The making of the UK state,Part 2: Ireland

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This is the second in our series by a close sympathiser examining the formation of the British state in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first article in WR 352 showed how English capital expanded to dominate the rest of the British Isles, and why attempts to form an independent capitalist state in Scotland failed. Here we turn to the case of Ireland, and then draw some conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of the modern UK state and their implications for the class struggle today.

The destruction of feudalism in Ireland and the invasion of mainland capital

Feudalism in Ireland was more fully developed and resistant to external change than in England or Scotland. As part of its attempt to impose direct rule on the island, in the 16th century the centralising English Tudor monarchy began to confiscate the lands of rebellious Catholic nobles and ‘plant’ them with their own colonists, but the north of Ireland only came under English control after the defeat of a Spanish-backed revolt in 1603. The subsequent ‘plantation’ of Ulster with Protestant English and Scottish settlers, financed by the City of London, was the first major colonial project of the English empire in the British Isles.

Faced with this steady destruction of its power, in 1641 the Catholic nobility mobilised the impoverished Irish peasantry in an attempted coup d’état. The ensuing massacre of Protestant settlers in Ulster, and the enfeebled Stuart monarchy’s willingness to make an alliance with the Irish nobility against the Protestant Scots, provided the English bourgeoisie with the perfect propaganda weapon with which to mobilise popular support for its own political struggle against the monarchy under an anti-absolutist, anti-Catholic banner.

Seizing the opportunity presented by civil war in England, the Irish nobility set up what was in effect a separate state, the ‘Catholic Confederation’, with French, Spanish and Papal support. In return for a promise of self-government and religious rights the majority allied themselves with the royalist side, while a minority called for a Catholic state fully independent of England, which led to a brief Irish civil war. The Confederate-royalist alliance was finally defeated by Cromwell’s army in 1653.[1]

The subsequent English re-conquest of Ireland, which included the infamous massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, was followed by military occupation and the mass confiscation of land, effectively destroying the power of the Catholic nobility and subordinating the Irish state to the interests of English capital, whose ruthless campaign to impose itself on the island decimated the already impoverished Irish peasantry. From the survey carried out for the government and completed by William Petty in 1656 it has been estimated that over 618,000 people died in Ireland between 1641 and 1653, about 40% of the population, with around 12,000 exported as slaves. Not surprisingly the brutality of this bourgeois revolution from the outside left a lasting legacy of hatred and resentment.

Some land was returned to pro-royalist nobles after 1660 but the restored Stuart monarchy was forced to accept the main terms of the Cromwellian ‘settlement’ in Ireland. The expropriated Irish Catholic landowning class opposed the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, backing the restoration of the Stuart dynasty as the only chance of regaining its lost power; and, except for Protestant Ulster, Ireland became a stronghold of the ‘Jacobites’ (ie. supporters of the deposed Stuart King James II), remaining under the control of an Irish army with French support until 1690 when, after a campaign that was to become a major source of mythology for future Protestant Ulster Unionism, the forces of Irish Catholic feudalism were finally defeated by the forces of English capitalism led by the Dutch Willem van Oranje (‘King Billy’), with the active support of the Protestant settlers of the north east.

Having regained control, the political priority of the English bourgeoisie was to ensure that its interests in Ireland were protected by a loyal colonial garrison, to be provided by a narrow section of the mostly English Protestant landowning elite. Economically its priority was to open up Ireland to English capitalist producers desperate for new markets while denying the markets of mainland Britain to Irish products, and to this end any Irish economic activity that threatened English industry was ruthlessly destroyed.

The growth of Irish trade and manufacturing despite these restrictions, and the emergence of an indigenous capitalist class in the second half of the 18th century, directly conflicted with these priorities, and the new British state found itself faced with growing political demands for Irish self-government and free trade led by the Presbyterian bourgeoisie of the north east. Weakened by the American Revolution (1776-1783), and under increasing threat from a national liberation struggle led by formerly loyal settlers, the British bourgeoisie was forced to concede Irish legislative independence and free trade within the British empire – but not full self-government.

This failed to disarm the growing bourgeois national movement, which received a further political impetus from the French Revolution; the programme of the Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791, included religious equality, national independence and an end to English commercial monopoly. Faced with this threat, the British bourgeoisie now played the tried and tested ‘anti-popery’ card, deliberately fomenting religious sectarianism in order to divide the revolutionary national movement and then unleashing state terror against a French-backed insurrection in 1798. Having crushed this movement it imposed direct rule and forcibly incorporated Ireland into the British state. From now on Irish capitalist development was to be totally subordinated to the needs and interests of British imperialism.

With the defeat of its attempted national revolution, the Irish bourgeoisie found itself deeply divided along sectarian lines. This division broadly corresponded to the uneven development of capitalism in the island, where a largely Catholic class of merchants and traders, heavily dependent on agriculture, had emerged in the south, with a Protestant bourgeoisie based on the linen industry (which did not compete with English producers) in the north east. Southern capital needed a protected home market to have any chance of developing, while in the north, large-scale capitalism was able to develop on the basis of its close ties to mainland capital.

These opposing economic interests – themselves shaped by the priorities of English imperialist policy – became the basis for the emergence of the conflicting nationalist movements of Protestant Ulster Unionism and southern Catholic Republicanism. Above all, these sectarian divisions were deliberately sponsored by the British state in order to retain its political and social control in Ireland, and became a major obstacle to the future unification of the working class in Ireland.

