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Union Jack flag flying atop a turret against a dusky sky to illustrate the blog post "United kingdoms and European Unions: using global history to better understand the UK" by Alvin Jackson on the OUP blog

United kingdoms and European Unions: using global history to better understand the UK

Was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which was inaugurated in January 1801, unique? It has certainly been uniquely recognised as the “United Kingdom,” or (more simply) the “UK.” But how far does this recognition reflect the UK’s exceptional multinational structures?

In fact, there was a proliferation of the idea and practice of “united kingdoms” during, and at the conclusion of, the conflict with revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815). These were polities which had generally begun life as composite monarchies—“unions of the crown”—and which later developed into an array of different forms of multinational (and sometimes specifically named) “united kingdom.” They were also polities which, aside from these resemblances, were otherwise linked both by chronology, being created at roughly the same time, and often through the pressures of British foreign and imperial policy.

Pragmatic and contingent creations, these unions generally lacked a visionary ideal: they were forged (like many subsequent federal unions) in the context of economic and military need. The UK (1801), the Austrian empire (1804), the United Kingdoms of Sweden-Norway (1814), and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815) were all formulated in the context of a world war, and against the backdrop of the struggle against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. An additional form of “union” polity, the Grand Duchy of Finland, came into being at this time (1809), and indeed a further “united kingdom,” that of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves, was created and also decisively shaped in the light of the contingencies of the global conflict (1815).

“Pragmatic and contingent creations, these united kingdoms generally lacked a visionary ideal.”

The UK, through its foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh (in office between 1812 and 1822) and his lieutenants, was central to both the origins and the preservation of much of this network; indeed, Britain may be said to have exported the supranational union just as the French republic exported revolution and the nation state. This of course is not to suggest that the British invented “union,” or even parliamentary union, or (still less) that these unions were all exactly the same. But it is to say that some of the key British and Irish architects of the United Kingdom emerged as staunch promoters and defenders of other union polities in the early nineteenth century—generally, as with the Irish union, with security and the French threat both firmly in mind. It is also to say that these constitutional architects were effectively using union to reinvent the institutions of the ancien régime for an age of revolution and reform.

But there was also, ultimately, a reciprocity of influences and connections. Contemporary Britons—politicians, scholars, travellers—naturally saw rich and dense interlinkages connecting the different unions of nineteenth-century Europe and beyond; and from these they eventually came to identify exemplars or paradigms for the constitutional reform of the United Kingdom. The best known case of such a set of influences rests with W. E. Gladstone; but Gladstone was merely the most prominent, and the most influential, of a much wider cohort who thought carefully about the reform of their own country (or indeed, more generally, about its merits and demerits) in comparative terms. The intercommunication of influences with these union polities across the long nineteenth century is truly striking. Scotland, for example, was at different times both influencing and being influenced by the Irish union, its supporters and opponents, while, looking to the British empire, Canada both received and bestowed influence from and on the unions of the United Kingdom.

In particular, Irish nationalists and Irish unionists, long engaged with the history of the multinational union states of continental Europe and beyond, sought both angels and demons and both models as well as warnings. Irish Catholics on the whole warmly embraced Habsburg Europe, and sometimes sought refuge within its boundaries; Irish Protestants (some of whose ancestors had originally fled from Moravia and other crownlands) were more suspicious. Indeed, there is an unremarked historical aptness in the notorious fisticuffs exchanged in 1988 in the European parliament by Ian Paisley and Otto von Habsburg, when evangelical Protestantism and Habsburg Catholicism once again came into violent conflict.

“It remains the case that the unions of the United Kingdom are intimately bound with European politics.”

In short, the story of the unions of the United Kingdom has been closely associated with external exemplars; and, more generally, the story of these unions has always been associated with European analogy and comparison. And it remains the case that the unions of the United Kingdom are intimately bound within European (and wider) politics. What has been identified recently (by, for example, The Economist) as the growing Europeanisation of the flagging unions of the United Kingdom has thus an historical aptness—since it was the UK who helped to provide union to parts of Europe in the first instance.

Unions and united kingdoms have been British and Irish—and also European; but they have been transnational and indeed transcontinental as well.  In order to fully understand the unions of the UK, we need to look beyond these islands to the stories of the other contemporary European and global united kingdoms: how and why they survived—and how and why they sometimes failed.  

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