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Bonds of Union

Isabelle Bour
Antoine Mioche

The United Kingdom between Unitary State and Union State: a geopolitical analysis

Matthew Graves

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1In his book The Isles: A History the historian Norman Davies remarks that when an undergraduate at Oxford the history he studied was called English history, whether it was in reality English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, or Indian. He was, of course, making a point about academic conventions and changing trends, with the shift from an Anglo-centric historiography associated with imperial Britain to the more inclusive “global history” of the British Isles pioneered by Hugh Kearney in the late 1980s.

2Similarly, when I was an undergraduate in law and politics in England in the early 1980s, part of the received wisdom of constitutional law was that Britain was a unitary state, where sovereignty was concentrated in a single, supreme national institution. So it was with some surprise that I came to learn some twenty years later that Britain was not, and perhaps never had been, a unitary state, centred on Westminster and Whitehall, but a union state, enjoying a large degree of historic autonomy for the nations and regions within the British ensemble. Where my student textbooks had allowed for two typologies of state building—the unitary and the federal—henceforth a third made its appearance: the union state. And where the emphasis had once been laid on constitutional continuity and the longevity and stability of the British state, now it was to be on “The Changing Constitution,” to cite a recent textbook title (Jowell and Oliver).

3This shift in the classification of the state poses the problem of the definition of the nation-state and the uses of that definition, or what might be coined “the uses of union.”

4If we accept Heywood’s standard definition of union as an “autonomous political community bound together by citizenship and nationality,” then the United Kingdom falls within its broad parameters (if one skates over the thorny issue of nationality and dual identity). Yet it clearly has never fitted Giuseppe Mazzini’s classic definition of liberal nationalism: “every nation a state, only one state for the entire nation” (Heywood 117).

5One possible formula for defining the territorial identity of the United Kingdom would be “one state, four nations.” However, unionists would reduce the account to two nations, a principality and a province, while nationalists would point out that one of those nations is partitioned between two states and its geography is shared. We know that the unicity of the British state has been unsettled by the fault lines of ethnicity, religion, language, economic inequality (the North-South Divide) and territorial discontinuity (it is not an island state, but an archipelago, including, in Conrad Russell’s phrase, “John Bull’s Other Nations”). It is one of the oldest nationstates in Europe and yet, paradoxically, its claim to territorial dominion over the British Isles was historically short-lived, lasting barely one hundred and twenty years, from the Act of Union with Ireland (1801) to the partition of Ireland (1921).

6So Britain is an anomalous nation-state, where the loyalty of its citizenship has variously been attributed to a multinational civic ideal and/or a collective imperial project (Colley), complicated by an overlapping and sometime competing allegiance to nation or region. Which is why Tom Nairn impishly inverts the accepted formula, to call Britain the “state-nation” (After Britain 129).

7The problem of where to source sovereignty and citizenship in the British state has been a major issue in constitutional politics, with left and liberal interpretations leaning towards the aforementioned civic ideal, and conservatives and nationalists idealising organic or ethnic unity. It is worth reminding ourselves at this point that constitutions are political. That may seem a truism, but, as Tom Nairn has pointed out, the British constitution has long been celebrated for its “perfection” and immutability: “Naturally there could be little popular concern with reforming a Constitution which everyone had been taught to revere” (After Britain 127). Constitutions are not somehow above politics. Rather, in that neat textbook phrase, they are “about politics and in politics” (Coxall and Robins 213): descriptive and normative, but also performative—subject to pressure from their actors, which in this case extends to the task of definition, or rather interpretation (the politics of definition).

8There are ramifications in the redefinition of the British state for geopolitical analysis, and in particular the core-periphery model applied to the United Kingdom. New Labour’s modernising agenda for a New Britain includes the “newing of the union,” the reinterpretation or reinvention of the United Kingdom in constitutional terms, which in turn presupposes a revised geopolitics of union. The fundamental question here is whether the new union view represents simply a change in the language of government, with a life expectancy co-existent with that of Blairism, or whether it can be expected to attract wider adhesion, pointing to the emergence of a new constitutional consensus.


