And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
William Blake (From the Preface to Milton)
Police poster in London rail station
The United Kingdom is a confusing place. And it seems particularly so for the British.
The 2011 national census questionnaire provides a glimpse of the confusion at work. Question 9 asked citizens to choose their country of birth. But United Kingdom and Great Britain are not options! Instead Britons are expected to choose a ":country" such as England or Northern Ireland, which do not issue passports or have a seat in the United Nations, entities that at best could be described as having once been countries.
Question 15 asks for a description of ":national identity":. But "British" is at the bottom of the list. The other national identities listed are for those same entities that do no issue passports or have seats in the United Nations. They include "Northern Irish". If that is a "national identify" it is one that could include both British citizens from County Derry and Irish citizens from County Donegal, for both are in the north of the island of Ireland.
If you are not British you may be used to calling this land Great Britain, Britain or England. But the official name of the country is the United Kingdom. This also can be a problem, not least for republicans. The United Kingdom has two parts - Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Without Northern Ireland it would be just Great Britain. Britain (as the name is often abbreviated) is composed of three parts, Scotland, Wales and England, with a population of 60.6M. Until 1999 there was just one government for all three. No more.
England is the largest (130,360 sq. km.), most populous, most powerful, richest part of the nation. It has a population of 51.6M. And a third of the population of Britain is crowded into the 16 per cent of the land area that is south east England. Its population has increased by more than 10.5 percent since 1971. The difference in wealth between it and the rest expanded rapidly. Between 1995 and 2001, 60 percent of new jobs in the UK were in south east England.
The United Kingdom parliament sits in London, the capital city of England, but unlike Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, England has no representative assembly of its own.
In 2010 the Financial Times reported that a third of the land in England and Wales was owned "by a small group of aristocrats". Of 60m acres one third was controlled by "wealthy people and their estates". The newspaper reported that research by Country Life magazine showed that 36,000 members of the Country Land and Business Association owned half of all rural land in England and Wales. Nine years earlier Kevin Cahill's Who Owns Britain, had revealed that 9m acres were then owned by 35,000 people.
The part of the UK known as Northern Ireland is composed of six counties of Ireland with a population of 1.8m (2011 census) that remained a part of the UK when the other 26 counties became free. Those in Northern Ireland who support its union with the UK often refer to it as Ulster or the Province, although there are 9 counties in the province of Ulster. And unionists also often refer to Britain misleadingly as the "mainland", to suggest that their part of Ireland is in fact a part of Britain.
No other part of the UK better demonstrates how weak is the UK's conception of itself as a democratic model. When all of Ireland was ruled by Britain a majority in all but four counties voted for parties that sought independence and a united Ireland. But it was not just those four counties that were denied freedom. Two where majorities wanted to to be a part of free Ireland were added to the four to make a more viable entity.
Fortified police station in south Belfast >
To achieve and enforce their dominance over Catholics and nationalists, "unionist" and "loyalist" Protestants armed themselves and terrorised their opponents. Until recently many Catholics were disenfranchised and elections were gerrymandered. Systematic discrimination was practised against Catholics and the UK's only fully armed police acted as a sectarian militia keeping nationalists down. British governments stood by why this happened for 30 years.
"In all there had been 11 murders, two attempted murders, 574 cases of criminal injury, 367 cases of malicious damage and 133 cases of arson. Some 2,241 Catholics were evicted, and hundreds more lost their jobs. The reaction of the British Government when asked to intervene in these happenings in a part of the United Kingdom was that of Pontius Pilate".
Belfast in 1935 as described in Ireland in the Twentieth Century, Tim Pat Coogan
The population of the six counties is often divided by religion into Protestants and Catholics. And politically into nationalists who want a united Ireland and unionists and loyalists who prefer that the six counties continue to be a part of the United Kingdom.
Although some of the most prominent Irish nationalists have been Protestants, Irish nationalism has been seen as closely linked to Catholicism and unionism to Protestantism. Opinion polls suggest that not all Catholics in Northern Ireland want to leave the United Kingdom but most Protestants do support the union with Britain.
