The Formation Of The United Kingdom
What do England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all have in common? They are all part of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK, for short. By the 13th century, England had all but conquered Wales and Ireland, either ruling them directly, or through vassals. The two countries did not, however, officially form a union with England until 1523 and 1801, respectively. In 1603, the Union of the Crowns took place, uniting the Scottish and English monarchies. In 1707, the parliament in Scotland dissolved, and the Scots began sending their representatives to the parliament in the English capital, London. This was known as the Union of the Parliaments. And thus began the birth of the British Empire. An empire that, for a time, was the most powerful force on Earth. People used to say that the sun never sets on the British Empire, because it controlled territory in every corner of the world. After World War II, however, the UK would give up most of its colonial possessions. The British Empire became the British Commonwealth, made up of the UK and former British colonies.
The United Kingdom In The 21st Century
Nevertheless, the UK is still a formidable political and economic power. It hosts a population of approximately 68 million people, and is the sixth biggest economy in the world. It is a member of NATO and the group of industrialized countries, known as the G7. It was also a member of the European Union, but in 2016, its people voted to leave the EU, and in the beginning of 2020, the UK had formally left the bloc in what was known as Brexit.
Today, the U.K. is dealing with numerous challenges, among which are the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has already killed more than 40,000 of its citizens. The country’s economic outlook is unforeseeable, owing to COVID-19 and the fact that the country has yet to conclude a trade deal with the EU following Brexit. In addition, the UK’s very existence may be in doubt as the movement for Scottish independence gains support, and the status of Northern Ireland is still questionable.
Indeed, there has always been resentment in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, because of the concentration of power in England. England is, after all, the largest and most populous country in the union. More than eight out of ten UK citizens call England home. The English language is the official language of the UK, and the Church of England is the UK’s official church. It’s also no accident that England’s capital, London, is also the capital of the entire United Kingdom, and is where virtually all political power in the union has been based for centuries. But growing calls for a more decentralized UK have led to changes in the ways the kingdom is governed.
In 1997, both Scotland and Wales voted in referendums on whether to devolve some governing powers to local parliaments. The people of both countries voted in favor of devolution. One year later, parliaments in both Edinburgh and Cardiff, the respective capitals of Scotland and Wales, were inaugurated.
Scotland has more powers devolved to it, compared to Wales, but the Welsh have been given special power to maintain and promote the Welsh language. Over the centuries, Welsh has declined in use in favor of English. In the last hundred years, however, there have been efforts to revive the language. In 2019, Wales announced an ambitious effort to have one million people speaking Welsh by the year 2050.
Similar efforts have been taken to revive other declining languages in the UK. Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man each have their own distinct dialects of Gaelic. Even in England itself, a minority language called Cornish exists in the region of Cornwall, located in the country’s southwestern tip. In 2002, the UK government recognized Cornish as a language in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
Future Unity Of The United Kingdom
Unfortunately for the future unity of the UK, devolution of powers and the revival of minority languages has not dampened the appetite by many people in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland for outright independence from the kingdom. In 2014, Scotland had a referendum on whether to secede from the UK. Ultimately, Scots voted to remain part of the union, but only by a narrow majority of 55%. Despite significant powers being devolved to Scotland, many Scots still resent London’s control. One major point of contention is the differing views that Scots and people in the rest of the UK have of the EU. As previously mentioned, the people of the UK voted in a referendum to leave the bloc in 2016. Most of the people in Scotland, however, voted to remain in the EU, and feel that they have lost the potential benefits that remaining in the political and economic alliance would have given them. This resentment may eventually trigger yet another referendum in Scotland on independence. One that might have a different result from the last time.
Wales also has an independence movement, but it is much weaker than its Scottish counterpart. A poll conducted in 2019 found that only 28 percent of the people of Wales desired independence from the UK. Northern Ireland presents more of a problem and has been a flashpoint for often violent conflict over the past hundred years. It was separated from the rest of Ireland when the Irish Free State was created in 1922, and subsequently became an independent republic in 1937. Since then, the conflict between Irish Nationalists wanting to merge Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic and Unionists of British descent wanting to remain part of the UK has plagued the kingdom. In 1998, an agreement known as the Good Friday Agreement was signed, seemingly putting an end to the conflict. It allowed for Northern Ireland to have its own government with devolved powers that would be shared by Nationalists and Unionists. There are, however, still simmering tensions between the two sides, and the desire of Irish Nationalists to merge Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic still festers.
The growing strength of independence movements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland represents the biggest threat to the continued existence of the UK.