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Acts of Union and Disunion, by Linda Colley, Profile, RRP£8.99, 192 pages

One of the lasting achievements of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, I have always thought, is not only to have delighted children across the world but also to have gently suggested to them that things are not always as they seem. Words may have two or more meanings. Images may fade away or get stronger. Boundaries may get blurry. Poor Alice, always searching for certainty in that world of the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit.

Perhaps it was with the same intention in mind that Linda Colley, an English-born historian now teaching at Princeton, gives us this slim, thought-provoking book based upon a collection of broadcasts she is making on BBC Radio 4 to mark the beginning of a year in which Scots will be asked to vote upon their future membership of the United Kingdom; further ahead, should the Conservatives win the next general election, lies the prospect of a British referendum on membership of the European Union. Acts of Union and Disunion is not, in form, like that large and impressive work, Britons, which made Professor Colley’s name a little over two decades ago, but it pursues many of the same questions she raised then: about national identities, mixed loyalties, blurry worlds.

The decisions to be made about Scottish, English, British and European identities gives Colley the perfect occasion for one of her characteristically subtle and careful explorations, teasing out texts and unfolding meanings, through speeches, poems, cartoons and maps of the time. This love of nuance and cunning is, I feel, the essence of Colley herself. Is she a Conservative historian? Is she a feminist? Is she firmly for a continued British membership of the EU? Is she upset at the Scottish Nationalist party’s calling for a vote on independence when so many implications are so uncertain? Let me think.

The chief areas of inquiry here are acts of union: the earliest, between England and Wales brought by the Tudors; the Act of Union of 1707, bringing with it the Union Jack, Scottish membership of the parliament, a united foreign policy, army and navy, a unified budget and much else besides (though leaving intact a separate education system, the renowned Scottish universities and different legal processes); and the 1800 Acts of Union, dissolving the Irish parliament and bringing its voting districts and members into that larger entity of Great Britain and Ireland – until the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which established a separate Ireland, though with the six counties of Northern Ireland staying with the larger union. Finally, one might note the treaties that in 1973 brought Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic, into the EU.

It is not these formal, often overlapping acts, critical though they all are in constitutional and political terms, that really interest Colley; it is the swirl of more informal identities, coincidences, ironies and characters, a tapestry of quite extraordinary backgrounds that is by no means confined to the British Isles themselves but reaches across further borders, into the Low Countries, Hanover and Saxe-Coburg, and across the oceans, into Virginia, Upper Canada, the British West Indies, the Raj itself and Australasia. Burke’s Dublin, Scott’s Edinburgh, Irish admirals, Scottish generals, Welsh constitutional experiments and steaming coal, London bankers and Rhodes scholars are all part of this gigantic map, part cartographic, part cultural, part political and only partly to do with legal unions and disunions.

Many of the characters who surface here are men and women at the fringes of the Empire, rarely staying in the same place, though with London so often acting as the centre of that world stage. Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, H Rider Haggard and W Somerset Maughan are part of this caravan. The many worlds of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling are here. John Buchan’s novels ask us to imagine some of these characters: a wealthy Canadian rancher; the youngest son of a Scottish laird on secret missions to Turkestan; a Glaswegian shipowner and an Oxford lawyer, an English baronet married to an American heiress. Buchan himself belongs to this panoply: a son of the Manse, a prize­winning student at Oxford, a member of Lord Milner’s “kindergarten” in South Africa, correspondent for The Times, director of intelligence under Lloyd George, finally a governor-general to Canada who died in 1940 while still dreaming of a Greater Britain.

Wellington’s army in Spain (he being an Irish peer) included Hanoverians, the German Legion, and Scottish and Irish regiments, all to be decorated by the King. Montgomery’s Eighth Army before Alamein (he being of Welsh descent) included Guards divisions, Rhodesian and South African brigades, crack Indian regiments, and Australian and New Zealand contingents. Even when we get to peacetime, we see loyalties, identities and fortunes criss-crossing borders. Now, if Britain abjures the EU, and Scotland abandons Britain, how do we describe our identities? What will Sean Connery’s passport look like then?

Colley’s chapters usually have gentle endings. Constitutions are not set in stone. Unions are malleable. Boundaries may be altered from above, from below, from the inside. I love this sly complexity, because I myself possess so many shared identities that I have given up listing them. My family name comes from the shadier parts of Kilkenny, my father was a Tyneside boilermaker and my mother came from Durham coalminers. Catholic priests taught me all about Drake, the battle of Plassey and the railway engine. Where I was born was settled by the Romans, the Vikings, the Scots and the Normans, and then many centuries later by Irish monsignors and bookmakers. I now live in “New” England, teach at a university founded by a Welshman, and am married to the daughter of a Viennese Jew.

Looking back, my only unflinching loyalties seem to be to my football team Newcastle United and, until a late illness, to summer strolls in the Black Forest, above the university (Freiburg) where I studied as a graduate student. I can reasonably be regarded as part-Irish, Northumbrian, Catholic, British and European – well, I think I can.

So, Colley teases, what unions or disunions exactly are the peoples of these isles being asked to vote for? And if the vote is for “change”, what exactly does that change imply? There may be benefits but look before you leap, she suggests. You might land right down a giant rabbit hole.

Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale University and author of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ (Fontana). His most recent book is ‘Engineers of Victory’ (Allen Lane)


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