As everyone knows, Scotland voted yesterday to keep on being a member of the United Kingdom, effectively keeping the United Kingdom as a entity. Without Scotland, no matter what it called itself, the country that was the United Kingdom would really be England. Indeed, in some ways that was the point of Scot's separatist. England has the dominant political and economic role in the United Kingdom, although perhaps a bit oddly in recent years, Scotland effectively has home rule on most things, and a vote in the English Parliament, while England lacks a vote in the Scottish Parliament.
Flag of the self declared Irish Republic, somewhat ironically with text in English. Attribution: Wikipedia Commons,
Anyhow, a person of historical bent can't ponder the recent episode with Scottish separatist bidding for independence without considering the history of just over a century ago in regards to Ireland.
The United Kingdom was once the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. A Celtic land, of course, like Scotland (with which it shared interesting historical and ethnic connections), England's history in connection with Ireland, or perhaps we should say the United Kingdom's history, was considerably different from that of Scotland's, which perhaps makes any comparison between the two somewhat irrelevant. Still, there's some interesting things to consider.
Relating that history would amount to writing a treatise, and it isn't as if it hasn't been done before, but will simply summarize it so as to make the story informed enough to make sense in context. While Scotland and Ireland shared ancient historical, ethnic and religious connections (Scots are descendant not only from the original native British population, but also from Irish invaders who gave the Scots their ultimate name, and Ireland Christianized Scotland), their paths really diverged during the Reformation. By that time, England was already the dominant political power in the British Isles, and it effectively dominated the area irrespective of the regions theoretical independence. Ireland had effectively been an English possession since the time of the Anglo Norman invasions of Ireland, which it had resisted at the time and which it continued to resist off and on until independence. Scotland also retained waning independence aspirations, and resisted the English, but really less effectively.
The Reformation effectively sealed what was already the case at that time. England, due to King Henry VIII, became a prime mover in the Reformation, but because its path way was mixed, confused and unclear, it flopped back and forth for some time between Protestantism, near Catholicism and a return to Catholicism. Ultimate the "Settlement" of this issue, or rather the forced Crown decree on how it was to be settled, created the official Church of England, but in some ways the questions that have always existed continue to exist within it to this day. Scotland, however, joined the most Protestant of the Reformation movements, or at least its monarchy did, adopting Calvinism in the form of Presbyterianism, which remains today the official Church of Scotland. Ireland remained staunchly Catholic, however, and continued to do so even with the British Parliament briefly sided with Calvinist thought under Cromwell, whose forces famously attempted to fully subjugate Ireland.
Religious strife went on for a long time on Great Britain, something that's somewhat forgotten today, as the Crown and Parliament struggled over which branch of Protestantism would be the official one, and as, which is also forgotten, a fair amount of Catholicism remained amongst the rural peasantry and the Churches that served them. Any religion other than the official one was suppressed, often violently, and the English spread this effort out to Ireland, which it fully controlled. In England Catholicism was outlawed. In Ireland, where completely outlawing it would have been impossible, Irish Catholics were extremely repressed. As part of their effort to more fully dominate the island in this era, the English caused Scots Presbyterian immigrants to settle in Ulster, where they had no choice but to be loyal to the English Crown, as they formed a tiny Protestant island in a large Catholic sea.
Scotland became part of the United Kingdom in 1707, with the Act of Union. Ireland didn't become part of it until 1801, although its role in the UK was at first necessarily constrained, given that so much of its population was really ineligible to vote.
This is all history that is well known, and of course the Irish continued to resist and occasionally rebel against the Crown. Resistance to the Crown continued in Scotland, in a different context, for a time too, but eventually it died down, in spite of some good reasons to continue to resent England.
But lets leap ahead to the late 19th Century (skipping the famine and all of that). By the late 19th Century the British had really started to reconsider much of what had occurred before, and the Parliament began to back away from the repression it had levied in early decades and centuries. Parliament lifted its ban on Catholicism in England and it ceased suppression of it in Ireland. By the late 19th Century, the English Parliament was starting to seriously consider Irish Home Rule, so much so that it became a controversial subject in the English Parliament. Home Rule was very much gaining ground in the early 20th Century, and it appeared, and looking back still appears, that but for World War One, home rule would have been achieved.
Had home rule been achieved, Ireland would essentially have today what Scotland has, it's own self governing parliament and laws withing in the United Kingdom. And because there was actually a Scottish independence movement that was gaining some ground in the early 20th Century as well, chances are high that had Ireland achieved that by 1920 or so, Scotland would have achieved the same shortly thereafter, and the United Kingdom would have gone on to be a federated state, which it now appears likely to shortly become.
That assumes, of course, that Irish independence wasn't inevitable, which it's easy to assume it was. But looking back, it doesn't appear to have been.
