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what was in the process of becoming.66 We have become used to the idea
of a nation as an ˜imagined community™; perhaps we need to become
used to the idea of a state as an imagined community too. That process of
a state that was imagined existed from the years 1541À1543, from the Act
of the English Parliament for Union with Wales, from the Act of the Irish
Parliament for the creation of the Irish Kingdom, and from the marriage
treaty made by Henry VIII as the feudal suzerain of Scotland for the
marriage of his ward Mary of Scotland to his son Edward and the pros-
pect of a union of Crowns, complicated by the claims of that Scottish
Queen to the English throne from the moment that the husband
intended by that treaty died. The process was accelerated by the regal
union of 1603 and was fully realized for the only time between 1653 and
1660. With the Union of the British Parliaments in 1707 and of the
British and Irish Parliaments in 1800, there was legislative unity; but the
churches and legal systems of Scotland and England remained and
remain distinct, and the confessional state failed in Ireland in ways that
had implications for political practice in Britain. From 1603 and most
certainly from 1707 there was a state system in and for Britain and Ireland
as complete and as ineffectually challenged as any state system. And yet
this process reinforced the sense of separate identity in the existing
peoples of Ireland and perhaps in Scotland and Wales (in these latter two
alongside a sense of shared British identity). In short, a British state

65 66
Ohlmeyer 2000. Morgan 1999b, p. 19.
Thinking about the New British History 43
system may have developed across the early-modern period; a nation-state
emphatically did not. At root modern Scottish and Irish resistance to the
new British history stems from an English concern with state formation
and not national identity; English resistance to it stems from a concern
not to get bogged down in the complexities of the nationhood part of the
nation state.
Thus a major problem with the new British history has been in
striving to create a trans-national history in addition to the four national
histories. What it has done is to raise awareness of how much of the
new British history was in danger of becoming little more than that
˜enriched English History™ which I have accused Conrad Russell of
practising,67 and against which Nicholas Canny has warned us.68 There
are those À at one time mainly in Ireland but now much more in
Scotland À who write a nationalist history in terms of heroic resistance
to English military might and cultural barbarism.69 There are those
who stress the comparative and interactive nature of the histories of
the kingdoms, the way events in the one affect À both immediately and
indirectly À events in the others; events can change the way people
behave or how they think about themselves and their priorities for action.
This is something Scottish and Irish historians had long practised in
relation to England, but interestingly, not in relation to one another.70
And there were those À John Pocock included, I think À who have called
for a new and perfect British history, something that reconceptualized the
unit of study, something that created new agendas for research,
but importantly over and above rather than against the local histories
of the kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland.


ix
This leads us on to the other massive destabilizing element in the new
British history: its lack of self-sufficiency as a unit of study. It has been
often enough said that most inhabitants in England did not know or
67
Morrill 1993, p. 260.
68
Canny 1993, pp. 49À82; Canny 1995, pp. 147À69; and most explicitly Canny 1992. See also
Burgess 1999, pp. 11À18.
69
Excellent examples of this would be the splenetic Ferguson 1977; or Patrick Riley™s studies of the
Union of 1707 as a ˜political job™, e.g. Riley 1978.
70
There was some pioneering work by Stevenson (see Stevenson 1980; 1981), but it is really only with
the creation of the AHRB Research Centre for Scottish-Irish Studies at the University of
Aberdeen in 1999 that this exploration has taken off. One early triumph of this collaboration is
Macinnes 2004.
44 john morrill
recognize the difference between being English and being British, that
most inhabitants of Wales and Scotland knew the difference and were
willing to use both as befitted their happenstance, and that very few
residents of Ireland (the main exceptions are to be found amongst the
Scots of Ulster after 1641) ever recognized themselves as British.
All these points became clearer as the early-modern period progressed.
Although nothing I have just said is particularly contentious, the
development of an explanatory framework in which each people™s sense
of itself is profoundly influenced by the interactions among peoples is
much more contentious. In part this is because there are disturbing
asymmetries in the contexts of complex interactions. If we focus on
the seventeenth century,71 we find intense Scottish migration to and
economic, military, cultural interaction and exchange with northern
Europe (The Netherlands and the whole of the Baltic rim) for which
there is no English or Irish alternative. Similarly we find intense Irish
migration to and economic, military, cultural interaction and exchange
with southern (and especially Habsburg) Europe for which there is no
English or Irish alternative. And we find intense English migration to
and economic, military, cultural interaction and exchange with all of
Europe and new worlds across the oceans for which there is no Irish
or Scottish alternative.72 In other words, there are strongly exogenous
factors shaping national identities and Scottish and Irish historians
are keen to emphasize, as John Pocock was to emphasize, the importance
of how the various ˜peoples and nations [of Great Britain and Ireland]
have not only acted so as to create the conditions of their several
existences, but have also interacted so as to modify the conditions on
one another™s existence and that there are processes here that can, and
should, be studied™.73 Much more work clearly needs to be done on this.
Perhaps more obvious is the way a European context helps explain
the development of what historians have tended to call ˜multiple™ or
˜composite™ monarchy, a term I find unhelpful and for which I have
proposed an alternative À the concept of a dynastic conglomerate or
(perhaps better) agglomerate. The notion of composite monarchy