Originally two-thirds of the population were Protestants. By 1991 the Protestant share of the population was down to 46.5 per cent, with Catholics at 40.3%. The 2011 census showed a further decline in Protestant numbers. Only 35.7% described themselves as Protestants and 40.7% said they were Catholics. When those who said they had been brought up in one or other of the faiths were added 48% could be called Protestant and 45% Catholic.
"There's nothing like the monarch. She's the one thing that binds the union together. And what's important is she's not perceived as English."
Steven King, adviser to Unionist Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble. Quoted May 2002, The Financial Times
The times have changed in other ways too. The Union flag is no longer flown outside police stations on public holidays. The police force is no longer called The Royal Ulster Constabulary. And police officers no longer have to swear their allegiance to queen Lizzie Windsor. In 2012 Belfast City Council voted to stop flying the Union flag over City Hall every day, something not done in Britain. The flag will be flown on twenty days only. This caused some loyalists to demonstrate and riot.
In May 1998 over 70% of the Northern Ireland electorate voted in favour of having a degree of governmental autonomy through an Assembly in which nationalists and supporters of union with Britain would share power. They also voted to have a council of ministers from north and south of the border to promote cross-border policy making. In December 1999 the internal government of Northern Ireland was passed from London to the Assembly. At the same time a governing executive composed of Unionist, "loyalist" and "nationalist" ministers took office. But in October 2002 the British government suspended the Assembly following claims that a Sinn Fein spy ring had been discovered in the Assembly building. The case against the alleged spies collapsed but it was not until 2007 that a new Assembly was elected.
Scotland the brave
Scotland's 5 million people now have their own sub-legislature. They already had distinct legal and educational systems. Now the Scottish Parliament has control of domestic policy. Defence, foreign affairs and the broad management of the economy remain the responsibility of the government in London.
Scotland has more representatives in the UK parliament than its population warrants. And these MPs vote on domestic English legislation although MPs for England may no longer vote on laws that apply only in Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament relies on the UK government for its revenue. The grant from the British parliament, which was expected to reach £30bn by 2010. allows it to spend £1,500 more per head on services for the people of Scotland than is spent in England. It has not used its power to levy an additional 3 per cent income tax.
Opinion polls have shown as many as 52% of Scots in favour of independence for Scotland. One suggested that almost 2 in 3 Scots believed that Scotland would be independent by 2009. However, that did not happen. In the first election to the Scottish Parliament the anti-independence parties won 91 of the 129 seats. Scottish National Party candidates were elected to just 56 seats. In 2007 the people of Scotland elected 47 Scottish National Party legislators and 82 from other parties.
The BBC has rejected the idea of a separate news broadcast for Scotland, following lobbying against the change by the Labour Party. Opponents of the idea believe that as national institution the BBC helps to keep Britain united. Scottish newspapers and the Scottish National Party condemned the decision. One member of the Corporation's broadcasting council for Scotland resigned in protest.
"God grant that Marshall Wade
May by thy mighty aid
May he sedition crush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the Queen."
A verse from the unexpurgated British national anthem.
Wales (Cymru in Welsh), where 16 per cent of the 2.9 million population speak, read and write the Welsh language, has a legislative Assembly that gives that nation significantly less autonomy than Scotland. The Assembly has limited powers and no ability to raise revenue.
As with Scotland, the people of Wales are over-represented in the UK parliament. Their MPs also vote on laws for England while MPs for England are unable to vote on the laws for Wales that are made in the legislative assembly for Wales.
The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales), surprised many by winning 17 of the 60 seats in the first election to the new Assembly. However, the other 43 seats were taken by non-nationalist parties. In 2008 there were just 15 Plaid Cymru legislators and 44 Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat law makers.
The other islands
Britain is the mainland for some small nearby islands that are British but not part of the UK. The adjacent Isle of Man and Channel Islands are not actually parts of the UK. Although the people of these islands are British, the islands are self-governing "Crown dependencies." The Channel Island of Jersey issues its own versions of the British passport and British currency. It has a distinct legal system and its natives speak a French patois.
