When Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots, became James I, uniting the crowns of Scotland, England and Ireland for the first time. His dream, to create a single kingdom, was to take more than a hundred years to realise when, with the Act of Union of 1707, Scotland and England became "One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain".
It was, in the beginning, primarily a political union although, inevitably, it had strong economic underpinnings, giving Scotland’s businesses access to England’s colonial trade network. In more than 300 years of our shared history that political union, a union on paper, has become something so much greater. It is now a human union where multiple generations have married, moved and lived together, becoming increasingly one nation. Most of us will have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who came from a different part of the UK.Many of us will have children, siblings or parents who are scattered today among the constituent nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.We have become, in every sense, a family of nations and a nation of families.
Our union has been forged in times of war and peace. Scottish soldiers, especially those from the Highlands, have long been regarded as being among the best regiments in the Army. At the same time the ever expanding Royal Navy, which controlled the high seas and protected Britain’s global economic interests, contained large numbers of serving Scots. Our Armed Forces, drawn from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland fought, and sometimes died, side-by-side in the defence of freedom against the fascism of Nazi Germany through the liberation of the Falkland Islands to the security challenges of today.
Families from across the whole of the United Kingdom were, and are, united in support of “our boys” and of one another. Our nation was forged by common forces. As the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries gathered pace, people from all over the United Kingdom began to move from the countryside to the emerging great cities and, in large numbers, from Ireland, Scotland and Wales to England. This increased mixing of the population brought with it, and created, families who proudly maintained their own cultural traditions and identities but who also saw themselves increasingly, and simultaneously, as British. This is, for me, one of the greatest things about our country.
Like many of us, I have family that is drawn from across the British Isles. I grew up and was educated in Scotland but have spent most of my life living in England. One of the great blessings of living in the UK is that you can be proudly British and proudly English at the same time, just as you can be proudly British and proudly Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish. We can take pride in our distinct national identities, cultures and heritage while, at the same time, embracing our shared pride in our collective British identity, history and values. We do not have to choose one over the other. The process of the interweaving of our people that came with the Act of Union and the mutual economic benefits that flowed from it continue today.
Around 800,000 people who live in England today were born in Scotland, while more than 400,000 of those living in Scotland were born in England.Research has shown that while those moving from England to Scotland tend to have higher qualifications and occupational status, lifestyle factors have played a considerable role in their decision to relocate to Scotland. In a similar way, the same research showed that while southeast of England has been a magnet to those seeking work from all parts of the UK, Scots who moved there did especially well, both in comparison to those who stayed at home in Scotland and to residents of the southeast were born in the area.
The United Kingdom, once just a political agreement written on paper, has become a complex, sophisticated and wonderful interwoven tapestry of our people. We have written one of the great global histories together and continue to enrich our nation with our distinct and proud national identities while celebrating our British commonality. Few people in the world are able to enjoy what we so often take for granted. We must not create internal borders where our families become foreigners. We must not allow the self-serving nationalists to tear apart all that we have achieved over hundreds of years. Our great, human, union is too precious to be destroyed by narrow-minded political opportunists. We are a great family of nations and a great nation of families.
We must never allow our families to be torn apart.