David Olusoga: ‘The UK is less equal than when I was young’ (2024)

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David Olusoga: ‘The UK is less equal than when I was young’ (1)

By Lucy Wallis

BBC News

The United Kingdom is becoming less and less united, says historian David Olusoga - not just along its borders but within each of its four nations. How can the union's ties be renewed?

"London's much more dominant than it was when I was growing up," Mr Olusoga says. "In the 1970s, Britain was a much more equal society than it is today."

Few other capital cities have a profile as powerful as the UK's, he says.

"Most nations have a capital city that is not enormously out of scale with the other cities."

Olusoga says London's dominance shows how divisions in the UK's union do not just run along borders but within nations themselves.

The historian - who has a new BBC Two series about the story of the union of the UK - grew up during the de-industrialisation of north-east England in the 1980s. The closure of factories, coal mines and shipyards swept across the region, causing widespread job losses and unemployment.

More than half a century later, it is not possible - he says - to "rely on industry spreading wealth and opportunity around the four nations".

"We talk about left-behind towns. We talk about levelling up," he says.

"The urgency of doing something, I think, is apparent to many people, journalists, politicians, and whether we can rise to that challenge and in some ways, renew our bonds, renew the union.

"That is one of the big questions of the next decades."

'South was a hostile force'

Image source, Getty Images

In fact, when he thinks about the attitudes of the people around him as he grew up, the historian says they speak to one of the great tensions of the UK union.

"We absolutely felt that the south was another nation. I felt much more in common with Scotland than I did with the south of England, and London seemed like a very disinterested, and at times, sort of very hostile force," he says.

"I never imagined I'd live in the south, and I do," says Olusoga. "My younger self would be absolutely shocked by that."

When choosing universities, the historian - who was brought up in Gateshead - said his "number one criteria was that I didn't want to go to the south".

He opted to study at Liverpool University. But since then, he says it has become even more apparent that there is "a concentration of wealth and opportunity in one corner of one country".

Some historians have called the years between 1945 and 1973 "peak union", because of the impact of free healthcare through the NHS, and the broad spread of industry around the UK.

Olusoga pinpoints 1973 as the "high water mark" of UK equality.

Image source, Getty Images

There are also other forces on which the union was built, that Olusoga says have either disappeared or are in decline.

"I think one of the oddities of the history of the United Kingdom is that here is a state that was largely brought together - with Ireland being a very different story - by the idea of the Protestant faith," he says.

Yet the UK is now one of the most secular nations in the world - there's a great contradiction in the fact that a nation formed along religious lines is now very irreligious, he says.

Fewer than half of the population in England and Wales described themselves as Christian in the 2021 census. The drop to 46.2% was down from 59.3% in the 2011 census.

The results also saw an increase in the percentage of people who said they had no religion. Censuses in Scotland and Northern Ireland have also recorded a rise in the number of people identifying with no religion.

'Tolerance rather than enthusiasm'

Image source, Getty Images

Recognition that the bonds that tie the union together needed to be strengthened occurred in the 1990s, says Olusoga. Governing powers were devolved to national parliaments, with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament or Senedd Cymru, and Northern Ireland Assembly.

But it was the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014 that was probably the most fractious moment in the story of the union in recent years, he says. Scotland voted against becoming an independent country by 55% to 45%.

Two years later, a referendum about whether or not to stay in another union, the European Union, was bound to raise questions about the union of the UK, he says, "because two nations voted one way and the other two voted the other way".

The Brexit debate not only highlighted the different attitudes towards the EU across the UK, but also ambivalence towards the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - according to a recent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report.

"It's a very complicated picture, in which, very often, there's sort of tolerance rather than enthusiasm for the status quo," says Olusoga. And this, he adds, is set against the backdrop of public faith in UK politics being "at a low ebb".

Image source, BBC/Wall to Wall Media

So if the historical forces that brought the union together are in decline, could our generation become the last of the Brits?

"I don't know. I think there are forces pulling in both directions," says Olusoga.

"There's a huge demographic shift in Scotland, for example, that's in favour of independence, but we've just seen a decline in support for the SNP," he says.

It would be dangerous to suggest a union that's lasted for such a long time is on the verge of collapse, he adds, "because I think history often shows those sorts of presumptions are wrong. But at the same time, it is only [102] years since part of the union did leave."

In 1921, Northern Ireland officially came into existence after a decision was made to split the island of Ireland in two.

This followed decades of turmoil between nationalists, who wanted independence from British rule, and unionists, who wanted to remain in the United Kingdom.

We are living through a period of astonishing change, says Olusoga.

"It'll be fascinating to see how we resolve this current moment and if there is a way of renewing the union."

Union with David Olusoga is on Mondays at 21:00 BST on BBC Two, or watch on BBC iPlayer

Related Topics

  • Wales
  • Scotland
  • Northern Ireland
  • England
  • Brexit
David Olusoga: ‘The UK is less equal than when I was young’ (2024)

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