9The textbook analysis of the typology of the British State is perhaps nowhere more succinctly expressed than in the 1998 (hence post-devolution) edition of Coxall and Robins’ Contemporary British Politics, which has this to say of the British constitution: “although the national sub-divisions of the British Isles lend themselves in theory to a federal constitution, the United Kingdom has become—and remains—a unitary state.” “Remains,” because the authors are writing after the passing of the body of devolution legislation. Their attachment to the orthodox view of the “unitary state” has not been shaken by the introduction of the Scottish and Welsh legislatures, which they supposed “took place within the framework of the continuing sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament” (214).

10The lynch-pin of the unitary state is the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty elaborated by Blackstone and neatly encapsulated in Dicey’s formula: “Unitarianism, in short, means the concentration of the strength of the State in the hands of one visible sovereign power, be that Parliament or Czar” (Dicey chapter III). As we have seen, the UK as unitary state is defined essentially in opposition to the federal state, where authority is constitutionally dispersed among coordinate governments. But sovereign legislative authority is just one feature of unitarianism. For a more exhaustive contemporary definition, which introduces the economic and administrative dimensions, we must turn to Rokkan and Urwin, for whom the unitary state is “built up around one unambiguous political centre which enjoys economic dominance and pursues a more or less undeviating policy of administrative standardisation. All areas of the state are treated alike, and all institutions are directly under the control of the centre” (11).

11The orthodox interpretation ultimately rests on the domination of the English state, the most powerful nation member of the United Kingdom: politically, under the terms of a union dictated largely (though not exclusively) in the English interest; legislatively through the elevation of the English legislature to UK Parliament; demographically with more than 80% of the population concentrated south of the border (a factor exacerbated after union by the effects of the industrial revolution); and economically, with the overwhelming financial and commercial capacity of England centred on metropolitan London and the South East.

12The orthodox view rejects the idea of semi-federalism, based on the survival of pre-union institutions in Scotland (Church, Education, Law) and the large degree of devolution enjoyed by Northern Ireland over the fifty-year period from 1921 to 1972. Coxall and Robins, for instance, insist that “the argument that the UK is not a true unitary state is unconvincing” (214). In doing so they cite a number of historic instances of the undivided sovereignty and supremacy of the Westminster Parliament: the repeal of devolution legislation for Scotland and Wales in 1978, and the restoration of direct rule over the Stormont Parliament in Northern Ireland in 1972 after half a century of decentralised government. The standard argument goes as follows: devolution does nothing to sap the foundations of the unitary state, since devolved power is exercised under supervision and can be revoked by the centre at any time.

  • 1 My italics.

13There are compelling historical reasons for the ubiquity of the unitary state definition. In his study of “New Labour and Devolution” James Mitchell explains how the Labour Party has courted a unitary state interpretation for much of its history, due to its centralist economic policies and social commitment to equality, especially when in government. In effect, the unitary state analysis emerged as the preponderant view of the United Kingdom during the Attlee years and held currency into the 1980s, as long as Labour remained centralist in outlook. In other words, the unitary state was a child of “the consensus,” built around a bipartisan commitment to the welfare state, the mixed economy and a foreign and defence policy of global reach, all of which posited reliance upon a powerful political centre. But, as Mitchell observes, “the unitary state interpretation was ahistorical and inaccurate, based on the myth that Britain was a unitary state” (567).1 Writing in 1996, he suggested that Labour’s change of constitutional tack and support for decentralisation while in opposition betrayed a lack of confidence in its ability to re-conquer power at the centre.

  • 2 This is not to suggest, of course, that devolution is incompatible with the unitary view.

