Empire and Identity

Producer Louise Yeoman charts the effects of immigration on Britishness and the Scottish identity.

How do you run a world-wide empire from one Imperial parliament without getting a bloody nose? It was a question never to be forgotten by British governments after those rebellious Yanks handed them out a drubbing in the American War of Independence. Let’s not make that same mistake again, people thought. At least, that’s what they thought when it came to the white colonies of settlement in the British Empire, many of which had large Scots diasporas: places like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. From early on these colonies were allowed variants of Home Rule - ‘responsible government’ and developed their own federal parliaments. As they grew in strength they gained a special name for their status - they were dominions - that is they held dominion over their own territories, but not, at first, over foreign policy and defence. When Britain went to war in WW1 the dominions didn’t get a say in it - our declaration of war was their declaration of war. But in the 1920’s and ‘30s things changed.

First came a declaration that the dominions were co-equal with Britain in the empire. Then came the kicker - by the Statute of Westminster in 1931 the dominions were guaranteed that the Westminster parliament would not legislate for them without their consent. This was full independence in defence and foreign policy. Some constitutional matters might require to go through Westminster with everyone’s consent (and would do for decades) but at a stroke actual independence was offered to the dominions. They could now tell the British parliament to get lost, if they didn’t like British policy or didn’t fancy a new war.

And here’s the fascinating thing - everyone was agreed that they were still British, that legislative independence from Westminster didn’t alter this. When you listen to some early broadcasts of the BBC, you can hear the announcers glorying in this new British family of prime ministers and dominions. And up to the 1960s you can hear prominent politicians in Canada and Australia stressing their British identity when they wanted to. This vision of Britishness centred on the monarchy and on cultural, historical and social ties. Some countries kept ties that involved pegging their currency to the pound, others didn’t. And it was accepted with hardly a ripple. Apart from one exception!

And that was Ireland. As you’ll see in the programme some Scots absolutely refused to accept the logic that the Irish Free State (as Ireland was called when it had dominion status) ought to be regarded as a full and respected partner in this Commonwealth Britishness.

So where was Scotland in all this? As it happened, some Scots both in one of the forerunner parties to the SNP and in the Independent Labour Party suggested dominion status for Scotland, though for a variety of reasons it never caught on. An interesting historical curiosity then? Well, up to a point, have a listen to the programme and then look at how the issues are being debated today. Nobody uses the old-fashioned term ‘dominion status’ but a lot of those ideas and controversies about kinds of independence are still in play. Can you be British without being governed from Westminster or no? Listen to our programme for some of the deep history behind debates like this. And if you’d like to hear some extra background, you’ll find additional clips of audio on our programme page from Dr S. Karly Kehoe and Dr Tanja Bueltmann.