The United Kingdom created by Acts of Union between the nations of the British Isles was not in the process of crumbling from the moment of its birth. The Union and unionism was pieced together bit by bit, repairing the wear and tear caused by the inevitable tensions of a multi-national polity. There were major challenges. Ireland could not be held within the Union once the majority of its people decided that their nationality could no longer be represented to their satisfaction within the United Kingdom. From the 1880s onwards the Irish electorate returned a majority of MPs who supported devolution. The British parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, differed on the question of how to respond to the claims of Irish nationhood. They did not differ in their belief that their main task was the maintenance of the Union. From Gladstone onwards, though sometimes with little enthusiasm, the Liberals believed that Irishness could be accommodated within the Union by making substantial concessions of political autonomy to Ireland. The Conservatives believed that the Union ought to be politically monolithic. They accepted regional identities but believed they should be subordinated to a single political identity. The dispute between these parties had not been resolved by the time of the First World War, during which the majority of nationalist Ireland was converted to a form of nationalism that was no longer compatible with the continued existence of the Union.


Regional Identity Irish Nationhood Labour Politics Belligerent Action British Working Class 
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  1. 3.
    Keith Robbins, ‘This Grubby Wreck of Old Glories”: The United Kingdom and the End of the British Empire’, in his History, Religion and Identity in Modern Britain (London: Hambledon, 1993), p. 292.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Enoch Powell might be considered as an example of an English politician deeply disturbed by the end of empire, but he was never representative in more than individual aspects of his outbursts. He consoled himself that ‘The nationhood of the mother country remained unaltered through it all [Empire], almost unconscious of the strange fantastic structure built around her’: quoted in Michael Fry, The Scottish Empire (Edinburgh: Tuckwell and Birlinn, 2001), p. 497.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Kenneth O. Morgan, ‘England, Britain and the Audit of War,’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 7 (1997), p. 140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Paul Ward 2005

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