14Devolution has put the unitary definition of the state under strain and compelled its advocates to explicate what was once taken for granted, because the transfer of legislative powers to the nations has set up secondary regional centres in apparent contradiction with the core-periphery model, and the prospect of an extension of such powers under so-called “rolling devolution” can only exacerbate the effect. Devolution’s variable geometry and its lack of uniformity (not least the disparate powers accorded to Scotland and Wales and the distinction between primary and secondary legislative authority) cloud the picture further.2

15Yet the dividing line is fine between advocates and detractors. Vernon Bogdanor, for instance, concurs with the orthodox analysts that devolution mounts no challenge to parliamentary sovereignty, since the national assemblies are constitutionally subordinate to Westminster, while reaching a diametrically opposed conclusion: that through the new institutions and the national identities they embody, “the United Kingdom is becoming a union of nations” (14-15). Typically, the union state interpretation maintains the supremacy of Westminster, but foregrounds consent while playing down the issue of sovereignty.


16At the time of James Mitchell’s study of Labour’s reassessment of the constitution, the shift in the party’s view of the British state from unitarian to union had not yet been articulated. That development was made explicit with New Labour’s constitutional reform programme, notably its devolution chapter. The advent of devolution brought with it a new current in constitutional thinking in academic circles and among the party think-tanks, at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy. These included some of the most authoritative voices in governance. Vernon Bogdanor, for instance, in “The Making of the United Kingdom” (an introductory chapter to his study of Devolution in the United Kingdom) rejects the oft-heard assertion that the Anglo-Scottish Treaty of 1707 created an incorporating union: “It fails to capture its full flavour. It would be better to say that the state of Great Britain which resulted was not a unitary state but a union state” (14-15). Similarly, Robert Hazell, director of the Constitutional Unit (University of London), which operated as virtual think-tank for Labour’s reform programme, defended it as “the New Constitutional Settlement,” asserting boldly that “[t]he UK is not and never has been a unitary state in the way that a country like France is” (Hazell 231). He draws a nice distinction between the political culture of the UK, “which is that of a unitary state” with a “highly centralized system of government,” and the formal framework of union which allows for decentralisation and devolution and lends the UK its unique capacity for adaptation in accordance with existing constitutional principles (equally, this could be read as an orthodox defence of the flexibility of the constitution). A further example of such thinking is Gerry Hassan, director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, who has promoted the cause of a new union politics in the following terms:

  • 3 My italics.

One of the most common misapprehensions about the United Kingdom is that it is a unitary state. The UK has never had the degree of centralisation and standardisation which is seen in a unitary state, and has always been a multi-national state with different national and local arrangements. (146)3

  • 4 So-called because Tam Dalyell, who coined the phrase, was MP for West Lothian, Scotland. In the co (...)

17The principal reason all advance for their rejection of unitarianism is the asymmetrical administrative arrangements in the UK and the absence of equality of treatment for the regions, a problem highlighted by Tarn Dalyell’s objection to devolution in 1979—the notorious West Lothian Question4 (although Dalyell was arguing from a unitarian premiss). While Britain has a political centre which also enjoys economic dominance, devolution has introduced a degree of ambiguity in the prevalent core-periphery analysis of British centralism, which rides uncomfortably with the existence of subordinate but potentially competing exo-centres in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast (and in due course in the English regions).

18Bogdanor and Hassan’s views converge to the extent that both are derived from a common source, Stein Rokkan and Derek Urwin’s study of “Centre and Peripheries in Western Europe,” which first defined the “union state” typology in 1982. Their definition attributes the anomalous features of the British state to the vagaries of personal union:

The union state is not the result of straightforward dynastic conquest. Incorporation of at least parts of its territory has been achieved through personal dynastic union, for example by treaty, marriage or inheritance. Integration is less than perfect. While administrative standardisation prevails over most of its territory, the consequences of personal union entail the survival in some areas of pre-union rights and institutional infrastructures which preserve some degree of regional autonomy and serve as agencies of elite indigenous recruitment. (11)