Ireland’s forcible incorporation into the new ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ in 1801 formally marked the creation of the modern UK state, but the divisions within the capitalist class eventually gave rise to a nationalist struggle by the Southern Catholic bourgeoisie in order to set up its own protected home market. The ‘Irish Free State’ seceded from the UK in 1922. We don’t intend to deal with the complexities of the ‘Irish question’ here, or with the anti-working class nature of nationalist struggles in the epoch of capitalist decadence.[2] We have shown that its roots lie in the uneven development of capitalism in the British Isles, the full-frontal assault of mainland capital in order to impose itself on a resistant feudal state, and the strategic priorities of British imperialism faced with revolutionary threats at home and abroad.

Some conclusions

As a result of its process of formation, from its origins the ‘United Kingdom’ was not a single nation state like, say, France, but a state containing at least four ‘nations’: England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. More specifically, this state reflected the domination of English capital over the rest of the British Isles and the success of its efforts to prevent the emergence of any potential rival, which had involved a series of pragmatic measures and hastily cobbled-together mergers.

It happened differently elsewhere. There are certainly some similarities in the role played by England in the British Isles with that of Prussia in the process of German unification, but whereas the latter resulted at least formally in a federated nation state, even the British bourgeoisie is forced to accept that the UK state today is ‘complex’. But there was never a single process to be followed for the replacement of feudal regimes with state structures defending the interests of the new mode of production, and no single ‘model’ of the bourgeois revolution. It happened differently, over a whole epoch, in the USA, Russia, Japan, the Ottoman Empire... In the UK it left political, economic and ethnic fault lines, some of which, as in the case of Ireland, proved deep and unstable, while others, as in the case of Scotland, were largely but not completely submerged in the pursuit of common capitalist and imperialist interests. These fault lines still shape the British bourgeoisie and the modern UK state.

Given the depth of the capitalist crisis today and the growing tendency towards the decomposition of capitalist society, it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of the break-up of the UK state. The bourgeoisie everywhere is less and less able to control events or prevent the disintegration of its system. But it is still dangerous to underestimate the continuing ability of the capitalist class to manipulate events and direct campaigns to divide the working class and maintain its rule.

A defining feature of the bourgeois revolution in England is that it was one of the earliest in the world. As a direct consequence the English bourgeoisie is one of the longest-ruling, most experienced factions of the capitalist class. It also had a very valuable early experience of defeating a threat from the exploited masses, which demanded not only cunning and ruthlessness but also intelligence and flexibility. This means it can still teach the rest of the bourgeoisie lessons in how to deal with the class struggle.[3] After the respective roles of parliament and the monarchy were settled by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ there were to be no major changes in the structure of the state for over a hundred years, while due to its insularity the UK state was spared invasions or major convulsions, giving it an almost unprecedented stability compared to its continental counterparts.

This defining feature also shaped the characteristics of the UK state and the institutions that emerged from the bourgeois revolution, which still bear the aristocratic features of the landowning interests that played such a key role in their formation (along with the City of London financial interests). Landowning classes played an important role in the bourgeois revolution in other countries (eg. the Junkers in Prussia or the samurai in Japan), but the English landowning aristocracy was the wealthiest and most powerful, having gradually transformed itself into a capitalist landowning class over a very long period. Even when a manufacturing class did eventually arise from the Industrial Revolution, instead of using its economic power to seize political control of the state and rip out all the symbols of the ‘old regime’ – monarchy, House of Lords, state church, even the colonies – as so many unnecessary ‘overheads’, as Marx at one time anticipated, it largely accommodated itself to the existing state structures.[4]

The British bourgeoisie eventually paid a price for the backwardness of these state institutions, which exacerbated its lack of industrial competitiveness when rival powers like Germany and the USA emerged, but they continued to enable a very subtle and flexible system of rule and mystification. It took a sharp external observer like Trotsky to pinpoint these key characteristics of British capitalist society:

The British bourgeoisie developed under the protection of ancient institutions, on the one hand adapting itself to them and on the other subjecting them to itself, gradually, organically, ‘in an evolutionary way’. The revolutionary upheavals of the 17th century were profoundly forgotten. In this consists what is called the British tradition. Its basic feature is conservatism. More than anything else the British bourgeoisie is proud that it has not destroyed old buildings and old beliefs, but has gradually adapted the old royal and noble castle to the requirements of the business firm. In this castle, in the corners of it, there were its icons, its symbols, its fetishes, and the bourgeoisie did not remove them. It made use of them to consecrate its rule. And it laid down from above upon its proletariat the heavy lid of cultural conservatism.[5]

The persistence of these institutions, particularly of the monarchy, still serves the British bourgeoisie in two ways; on the one hand they help to disguise its naked class dictatorship, providing a potent source of mystification that assists in ensuring social order. On the other hand, they allow factions of the bourgeoisie, particularly from the left, to create campaigns around the long-overdue ‘modernisation’ of the state, presenting very modest proposals for changes in state structures as in some way ‘revolutionary’. As we have seen with the devolution issue, this can be an effective tactic to divert attention from the capitalist crisis when combined with nationalist feelings and resentment.  

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[1]. If England was the major imperialist player in Ireland, Scotland was a minor one, along with France and Spain. Due to its proximity, the north east of Ireland had long been a Scottish sphere of influence, and a Scottish army was sent to Ulster in 1642, ostensibly to protect Scottish settlers, remaining there until the end of the civil wars.


[2]. For the ICC’s position on the Irish question, see for example, ‘Irish republicanism: weapon of capital against the working class’ in WR 231 (


[3]. See the series on ‘Lessons of the English revolution’ in WRs 323, 325 and 329.


[4]. Marx, ‘The Chartists’, 10 August 1852, in Surveys from Exile, Penguin, 1973, pp.262-264.



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