You might expect these islands to be an embarrassment for a nation that often assumes the superiority of its ways. The social systems of some of the islands have been described as feudal.
On the Isle of Man, which has a population of 80,058, the local government was having law-breakers beaten long after the British government had decided that such punishments were barbaric. Homosexuality was illegal until a European Court of Human Rights Ruling and pressure from Britain forced a change in the law.
The Channel Islands were occupied by the Nazis in World War II. Some of the islanders collaborated with the occupying army by identifying Jewish neighbours and other islanders who resisted the occupation. This conflicts with the British conceit that while the French may have allowed in the German army and the Germans may have persecuted the Jews, such things could never have happened in Britain. Although you may never have needed a passport to visit,
the special status of these islands has allowed the British to maintain their sense of themselves as unconquered and uncowed by the Nazi regime.
The tiny Channel island of Sark was, until 2008, Europe's last feudal state. It had been governed under a feudal system since it was established 400 years ago when queen Elizabeth Tudor issued its "royal charter". The island's governing chamber had been composed of 40 landowners and 12 elected deputies. But in April 2008 the British Privy Council approved legislation to replace this with an elected parliament of 28 in order to comply with the European human rights convention. However, the feudal offices of Seigneur and Seneschal remain. The first is an heredity "lord" who leases the island from Britain's hereditary head of state and the latter the chief civil and criminal judge who also presides over the parliament. There is no divorce and women members of the parliament have to cover their heads.
The Isle of Man, despite its poor record, has agreed to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into its law. The Channel Islands have been exempted.
In January of 1998 the British government ordered an enquiry into the regulation of the banking systems in the islands. These allow companies registered there to avoid filing annual accounts or disclose their ownership. All of the islands are havens for businesses and individuals that want to avoid British taxes. They tailor their tax rates to help them do this. The Financial Times estimated in early 2000 that together with Bermuda and the Cayman Islands these dependencies cost Britain £1bn a year in tax revenue.
Jersey, with a population of 88,2000, has 11,800 working in financial services. It has 80 banks from 16 countries and 335 investment funds. Guernsey is similarly well provided with financial institutions. About 10% of the population work for them. Sark has a population of only 575 and no motor cars, but 23,000 businesses are registered there. One Sark resident has been registered as a director of 3,000 companies. The Isle of Man, which has population of 80,058, crams 1,781 banks, 192 insurance companies and 102 investment funds into its few square miles.
Local politicians sit on the boards of banks that they regulate. The islands' banks are also alleged to be much used for money-laundering. Drug dealers from Britain and Ireland are ferried by taxi from the airport in Manx, Isle of Man, to the island's discreet banks, carrying bags full of cash.
According to British press reports in June 2000 only pressure from the British government kept the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, together with the overseas territory of Gibraltar, off an OECD financial task force list of countries accused of failing to stem money flows from drug trafficking, embezzlement of international aid and other organised crime through their banking systems. Instead they were placed on a list of states whose actions were under surveillance. By March of 2002 the two Channel Islands had joined the Isle of Man in agreeing, in the words of the Financial Times, "to improve transparency and exchange of information providing rich nations did the same." In 2008 a European Union "white list" of financial centres which had what the Financial Times called "top quality anti-money laundering controls" omitted the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Instead they were given an intermediate status allowing EU states to treat their standards as acceptable if they chose.
The Isle of Man now has tax information exchange agreements with Britain and Germany. Jersey has similar agreements with Britain and 10 other countries. And Guernsey and Britain also have a bilateral agreement. However, according to the Financial Times such agreements, which require a strong case to be made against the person under investigation, are little used.
Jersey, a prime holiday resort, also has a serious narcotics problem. The head of the island's Alcohol and Drugs Service estimates that out of a population of 85,000 there are 2,000 heroin users. However, the stress that Jersey puts on rehabilitation rather than punishment, means that the waiting time for detox programmes is only 48 hours.
Colonies & erstwhile colonies
A different kingdom
The national anthem