19Thus, at its base, the union state is grounded in a contractual form (treaty, marriage, inheritance) and this is an aspect of the definition which both Bogdanor and Hassan emphasise. Bogdanor writes of the 1707 Treaty of Union as having the “character of a contract between two equal consenting parties” (Bogdanor 15). Hassan sees the union state as a “pact” or “contract” (Hassan 147). In legal terms, a contract is binding unless renegotiated by common consent, and they suggest that devolution involves just that kind of recasting of the Union Treaty, while holding out the prospect of further cession of devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament (and by extension to the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies). Similarly, the devolution settlement has been described as a “negotiated compromise.”

  • 5 Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1999 (as today), Gordon Brown was sent north of the border as the G (...)

20The new unionism then is presented as a form of constitutional contractualism, substituting a Lockean view of the state for the Hobbesian materialism of a unitary UK. In keeping with the language of modernisation of New Labour, and in voluntary contrast to the intrusive centralism of the Thatcher era, it opposes a more popular, consensual form of state to the unitarian Leviathan. It was, therefore, entirely appropriate that when Gordon5 came to intervene in the devolution debate in Scotland in the spring of 1999 in support of the Scottish Labour Party’s campaign for the Parliament elections, he did so in the language of the new unionism: “The case for Britain is straightforward—that we achieve more working together than working apart.” Brown went on to propound of vision of Britain “where unity comes not from uniformity, but from celebrating diversity” (Rawnsley 252). His speech confirmed New Labour’s strategic conversion to the new unionism, whereby the party’s historic attachment to unitarianism is relinquished in favour of multi-nationalism within a contractual union state.

21Yet New Labour’s ahistorical reinterpretation of constitutional theory is a case of having one’s constitutional cake and eating it too. Anxious to assert its modernising credentials (Norman Fairclough has shown that “modernisation” is one of three keywords in the party’s discourse alongside “renewal” and “reform”; Fairclough 18), New Labour claims that Britain has been transformed into a union state by devolution. In the same breath, out of concern for constitutional continuity and historical precedent, it asserts that the United Kingdom has always been a union state, albeit in abeyance.


22Labour’s adoption of union state theory is concordant with the aims of devolution: that is to say “revising the union without destroying it” (Bogdanor 15). The recognition of the multinational nature of the state has been widely recognised as a means of legitimising moderate nationalist aspirations on the periphery of the state, while undercutting the demands of the Scottish National Party (SNP) for a return to the co-ordinate parliament of the Union of Crowns, thereby containing the independence movement.

23Paradoxically, the SNP’s manifesto and campaign literatures remain firmly committed to Old Labour’s unitarian interpretation of the state. The theme of “an independent Scotland in Europe” is based on a contrastive approach to the UK: “Europe... is certainly not a unitary, centralised state like the UK,” it reads. “... There is no comparison between the centralist structures of the UK, and those of the EU, where member states co-operate but retain their sovereignty” (Scottish National Party). Such is the political capital that the SNP makes out of the dual themes of centralism and sovereignty, that the halfway house of the union state, in spite, or rather because, of its concessions to nationalist sentiment, remains anathema to the nationalists, for whom sovereignty is a double-edged sword.

24Meanwhile, the Conservatives have trodden the opposite path to Labour: firstly, by opposing devolution to the nations, despite its delivering Conservative seats in Wales and Scotland through the top-up list system after the Labour landslide and electoral wipe-out of 1997; and increasingly, as James Mitchell has shown in his paper “Unionism, Assimilation and the Conservatives,” by casting the United Kingdom as a unitary state. The Conservatives’ historic commitment to Burke’s “little platoons” and the defence of localism as against big government has given way to nostalgia for Thatcherite centralism. John Major, John Redwood, William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith have each in turn warned of the prospect of the breakup of or even “Death of Britain” (to use the title of a book by John Redwood) from a unitarian standpoint. Redwood places devolution and the European Union on a par as dual threats to British sovereignty. Major’s “back to basics” approach to the Union was alternatively castigated by Nairn as “no-surrender Unionism” and “rigor mortis constitutionalism,” ironically so as it was Nairn who first posited the break-up of Britain, but from a nationalist perpective (After Britain 126-28).

