiguous ideological position shared by all unionists.  Nor, for that matter, is Scottish nationalism easily reduced to a basic core doctrine of national independence.  … [F]or the most part, Scottish political argument has long been conducted in the vast yet variegated terrain which constitutes the middle ground between the extremes of anglicising unionism and Anglophobic nationalism.  … At the heart of this study is an awareness of the ways in which political unionism co-existed in Scotland with certain forms of Scottish national consciousness .  (p. 300)

There is often a tendency in Scottish historiography to write the political history of the making of the Union (see such recent books as Chris Whatley’s The Scots and the Union or Allan MacInnes’s Union and Empire), but leave many subsequent developments largely to social and economic historians, as political history was either a matter of grass-roots activity (covered in such varied books as Hamish Fraser’s Scottish Popular Politics, Jack Brand’s The National Movement in Scotland, or Iain McLean’s The Legend of Red Clydeside), or happened at Westminster. (That trend stops as one reaches the 1960s.)  Kidd reminds us that between 1707 and the 1960s there is also a rich, and often-forgotten, history of thinking about relations between Scotland and the rest of the UK in ways that reconcile Scottish distinctiveness with engagement with the rest of the Union.

This book is not just a valuable addition to the historical literature, but also has much to offer to current thinking about the development of constitutional relations in Great Britain.  It’s already had quite an intellectual influence, among both scholars and practitioners.  It was widely read by members of the Calman Commission during the commission’s work (it’s cited on page 54 of the Commission’s final report), and has also been read by people in the Scottish Government.  It has an obvious bearing on the Scottish approach to these debates.   It has a much wider relevance, though, in also showing the complexity of these issues which affect all parts of the UK, even if they’re more acute and evident in Scotland.  It needs as much to be read and considered by people in government in London (or Cardiff, Belfast and even Manchester) as it has been in Scotland.

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2 Comments

Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Reading notes, Scotland

2 responses to “Reading Note: Colin Kidd’s ‘Union and Unionisms’

  1. Emyr Lewis

    This is indeed an excellent book, well-written, informative and stimulating.

    It brings home to a Welshman how utterly different the discourse around the constitution is in Scotland. Arguments about the legitimacy of the Union of the Crowns may seem at first sight to be so much angels-on-a-pinhead stuff, but at least the people of Scotland have a platform from which it is possible to argue in formal legal terms about their status as a distinct legal and political entity.

    For the Welsh, we find this more difficult. Our formal incorporation into England was a unilateral act of the English sovereign in a much earlier age. Hence we have difficulties arguing from a formal legal basis for such things as a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction, because, in a sense, the incorporation of Wales into England was year zero for the Welsh constitution. It is difficult to postulate a coherent status quo ante to which we would return (or maybe have returned without realising it, given the repeal of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542 by the Welsh Language Act 1993 apart from section 47 of the 1542 Act relating to sales in market overt.

  2. ratzo

    Don’t really agree with much of this. It’s a not-bad book but it’s a notably weak attempt to retort to Ian McLean’s powerful book ‘State of the Union’, by adopting the analytical style of the latter. The eventual result is interesting but strained.

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