Book review: Acts of Union and Disunion, by Linda Colley

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 6:55pm

Acts of Union and Disunion
by Linda Colley
Profile Books
3 stars

Nick Walker

With Scotland's referendum on independence looming, this is a timely study of a country whose unwieldy title - emblazoned on my passport - betrays its disunity.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is neither united (the North-South divide and the class system being two of its many centrifugal forces), nor a kingdom, at least at present. And, arguably, as Russia's Vladimir Putin told British reporters last year in Moscow, it's not "great" either.

It's said the "Great" qualifier is to differentiate Britain from France's Brittany, a rationale that's hard to buy for some. Nevertheless, for centuries the country has punched above its weight on the global stage.

Professor Linda Colley has penned a lively tract that consists of 15 thought-provoking essays examining the ties and narratives that bind the UK and also its many glaring fissures.

With well-chosen examples, notably Shakespeare's Richard II and a speech by Margaret Thatcher made in 1979, Colley deciphers this perplexing land, from its earliest beginnings through its uncertain - and possibly fractured - future.

This work is particularly revealing on the weeping wound of the North-South divide. We learn here, among other surprises, that the first university in the north, Durham, was built in 1832, hundreds of years after Oxford and Cambridge.

The Chester-born Colley writes warmly about the north of England, a region she observes as enjoying more cohesion, grit in the face of adversity and community spirit, than the more affluent south.

As for Scotland, Colley tries to correct what she sees as a historical misinterpretation. "Scotland has never been a colony. It was never conquered or forced to submit to waves of alien settlers as Ireland was." She also points out that the Scots were joint oppressors of the Irish and active in the colonies (hence the thistle logo of Jardine Matheson, whose first business in 19th-century Hong Kong was selling opium).

Colley is less impressive on the monarchy. She blandly says it's venerated because it promises and delivers continuity. But at a time when British "poverty-porn" TV shows such as Benefits Street are causing a nationwide media stir, the paradox that generations of one family surnamed the Windsors can live on state financial support, while proles who do the same are jeered at, is not addressed.

Another weakness: insufficient space is devoted to persons of colour. Indeed, Africans marched in Roman battalions across the country's green fields long before England even became an entity.

For a current take on that curious country that once ruled Hong Kong, and vast tracts of the world, Acts of Union and Disunion provides compelling reading by an engaging voice on what it means to be British, and the complexities of a nation that, in the 21st century, is populated by subjects rather than citizens.