25Conservative unionism in the 1990s has involved a strict interpretation of the geopolitical core-periphery model which shows that nation-states weaken with increasing distance from the centre and tend to disintegrate where their internal structure is incoherent (for which read asymmetric), or where there is a survival within the state of subordinate elements that resist assimilation with the centre (for instance, an historic nation). The Conservatives have perhaps found material for their alarmist reading of the future of the unitary state in the message of commentators like Norman Davies and Tom Nairn, who consider that the British state cannot long resist the centrifugal forces at work in the union; that “the centre cannot hold” in a post-imperial, post-devolution Britain. They are, of course, writing for different constituencies from divergent points of view and, strictly-speaking, Nairn professes that the unitary state is a fiction which has “occluded multi-nationalism,” but their fin de siècle pessimism has marked the political debate.

26A paradoxical and less expected spin-off of constitutional change has been the return to favour of Englishness. The success of bestselling books like Jeremy Paxman’s The English and Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy points to a public demand for a literature of national identity to fill the so-called “hole-in-the-heart” of devolved Britain, in the (temporary) absence of an English institutional equivalent to the national assemblies. The rise of Englishness would seem to point to a reawakening of ethnic sentiment, to the cost of British civic identity, although it could be argued that Scruton’s nostalgia for an idealised England embodied in the common law is founded on civic sentiment.

27The reasons for the shift in party definitions of the British state are multifarious: the end of Cold War polarities (and removal of the external enemy) and with them of the post-war political consensus; the centrifugal force of European integration and in particular the policy of subsidiarity; the growth in domestic nationalism since the late 1960s; the aggressive centralism of the Thatcher governments, their erosion of local government and the welfare state; the internal dynamics of the Labour Party, which have revealed a trend towards a semi-federal organisation (New Labour South of the border, Old Labour North and West of it); Labour’s rewriting of its own constitution in 1995; even the collapse of the trans-national class system, have all at some point been cited as catalysts for both devolution and the new unionism.

28With a changing set of circumstances, therefore, has come a new definition of the state. In the rhetorical arsenal of New Britain, the “union state” has become a useful political concept, promising the maximum notional degree of autonomy for the periphery within a non-federal system (which Hazell terms “quasi-federalism”). It eschews the language of sovereignty for that of consensus and contractualism. But is the newing of the union more than rhetoric? Has it fundamentally changed either the nature of the British state or the reality of the exercise of power?

  • 6 Negotiated in the run-up to the devolution settlement, the Concordats defined the respective areas (...)
  • 7 The motion was originally moved by the Scottish National Party, but adopted by a unanimous vote of (...)

29The new institutions of devolved government—the legislative assemblies to the Council of the Isles (the British-Irish Council), the North-South Ministerial Council, the executive Concordats,6 and the new role for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as a constitutional arbiter—have fleshed out the multinational skeleton of the British state. Nevertheless, episodes such as Tony Blair’s rejection of the Scottish Parliament’s 1999 motion for the repeal of the Act of Settlement (1701) have shown the limits of the contractual model of the union state, which can appear to be a one-way street on “entrenched” issues.7 Secure in his legislative majorities (albeit with coalition assistance beyond the English borders), the Prime Minister was able to disregard the petition of Members of the Scottish Parliament voting in the devolved legislature on the grounds that constitutional issues are part of the reserved powers of Westminster, the prerogative of the legislative and executive centre, making the Scottish Parliament’s petition ultra vires. The result, I would suggest, is a constitutional paradox whereby the Labour executive promotes the ethos of the “union state” while retaining the political muscle and reflexes of the “unitary state.” And in spite of the Liberal Democrats’participation in coalition executives in Cardiff and Edinburgh, the Conservatives’unitarian irredentism when it comes to devolution makes the emergence of a new constitutional consensus built upon cross-party acceptance of the “union state” heterodoxy a distant prospect.



