The United Kingdom as a Union State

Iain Mclean and Alistair McMillan

in State of the Union

Published in print September 2005 | ISBN: 9780199258208
Published online February 2006 | e-ISBN: 9780191603334 | DOI:
The United Kingdom as a Union State

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The UK is not a unitary state because it depends on two constitutional contracts — the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1800. Therefore, UK Unionism is not like, for instance, French Jacobinism. The 1707 Acts are still in force. Although most of Ireland left the UK in 1921, the 1800 Act has profoundly affected UK politics. Northern Ireland is the relic of the 1800 Act. Neither is the UK a federal state. Scotland and Northern Ireland do not have powers comparable to an American or an Australian state. Therefore, UK Unionism is not like Australian anti-federalism. When there have been subordinate parliaments (Northern Ireland 1921-72 and intermittently since 1999; Scotland and Wales since 1999), the supremacy of Westminster has been asserted by statute. There is a severe tension between the Diceyan concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Northern Ireland is a ‘federacy’, i.e., a self-governing unit whose constitution must not be unilaterally altered by the UK government. As England is the overwhelmingly dominant partner in the union state, English scholars, like the English population in general, have often been insensitive to these nuances. It is tempting to see England as simply the colonial oppressor of its three neighbours, getting by force the security or the economic advantage that it could not get by agreement. This picture fits Ireland reasonably well, Wales less well, and Scotland hardly at all. Even Ireland has always contained a substantial proportion of Unionists.

Keywords: Acts of Union; 1707; 1800; Unionism; Jacobism; federalism; parliamentary sovereignty; A.V. Dicey; federacy

Chapter.  4702 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: UK Politics

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