Back in the late 1960s, when the sectarian problems of Northern Ireland were heating up, the British Home Secretary (roughly equivalent to a U.S. Attorney General) went over to the province to pour oil on the troubled waters.(Callaghan’s successor as Home Secretary, the Tory Reginald Maudling, after his own oil-pouring visit to the province some time later, was asked by a parliamentary colleague whether he saw any solution to the Troubles. “No, no,” he replied, “There is nothing to be done. They are all mad.”)
This Home Secretary was a fellow named James Callaghan. A cheerful, back-slapping type, Callaghan was nicknamed “Sunny Jim.” If anyone could do the oil-pouring business, Sunny Jim surely could.
As part of his tour, Callaghan had a meeting with the fiercely sectarian Unionist (which is to say, Protestant, and in fact Presbyterian-Calvinist) politician, the Rev. Ian Paisley. Paisley launched himself into a long rant about the wickedness of the Roman Catholic Church, the perfidy of its priests, and the gullibility and treachery of its adherents.
Callaghan listened patiently until Paisley stopped to draw breath. Then he said in his best oil-pouring tones: “Come, come, Mr. Paisley. Are we not all the children of God?”
Paisley (who only ever speaks in capital letters): “NO, SIR. WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF WRATH.”
Paisley’s career illustrated many things: the fact, for example, that it was possible to be a rigorous Calvinist in the twentieth century. In the 21st, too: the Free Presbyterian Church that he founded currently claims 15,000 congregants.
In the context of today’s news, with the vote on Scottish independence looming next week, Paisley showed what a Rube Goldberg contraption the United Kingdom is.
No-one was stronger for the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland than Paisley. No-one waved the union flag with more vigor, or, to his credit, railed more angrily against the European Union. Yet the British ruling classes loathed him, while the great docile mass of mainland Britons looked with horror on his violations of their genteel norms and treasured moderation.
Possibly he reminded them of something they would have preferred to forget: that the United Kingdom was created in the eighteenth century as a self-consciously Protestant power, defining itself as not being France, the national enemy at the time, nor Spain, the previous one.
Equipped with a German ruling family, the Kingdom sailed on confidently into the age of imperial expansion and industrial mass production. Linda Colley told the story twenty years ago in a well-received book.
Now, with the empire gone, other nations taking the industrial lead, and religion fading as a factor in self-identification throughout the Western world, the notion of a Protestant union looks quaintly archaic. The Scots are asking why they should not run their own affairs, and no-one can think of a satisfactory answer.
“Briton” just isn’t a real identifier any more, one that people feel applies to them. It really hasn’t been for a long time. I never used it of myself, and I never felt happy with “U.K.,” which has a fussily bureaucratic look about it. Spending most of my adult life in other countries, I have always written ENGLAND in the address space on envelopes when writing letters to relatives over there. I did so just this morning, writing to my brother.
Paisley’s Northern Ireland has settled down into a political racket, Republicans and unionists conniving peacefully to divvy up the subsidy from London (around $8bn a year) and the public-sector jobs it funds among their personal friends and more troublesome constituents. People there tell you with a sigh that at least it’s better than what went before.
Paisley was one architect of this racket, and so I guess deserves some credit for that, too. It is better than what went before, and very likely the best to be hoped for. We are, after all, the Children of Wrath.