Bogdanor Vernon, Devolution in the United Kingdom, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1999.

Colley Linda, Britons: Forging of the Nation 1707-1837, 1992, London, Vintage, 1996.

Coxall Bill and L. ROBINS, Contemporary British Politics, 3rd ed. London, Macmillan, 1998.

Davies Norman, The Isles: A History, London, Macmillan, 1999.

Dicey A. V., Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution. 1885,

Fairclough Norman, New Labour, New Language, London, Routledge, 2000.

Hassan Gerry, ed. A Guide to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, TSO, 1999.

Hazell Robert, Constitutional Futures, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2000.

Heywood Andrew, Politics. London, Macmillan, 1997.

Jowell J. and D. Oliver, The Changing Constitution, 4th ed. Oxford, Oxford UP, 2000.

Kearney Hugh, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1989.

Mitchell James, “New Labour and Devolution: From Unitary State to Union State, Labour’s Changing View of the United Kingdom and its Implications”, Regional Studies 30 (1996): 564-72.

—, “Unionism, Assimilation and the Conservatives”, Contemporary Political Studies 3 (1995): 1376-83.

Nairn Tom, After Britain, London, Granta, 2000.

—, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism, London, Verso, 1977.

Paxman Jeremy, The English, London, Penguin, 1999.

Rawnsley Andrew, Servants of the People, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2000.

Redwood John, The Death of Britain? London, Macmillan, 1999.

Rokkan Stein and Derek Urwin, “Centre and Peripheries in Western Europe”, Rokkan & Urwin, eds., The Politics of Territorial Identity: Studies in European Regionalism, London: Sage, 1982. Chapter 1.

Russell Conrad, “John Bull’s Other Nations”, Times Literary Supplement, 12 March 1993.3-4.

Scottish National Party. “A Constitution for a Free Scotland”, 1 September 2002.

Scruton Roger, England: An Elegy, London, Pimlico, 2001.


1 My italics.

2 This is not to suggest, of course, that devolution is incompatible with the unitary view.

3 My italics.

4 So-called because Tam Dalyell, who coined the phrase, was MP for West Lothian, Scotland. In the context of the devolution debate of the 1970s he asked the question why under devolution Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on health and education matters affecting West Bromwich, for instance, while English MPs could not do the same for West Lothian. The West Lothian Question was designed to point up the asymmetrical application of devolution and expose its internal contradictions.

5 Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1999 (as today), Gordon Brown was sent north of the border as the Government’s senior ranking Scottish politician (if one discounts Blair’s own claims to Scottish roots) to bolster the flagging Labour campaign in the elections to the Scottish Parliament following a strong showing in pre-election polls by the Scottish National Party.

6 Negotiated in the run-up to the devolution settlement, the Concordats defined the respective areas of competence of the devolved executives and their civil services in relation to the Prime Minister and central government departments. Their purpose was to avoid executive overlapping and conflicts of authority.

7 The motion was originally moved by the Scottish National Party, but adopted by a unanimous vote of the Scottish Parliament in December 1999. It petitioned the Prime Minister to call upon the UK Parliament (of sole competence in the constitutional domain) to repeal the Act of Settlement of 1701 on the grounds that its bar on a Catholic succession was discriminatory. Downing Street rebuffed the initiative arguing that it was a reserved matter outside the ambit of the Scottish Parliament.


Université de Provence
Associate Professor in British and Commonwealth Civilization at the University of Provence (Aix-Marseille I) and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He has published widely on geopolitical and constitutional issues in twentieth-century Britain, notably a study of devolution: G. Girard & M. Graves, eds., Europe Unie, le Royaume désuni? Enjeux politiques, constitutionnels et identitaires de la dévolution (Brest, CRBC, 2000)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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