An incisive portrait
A look at the country that colonised much of this part of the world, and how it is faring in the troubled 21st century.
WITH Scotland’s referendum on independence looming (Sept 18 this year), this is a timely study of a country whose unwieldy title – emblazoned on my passport – betrays its disunity.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is neither united (the North-South divide and the class system being two of its many of its centrifugal forces), nor is it a kingdom, at least at present. Arguably, nor is it “great”, as Russian leader Vladimir Putin brusquely opined to British reporters last year in Moscow.
It’s said that the “Great” qualifier is to differentiate Britain from the France’s Brittany, a rationale that’s hard to buy for some. Nevertheless, for centuries the country has punched above its weight on the global stage.
Prof Linda Colley has penned a lively and topical tract that consists of 15 thought-provoking essays. And through these, she examines both the ties and narratives that bind the United Kingdom and also its many glaring fissures.
Colley’s last book to deliver so abundantly was the excellent Britons: Forging The Nation, 1707-1837, which came out in 1992. Her approach here, as it was in that well-received work, is to focus more on cultural and social history rather than on political or military dimensions, in order to illuminate her topic of expertise.
Acts Of Union And Disunion is a broad canvas filled-in with incisive portraits of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and the impact of the country being surrounded by the sea, and its ties with – and ambivalence over – other English-speaking countries and Europe, and much more.
With well-chosen examples, notably Shakespeare’s Richard II and a speech the late Margaret Thatcher made in 1979, Colley deciphers this perplexing land, from its earliest beginnings though to the country’s uncertain – and possibly fractured – future.
This work is particularly revealing on the weeping wound of the North-South divide, which long predated the late Margaret Thatcher’s cynically divisive policies. We learn here, among other surprises, that the first university in the north, Durham, was built in 1832, hundreds of years after Oxford and Cambridge.
The Chester-born Colley speaks writes warmly about the north of England, a region she observes as enjoying more cohesion, grit in the face of adversity, and community spirit, than the more affluent and “prissy” south.
As for Scotland, Colley tries to correct what she sees as a historical misinterpretation.
“Scotland has never been a colony. It was never conquered or forced to submit to waves of alien settlers as Ireland was.”
She also points out that the Scots were joint oppressors of the Irish and very active in the colonies. Even here in Malaya: The most infamous instance of such oppression occurred in 1948, when a platoon of Scots Guards was responsible for a massacre of civilians in Batang Kali, Selangor.
Colley is less impressive on the monarchy. She blandly asserts that it is venerated because it promises and delivers continuity. But at a time when British “poverty-porn” TV shows like Benefits Street are causing a nationwide media stir (and going viral on YouTube), the paradox that generations of one family surnamed the Windsors can live on state financial support while proles who do the same are jeered at is not addressed.
Another weakness: insufficient space is devoted to persons of colour. Indeed, Africans marched in Roman battalions across the country’s green fields long before England even became an entity. And, nearly 2,000 years later, soldiers of both colour and courage fought for Britain in two world wars.
In an age when Chicken Tikka Masala is “the national dish” (as it was dubbed by a British cabinet minister some years ago), Colley’s book is largely hued “a lighter shade of pale”, when it should contain a multiplicity of shades.
Additionally, the fact that Colley does not speculate on the impact of Scottish independence – should it pan out – on Welsh and Northern Irish perceptions of their own place in the country is a strange omission.
Despite these shortcomings, for a current take on that curious country that once ruled lands with names like the Straits Settlements and Ceylon, as well as vast tracts on other continents, Acts Of Union And Disunionprovides compelling reading by a lucid voice on what it means to be British today, and the complexities of a nation that, in the 21st century, is populated by subjects rather than citizens.