Some 17 years ago, on September 6, 1997, the funeral of Princess Diana was a symbolically laden moment. Making the British royalty a bit uncomfortable, Elton John sang an all-time hit, “Candle in the Wind”, in Westminster Abbey. Originally written for Marilyn Monroe, the song was adapted for Diana’s funeral, and the new opening lines were: “Goodbye England’s rose, may you ever grow in our hearts.” The song went on to top worldwide charts. Millions felt a lump in their throats.
In New York, from where I was watching the funeral on television, the enormous TV coverage also featured Linda Colley, a British historian, then teaching at Yale University and currently a professor at Princeton. To the surprise of some, Colley commented quite politely that John’s song, though moving, was somewhat unfortunately worded.
“Goodbye England’s rose” belittled how much the non-English parts of Britain had come to identify with Diana, especially in her moment of death. Moreover, her title was princess of Wales. Colley’s American TV hosts fumbled a little over this thought but quickly inferred that England and Wales were two different parts of Britain.
In this interpretation, John’s song was about an exclusive England, not an inclusive Britain. Perhaps that was unwittingly so, but we know that many forms of consciousness become so deeply ingrained that human beings do not easily question their fraught implications or roots.
Colley’s comments were not incidental. She had already written a modern-day classic on the making of British identity, with a focus on the relationship between a tiny and proud Scotland and a big and mighty England. First published in 1992, Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 is widely read by students of British history. But because it applies modern nationalism theory to Britain, it also features in nationalism courses. My seminars on ethnic conflict and nationalism have had Colley’s Britons for over a decade and a half.
In the debate over the Scottish referendum on September 18, Colley’s work was referenced again and again, and it will continue to inform future debates. Scotland may have chosen to stay with the United Kingdom, but 45 per cent of Scots voted for separation, and the younger Scots did so overwhelmingly. While the vote has closed a chapter in that Scotland is not breaking away for now, it has also opened another chapter.
This new, unfinished chapter has several questions. What should be the relationship between the various parts of Britain, indeed those of the UK? How much power should London, or Westminster, have? Should there be regional parliaments? Can the UK continue to be a more or less unitary polity, or should it head towards a constitutional debate on a federal model, much like India, Canada and the US, all former British colonies?
Indeed, when, alarmed by the late surge of separatist sentiment, all three leading political parties promised greater autonomy to Scotland, they opened the way for a debate on what the entire political structure should look like, not simply what should happen to Scotland. In the emerging debate, the most intriguing idea is an English parliament for England. Should it come true, it will decidedly take the UK towards a federal model.
Strikingly, Colley anticipated what we witnessed last week. Let us understand why her claims have profound implications. Colley argued that even though the treaty of 1707 brought England, Scotland and Wales together in a British union, there was no British identity in place until the early decades of the 19th century. And this new identity did not replace the English, Scottish and Welsh identities; rather, it added another layer, something that we have come to call a hyphenated identity in modern literature.
The Scots, in short, became Scottish and British at the same time, just as the Welsh turned simultaneously Welsh and British, over more than a century of identity-construction. This was different from France where, as the historian Eugen Weber has demonstrated, peasants of the Basque country and Brittany lost their regional identities a hundred years after the French Revolution, and an undifferentiated French identity was born.
In Colley’s account, four factors were critical in the forging of British nationhood: shared Protestantism; frequent wars with the foremost Catholic power of the time, France (1702-13, 1743-48, 1756-63, 1778-83, 1793-1802, 1803-15); commerce (in the early 18th century, every fifth British person was involved in trade and traders needed the protection of a strong state); and finally, the British Empire.
Many Indian readers would be intrigued to learn that India was instrumental in bringing the Scots and the English together. “It was India,” says Colley, “that the Scots made their own.” In terms of population, the Scots were never more than 10 per cent of Britain, but in the second half of the 18th century, they constituted more than a quarter of the East India Company’s army officers, nearly half of official “writers” and 60 per cent of “free merchants” in Bengal and a substantial proportion of “civilian officers” in Madras and Bengal.
Why were the Scots so attracted to empire? “Well-born and/ or well-educated Englishmen usually had the pick of jobs back home,” but even men of “first rate ability” from Scotland “had fewer prospects on the British mainland”. In contrast, “Britain’s empire, especially its Indian empire, gave the talented, the lucky… a chance to experience luxury… and the opportunity to build up a substantial personal fortune”.
Finally, and this is a point about dignity, not material reward, the empire “enabled Scots to feel themselves peers of the English in
a way still denied them in an island kingdom. The language bears this out very clearly. The English and the foreign are still too inclined today to refer to the island of Great Britain as England. But… the empire has always been emphatically British”. It was never called an English empire. “In terms of self respect, as well as profits it could bestow, imperialism served as Scotland’s opportunity.”
This argument constitutes the basis of Colley’s prediction about the difficulty of Britain’s survival as an unreformed state today. Britain has lost its empire; Protestantism is now a residual cultural category, not a fervent religious belief system (“God has ceased to be British, and providence no longer smiles”); and wars with a Catholic France are neither desirable nor possible.
Essentially, like other nations in the world, Britain, too, is an invented nation. The historical foundation now gone, it will have to re-engineer its institutions, especially political institutions, to be relevant in the 21st century and after. A vote in favour of unity has, paradoxically, opened the debate for what a restructured future might look like.
A move towards federalism, which reimagines England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as states with parliaments or assemblies of their own, with constitutionally designated powers and London functioning as a federal centre, much like Washington or New Delhi, would be the logical movement forward. Such a denouement in the coming years simply cannot be ruled out. We might have something like a United States of Britain before long.
The writer, director of the India Initiative, Brown University and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’, is a contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express’.