71
Simply for reasons of time and space; comparable but different arguments could be made
for the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
72
Once again the Welsh get short-changed. But in the seventeenth century, the Welsh had
no independent access to the Continent, and they shared in the same range of extra-British
contacts with the English.
73
Pocock 1982, p. 317.
Thinking about the New British History 45
conveys all too settled and institutional a feel À in the British case,
how the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland came
naturally together and how the political, religious, economic and cultural
integration and resistance to integration played itself out within a given
˜triple monarchy™. My suggestion is that we should consider the process
as the development of a dynastic agglomerate rather than a composite
monarchy. Dynastic agglomerate is an awkward, uncomfortable phrase
for an awkward, uncomfortable entity. It helps us to keep at the front of
our minds how unstable the evolving composite was. We have seriously
undercalculated the acute dynastic instabilities of medieval and early-
modern Britain and Ireland À the uncertain succession law and the
rights of heirs male and heirs general, the way that the habit of Scottish
monarchs to die or lose the throne while their heirs were in their
swaddling clothes kept evergreen the English Crown™s rights to feudal
suzerainty over Scotland. The relations of the kingdoms and people
could easily have taken a different path À what if Henry VIII had died
before Mary Tudor was born; if the King of France had accepted the offer
from the Duke of Northumberland of the kingdom of Ireland in return
for troops to make good the succession of Jane Grey; or if Mary Stewart
had had a son by Francis II before the latter succumbed to an ear
infection? A number of scenarios were supported in the mid-seventeenth
century and during the war of the two dynasties (1689À1746) for radically
different configurations of the kingdoms. ˜Dynastic roulette™ created the
dynastic agglomerates of Charles V, of the Vasas and of the Austrian
Habsburgs and it also caused them to transmute.74
But of course European history can be made to British history
what British history is to the separate histories of its own constituent
territories À a contested set of relationships through which definition
and redefinition take place. It can hardly be absurd to locate all those
constituent histories against a European context in the period of Saxon,
Norse and Norman invasion and settlement; or to locate Norman
expansion within the archipelago within the context of an imperium that
straddled la Manche and sought to unite Lowland England with large
parts of France; or to locate the early-modern period except against the
backdrop of European Renaissance and Reformation and two-way
exchanges with Europe: British intellectual history is not only a story of
the thinkers and texts seeping across from the continent to be absorbed

74
Morrill 2005.
46 john morrill
and sent forth in English utterance with British settlers but a two-way
dialogue or dialectic with both Catholic or Protestant Europe. It can
hardly be absurd to examine eighteenth-century Britain in the context not
only of the Atlantic world but in terms of a war of two dynasties and in
terms of an Anglo-Hanoverian/German monarchia. More generally, as we
have just seen one of the unfulfilled dimensions of the new British history
is to examine the way different parts of Britain draw differentially on
parts of Europe. To simplify by speaking of just one century: the Scottish
people, at all kinds of levels and in all kinds of ways, were linked into an
economic, cultural and geopolitical system that was northern European
(Dutch as well as Scandinavian). The Irish people were linked into an
economic, cultural and geopolitical system that was southern European
(including Habsburg Spain and Austria). The English (and Welsh) people
were linked in a more profoundly eclectic way with all of Europe. As we
study the evolution of a state system and the refashioning of national
identities, this dimension needs far more careful calibration. There are
those historians, most militantly Jonathan Scott, and more carefully
Jane Ohlmeyer or Allan Macinnes, who would invert John Pocock™s
privileging of the Atlantic over the English Channel as the sea of change
in modern historiography. Jane Ohlmeyer™s argument that the best way
to understand the dynamics of the War of the Three Kingdoms in the
mid century is as part of a War of the Five Kingdoms (France and Spain
as well as the British monarchies) has been persuasive.75 At the very least,
British historiography gains from a comparative European approach.
What was happening within the British Isles is perhaps best understood
by close comparison with what is happening as the kingdoms of Iberia
come together or (as in the case of Portugal) fail to come together; as
˜France™ emerges from the congeries of territories that had little or no
shared identity before the sixteenth century (Brittany, Burgundy,
Languedoc, Lorraine, etc.); as the Baltic agglomerates form and
unform; or as the territories of the Austrian Habsburgs change in shape
and identity like a constantly reworked lump of clay.

