If you listen to the Labour Government, EU and their fellow travellers you will have heard a lot about the “nations and regions” of the UK. But what exactly are they?
Well, so far as the government is concerned the “nations” are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland while the “regions” are the bits and pieces into which they have carved up England. England as such, you will notice, does not exist as a nation.
The EU, of course, would much rather that there were no nations at all. Nations are those nasty recidivist entities that provoke all sorts of awkward questions such as “Wouldn’t we all be a lot better off if we left the EU?” Much better to have a whole collection of regions, none of which is large enough or wealthy enough to stand on its own two feet and so much remain eternally subservient to the EU.
Historically, of course, none of this makes much sense.
The Scottish nation grew out of several distinct ethnic groups. The Picts seem to have inhabited the Highland area since time immemorial. The Scots themselves were immigrants from Ireland in the 6th century or thereabouts. What is now southwestern Scotland survived as a Celtic kingdom until the 13th century, while southeastern Scotland was (whisper it) ethnically English and was absorbed rather earlier than were the Celts.
The Welsh are, ethnically, far more homogenous being mostly descended from the Celtic tribes who inhabited the area in pre-Roman times and in Roman times formed part of the province of Britain. The bulk of the old Roman lands were lost to the English, and the areas not conquered became Wales.
The English, meanwhile, are descended from the Angles, Saxons and (probably) Jutes who came over the North Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries to loot and conquer the wealthy Roman province of Britain. Many of the native population remained under the English added their genes to the English nation. The English were probably thinking of themselves as such by about 700, though they did not form a united kingdom until two centuries later.
Then there are the Cornish. An independent Celtic state, it fell under English rule during the pressure of the Viking invasions. The Cornish retained their language and culture and even now consider themselves distinct from the English. The LibDems with typical opportunism want Cornwall to be raised to the status of a region within England. The policy has some traction in the county, but nobody east of the Tamar (including the LibDem national leadership) seem to take the ambition very seriously.
Northern Ireland is by far the youngest nation in the UK, dating as it does to the large scale immigations from mainland Britain to Ulster in the 17th and 18th centuries. The fractious nature of Northern Ireland politics, religion and ethnicity is the result.
Historically, therefore, the nations of the UK should be the English, Welsh, Scots, Cornish and Northern Irish. There should be no regions at all. So why are there regions? Put simply, England is too big, too rich, too powerful and too tough to sit easily into any given constitutional framework other than that of the United Kingdom.
Logically, there could be a federal Britain in which England and Cornwall were given a parliament and executive as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland currently enjoy. But all that would mean is that England would be able to use its muscle to push around the smaller nations – as indeed England did for centuries before the UK was created. In a federal Europe, England as a region would be so much bigger than any other region that it would similarly be a source of endless trouble.
Once the UK began to fragment under a devolution encouraged by the EU for its own reasons, England was always going to be the odd one out. Labour’s answer was to adopt the EU plan of breaking England up into regions. The LibDems followed suit. The English Nationalists want a devolved Parliament and Executive for England fully aware of the powers this will give England. Scottish and Welsh Nationalists seem to be eyeing the issue with some concern – as well they might.
Quite what the Conservatives' long term answer to this “English Question” might be I am not entirely certain. So far we have seen only tentative responses to particular problems. We yet await the big picture response. With English nationalism on the rise, I would suggest that it would be unwise to delay for long.