Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain by Stuart Ward

The oddity of being British is wonderfully illustrated in the 500 pages of anecdote and argument in this study, backed up by getting on for 200 pages of notes. In his eagerness to show us obscure and forgotten episodes in the history of the British Empire, our guide, Stuart Ward, an Australian professor now working in Copenhagen, leaps about the globe from Vancouver to Natal to Ulster to New Zealand to Jamaica.

Again and again, he presents us with slices of British imperial life in all their vivid inconsistency. From the first, it proved impossible, however keenly it might be desired, to bind the British Empire together with a universal doctrine applicable to all its subjects.

The inhabitants of British colonies, both settlers and indigenous peoples, naturally demanded the same liberties as those enjoyed by the inhabitants of the British Isles, liberties which they expected would be upheld by monarch, Parliament and courts.

When Benjamin Franklin lived before the American War of Independence for many years in London as a colonial agent, he took exception to the depiction of Americans as “the lowest of Mankind and almost of a different Species from the English of Britain”.

The problem in the 1770s was that the American colonists wanted too much to be British: were too determined to assert the same liberties, including no taxation without representation.

Self-government, or representative government as it is perhaps better called, is not some bizarre, new-fangled fad, but an inherited right to which the British everywhere have long displayed, as the American colonists did, a stubborn attachment.

Ward traces the widening from the early 19th century of Britain’s strategic purview to encompass bases in Malta (1802), Cape Town (1806), Singapore (1819) and Aden (1839), naval and merchant power helping to unleash a great wave of settlers, eight million from British ports in the second half of the 19th century, more than any European rival.

And, he reminds us, these settlers wished to govern themselves:

“By the mid-1850s, for example, a mere 50,000 settlers in New Zealand had established seven elected governments – a sign of the rapid proliferation of new polities intent on securing their constitutional ‘birth-right’ in unfamiliar settings. British governments, for their part, recognising that imperial rule would need to tread lightly in the shadow of the American revolution, proved more willing to concede responsible government on the principle that ‘untying the knot would only strengthen the rope’.”

One notes the unhappy intrusion, into Ward’s otherwise robust prose, of academic verbiage: “the rapid proliferation of new polities”.

A second intrusion is found in the title of the book, Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain. This prediction could, of course, turn out to be true: the disintegration of Britain into England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland could soon occur.

Ward quotes a remark in the early 1960s by John Strachey, author and Labour MP for Dundee West, to his fellow Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell:

“Writing my books, I have had to reflect deeply on what happens to countries when they divest themselves of colonies and dominions…Now that the empire is vanishing, we must prevent the ‘Balkanisation of Britain’ at all costs.”

But as Ward himself concedes in the second paragraph of his book, by invoking in his title ‘the End of Britain’, he opens himself to the charge of ‘gratuitous coat-trailing’.

His need for an organising principle has led him into the realm of futurology: a curious place for an academic, writing for an academic press, to allow himself to go.

He embarks, as he puts it, “on a world history of the end of Britain”, even though the end of Britain has not actually occurred.

What his rich and varied evidence might equally well be taken to show, indeed what he quite often admits it does show, is that the British Empire did not last long and contained from the first the seeds of its own destruction, as many people either feared or hoped at the time.

He quotes Macaulay, the great Whig historian, apostle of progress and liberty, evoking in the mid-19th century the time far-distant

“when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand  on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.”

The organising principle of this book could have been that the British Empire was a weak and transitory phenomenon, for it could not avoid promoting an invincible attachment to national self-government which was incompatible with empire.

On 23 May 1914, Ward relates, a steamer, the Komagatu Maru, bearing 376 Sikh men dropped anchor off Vancouver, where their leader, Baba Gurdit Singh from Amritsar, announced through an interpreter:

“We are British citizens and we consider we have a right to visit any part of the Empire.”

Here was a version of the claim most famously upheld by Palmerston (unmentioned by Ward, who cannot possibly bring in everything) in his famous speech of 1850:

“as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say ‘Civis Romanus sum’, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.”