75
Ohlmeyer 1993.
c h ap t e r 3

The Matter of Britain and the Contours of
British Political Thought
Colin Kidd


As a proclaimed field of study ˜The History of British Political Thought™
provides cover for a certain degree of ambiguity. Traditionally, of course,
within the field of history, ˜British™ has served as a polite synonym for
˜English™. For some English historians, unfortunately, ˜British history™ is
no different in substance from English history, the label a politically
correct formulation aimed at assuaging the sensitivities of the non-
English peoples of the British Isles. In this light, the contours and agenda
of British political thought remain largely English, or at best Anglo-
British. Elsewhere, especially among pre-modern historians, there has
been a more profound attempt to reconceptualize British history. Awoken
from their profound anglocentric slumbers by the meta-historical
promptings of John Pocock,1 many medievalists and early-modernists
have begun to perceive that Whig historiography was not only
teleological, but also limited in its perspectives and interpretations by a
narrow, if unconscious, English nationalism. These revisionist historians
now recognize that the conventional narrative of English state formation
makes little sense without some understanding of the relationships
between England and the ˜satellite™ nations of the British world. Their
counterparts among the inward-looking and À as often as not À doctrin-
ally nationalist historians of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have also
become aware of the intellectual impossibility of autarkic, self-enclosed
histories of these countries divorced from the history of Greater England
(or from some other supra-national context such as the Atlantic or North
Sea world).
In this way the common grazing which we now know as ˜the new
British history™ has been carved out of the existing fields of English,
Scottish, Irish and Welsh history. Its existence depends on a somewhat
uneasy accommodation between the revulsion anglocentricity provokes in
1
Pocock 1975a; Pocock 1982.

47
48 colin kidd
non-English historians and the instrumental needs of English historians
seeking more compelling explanations of English state formation. Nor do
these approaches to the subject exhaust the possible meanings of the
history of British political thought. British political thought amounts
to something other than the sum of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh
contributions to political argument, or even to a pan-British conversation
over British state formation. British political thought might also be
understood, quite specifically, as political thought about the entity or
entities which comprise the British Isles.
Isolated case studies apart, and with the stunning exceptions of Rees
Davies™s The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles,
1093À1343 (2000) and David Armitage™s The Ideological Origins of the
British Empire (2000),2 historians have tended to overlook the existence
of a distinctive and long-running genre of political argument which
debated the location of authority within the island of Britain, or
sometimes the British Isles. For the sake of convenience we might term
this genre ˜the matter of Britain™.3 Although our focus in what follows
is on the Anglo-Scottish relationship, the matter of Britain is not meant
to exclude Ireland, and a parallel story could be told of a contested Anglo-
Irish matter of Britain, to which we shall occasionally allude.
Ironically, as we shall see, attention to the ˜matter of Britain™ reverses
the recent trend towards a decentred history of British political thought,
serving, instead, as a reminder of the pronounced asymmetries in the
relations of England with its less powerful British neighbours. Indeed, the
central preoccupation of the matter of Britain lay in the pan-Britannic
pretensions of England and its institutions, pretensions which were
underpinned by the historic and confusing conflation of ˜England™ and
˜Britain™. Not only did the dominant position of England in the British
Isles from the middle ages onwards produce an enduring and decisive
imbalance in the interactions of its constituent nations; but there is
also a deeper problem, what Krishan Kumar has described as the ˜syn-
ecdochical™ relationship of England, the island of Britain and the whole
archipelago.4 This imagined congruence of the English and the British
has haunted British history over the past millennium; more particularly, it
constitutes a central, if unexplored, feature of political thought about
Britain and the British Isles.
2
Davies 2000; Armitage 2000; compare Ferguson 1974.

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