The British Empire was extremely successful in the 19th century, to the point where for a few decades they were the largest empire in human history. But for some reason London never really managed to squash national resistance within its own lands - territories like Scotland eventually received broad autonomy and Ireland separated in 1918.

Why wasn't the UK able to maintain order and completely supress nationalistic fever in the British Isles?

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    Basically because they did not have superior technology over Ireland or Scotland. Colonial wars are successful because the empires have better weapons than the future colony.
    – Santiago
    Apr 17, 2017 at 17:11
  • This is a fair question for Ireland but less for Scotland. You refer to the British Empire in the Nineteenth Century. Scotland only acquired a devolved Parliament in 1999, when the Empire was long gone. Part of British identity and what held the peoples of the United Kingdom together in the 19th and first half of the 20th century was pride and shared interests in the overseas empire. 'Empire Day' was the largest patriotic festival. When the Empire went, part of 'British' pride and identity went too, older Scots, Welsh and English identities, always present, became more important again.
    – Timothy
    Apr 20, 2017 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


That is kind of like asking "Why can I pick up an egg but not fight off a cold?" The two capabilities are not related in any obvious way.

(warning - weak answer full of assertions and opinions - much of the argument is derived from Fukuyama).

The ability to project external power is based on infrastructure (UK ruled the waves - had extensive support structures to reinforce power anywhere, massive fleet size), technological/military superiority, and military skill & training. It is crucial to note the numbers of Irish and Scots in the UK military - if you try to use those forces to suppress dissident populations, you may lose both the ability to project external power and the ability to control internal dissent.

The ability to suppress dissent derives primarily from internal perceptions of the legitimacy of government. Internal perception of legitimacy results (loosely) from an accountable government, national mythology (see update below), and from prosperity. The globe spanning empire supports the national spirit and mythology.

Force projection is not related to the ability to suppress dissent (in a democratic government) - attempts to use the military on domestic populations is .. exceptionally unwise...

Ireland and Scotland are fascinating cases, but trying to analyze them through force projection capabilities is like use my spleen to lift weights. It just doesn't make sense.

update I was uncomfortable leaving an answer without a source - felt hypocritical. Fortunately, the excellent Revolutions Podcast from Mike Duncan delivered an episode about the revolution of 1830 - granted, isn't about England, but it is a fairly good case study cautioning against deploying troops to subdue the domestic population.

Update2: @TheHonRose pointed out that my use of "mythology" is nonstandard and perhaps more anthropological than purely historical. This is correct; I'm trying to abstract a concept that is present in Fukuyama and in political science, but for which I don't have a purely historical framework. Every nation has a set of shared cultural, political, social, civil and military institutions. Fukuyama argues that these institutions, and more importantly the belief the population holds in these institutions, is a major source of the legitimacy of the government. Rebelling undermines these institutions. I'm using the term mythology in a specific sense as used in other social sciences to emphasize that it is the belief in these institutions, not the institutions that generates the legitimacy. Affiliation with the institutions affiliates with the national mythology; attacking or rebelling against the nation distances members from the group. One final point and I'll let this rest - I have no way of measuring or proving the concept, but in my opinion as an unrepentant Anglophile, the British mythology is more effective than the average, and therefore more supportive of legitimacy, and more effective at resisting domestic unrest. As I said at the beginning, most of this is from disciplines other than history, so I didn't want to emphasize it in the answer, but I wanted to capture answers to some questions in the comments. (Comments are now obsolete).

  • @MarkCWallace The British Isles are rather like a family - riven with internal squabbles but somehow unable to "divorce". And "British mythology"? Not sure what that is?
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 8, 2017 at 17:15
  • @MarkCWallace That sounds more like culture than mythology.
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 19, 2017 at 12:34
  • @TheHonRose "culture" is way too broad; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_myth is the right term for this stuff. Apr 20, 2017 at 4:55
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    Thank you for the explanation, but I do not understand @MarkCWallace expostulation of OMG British mythology. Every country has its own - land of the free (USA), land of saints and scholars (Ireland) etc etc. What is so different about British mythology?
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 20, 2017 at 13:06

They were able to suppress nationalism, up to a point. Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom up until after WW1 and Scotland still is. Stamping down harder would have only backfired and created more resentment. This implies that there was a level of nationalism that they were prepared to tolerate.

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