But as Ward relates, the Sikhs were told they could not come ashore: the existing settlers, preponderantly from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, English-speaking Canada and the United States, did not want immigrants from British India, and had already shown so in 1907 by rioting for two days, attacking local Asian businesses and residents, in protest at the impending arrival of 900 Indian migrants on another ship, after which the rules were tightened up so as to make such voyages almost impossible.

Winston Churchill protested in London at this injustice to the “three hundred millions of our Indian Empire”:

“Is it possible for any Government with a scrap of respect for honest dealing between man and man to embark on a policy of deliberately squeezing out the native of India?”

The answer to that question was “yes”. While the Sikhs were confined in miserable conditions aboard the Komagatu Maru, Gurdit Singh took their case to the British Columbian Court of Appeal and lost.

Soon afterwards, the First World War began, and the story of the Sikhs forced on the eve of war to sail away from British Columbia was forgotten, only to re-emerge in the 1970s, with the British Columbian Legislature offering an official apology in 2008, and Justin Trudeau an apology on behalf of all Canada in 2016.

Before we yield to the pleasures of self-righteousness, rushing to condemn the racist verdict reached by the British Columbian Court of Appeal in 1914, let us consider how the history of our own times may come to be written.

Once again, we see migrants attempting to travel by boat to countries, including our own, where they hope to start new and prosperous lives, for they have been led to hope they will be treated as equals.

In the host countries we have signed up to a doctrine of human rights which is universal, but which our politicians, reacting to electoral pressure, are anxiously finding ways to render of purely local application.

We are, in fact, engaged in a tremendous act of hypocrisy. For a long time we have been doctoring our citizenship laws in order to ensure that one human being is not, for immigration purposes, treated the same as another human being. What matters, as in Vancouver in 1914, is where you come from.

Democracy and human rights have come into direct conflict with each other. The key question, “Who belongs to this democracy, this demos?” is not answered with the enlightened words, “Anyone who wishes to belong, for in this country we subscribe to the doctrine of human rights, according to which we are all equal.”

Ward does not rush off, like some ill-trained reviewer, into such general reflections, but he does provide much stimulus for them.

He keeps telling us how poorly defined the word “British” has always been used, how it is “a deliberate fudge, elevating conceptual looseness to a metaphysical virtue”.

But he only touches occasionally on the possibility that people may actually prefer this looseness, find it easier to wear, and indeed if they move to the United Kingdom find it easier to adopt Britishness as an allegiance, an identity, than Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness or Irishness.

There is something comfortable about Britishness. Its artificiality does at times become laughable, but also makes it more attainable. Before I am accused of grotesque, self-serving sentimentality, consider this striking passage, found on page 470:

“Remarkably, to the extent that referendums have been held to address the residual anomalies of Greater Britain over the last half-century or so, they have tended to follow the Falklands and Gibraltar in favouring the persistence of British constitutional arrangements.

“In almost every instance, the opportunity to dispense with the civic remnants of Britishness has been refused, as witnessed by the outcomes of the Quebec ‘sovereignty-association’ referendum (1980), the Tuvalu republican referendum (1986), the Bermuda independence referendum (1995), the Quebec independence referendum (1995), the Australian republican referendum (1999), the Tuvalu republican referendum (again, in 2008), the St Vincent and the Grenadines republican referendum (2009) and the elaborate consultative process to choose a distinctively New Zealand flag in place of the old colonial ensign (2016) – not to mention the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.”

In 2021, when Barbados did switch to a republican constitution, it was the first former British colony to loosen its ties with Britain for 40 years, and dispensed with the formality of a referendum.

How Remainers wish no EU Referendum had been held in the UK in 2016, no opportunity had been given to voters to declare their preference for British constitutional arrangements over those of the European Union.

We have witnessed the refusal of millions of human beings to do what the preachers of human rights told them was the only rational and decent thing to do.

The more eagerly various airy, speculative thinkers have tried to transfer authority to supranational bodies, the greater the resistance they have provoked from unspeculative thinkers who would rather have the devil they know.

Britain and Britishness have persisted. We find ourselves confronted by a more durable phenomenon than is dreamt of in the progressive mind. It is called the nation state.

There is much in this fascinating book on which there has been no time to touch here, and its charm is increased by the author’s failure to justify his frankly disgraceful title.

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