Home Rule, as a movement, was faced with two sources of opposition. One was in English nationalism, which very much opposed it. Randolph Churchill, for example, somewhat made his name opposing it. But beyond that it also faced Irish nationalism, which also opposed it as it wanted to take Ireland completely out of the United Kingdom, and by the early 20th Century was ready to do so by force if it could. Armed nationalist militias were forming, and at the same time Unionist militias were also forming, both often quite in the open. Strong support for Unionism was also found within the British officer ranks for Irish units, who reflected the fact that the British Army's officer corps remained a class within a class, largely recruited from well to do members of Protestant British families, who otherwise would have gone into the business of managing family estates or into the Anglican clergy. Indeed, this was so much the case that a significant section of these officers made it known that if their units were called out of their barracks to suppress armed Unionist activity, they'd refuse the order and resign, resulting in a "rebellion" that threatened their careers.
Such was the case just a century ago. Ireland appeared clearly headed towards home rule, with it being fairly clear that if that happened there'd be at least some Unionist armed revolts, and with it also being fairly clear that these would be met by Republican armed militiamen, who were less well armed, but more numerous. Those Republicans also were headed towards rebellion themselves. A certain section of the Republicans were already working underground towards that aim.
Then, in August 1914, Europe erupted into warfare, with the United Kingdom joining in right from the onset. The whole thing was put aside, Home Rule, Unionism, and Republicanism, at least for most people. The Irish volunteered to serve in the British Army in large numbers. The entire issue largely went away, although it was generally assumed that immediately after the war, Ireland would be granted home rule.
The United Kingdom tried, at first, to fight the war with all volunteer troops. But the manpower requirements were simply to vast. Britain therefore passed a conscription act that extended to Great Britain alone. Ireland's unique status, and the fact that it might be a tinder box, was recognized in that conscription was not made to extend to it. But, in 1916, with manpower waning, and with a feeling amongst British conservatives that omitting Ireland from conscription was unfair, conscription was extended to Ireland.
It was a mistake. Ireland was already contributing manpower in such numbers that the conscription act would have had no actual effect on British manpower. But it was regarded as offensive on an island that had suffered from British repression and had only recently found its population being regarded as co-equal in rights with those living in England and Scotland. And it caused Republicans to believe that their moment had come. On Easter, 1916, they staged a rebellion in Dublin.
Proclamation of 1916.
That was also a mistake. The rebellion failed and Dubliners came out to protest a rebellion against the British when their sons were serving in France. It didn't deter the Republicans, however, who shortly after World War One took the very unusual step of declaring Ireland independent and forming a parliament and ministries. In essence, they were conducting a guerrilla war against the United Kingdom while simultaneously acting as the legitimate Irish government.
In what must be regarded as a peculiar move, and on that reflects how tired the United Kingdom was after World War One, the British chose to treat the Dail in exactly the fashion it regarded itself, and it negotiated with it. The results was the Irish Free State, which recognized an independent Ireland with the British Empire. In short, Ireland was a dominion at that time, in the same fashion that Canada and Australian were. Part of the 1922 treaty that recognized Irish independence allowed a vote in Ulster as to whether to remain part of the Free State, or to return to being part of the United Kingdom. It opted for the United Kingdom, and the Irish Civil War immediately commenced over both Ulster's ability to do that (ironically, really) and the Dominion status of Ireland. The Free State won.
But, at that point, the point at which the rebel Dail signed a peace treaty and thereby became the defacto and de jure Irish parliament, were most Irish demanding full Independence. It doesn't seem so. Indeed, to the extent we can tell, even after all of that, the majority of the Irish hoped for home rule, even that late. Had the Irish negotiators accepted that, which they could not given who they were an what the represented, the majority of the Irish would have achieved what they hoped to receive. They received more than that in receiving independence with a dominion status, and the Republicans' dream came true. They also received, of course, a civil war, which went on in to 1923 before the National Army defeated the Irish Republican Army. Eventually, the competing forces would uneasily come to live with each other, although a Republican desire to have the return of Ulster lingered on, and with some still does.
So, once again we have an application of Holscher's Fourth Law of History, War Changes Everything. But for World War One, it seems certain that Ireland would have received home rule, with an accompanying period of messy civil unrest, probably in the mid teens. That would have resulted in Scottish self rule almost immediately thereafter, and probably the United Kingdom would have become a federation, sort of like the United States, by the 1930s. I doubt very much, in this scenario, if Ireland would have ever have become an independent state. The United Kingdom today would be a federated nation made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Northern Ireland would simply be part of Ireland.
Is this a better or worse result? I hate to say it, particularly as two of my ancestors fought for Irish independence at Vinegar Hill, and one of them died there, but I frankly think it would have been a better one. Ireland, in independence, became an economic backwater whose main export was its people for decades. As a nation that managed to preserve its nationhood for centuries in spite of occupation, I don't think its culture was in danger, and indeed the fact that the Scottish are still that, would show that it wasn't.