Throughout 2021, BBC Radio 4 is exploring the state of the union through a collection of series from each of the four nations.
Journalists Andrea Catherwood, Ian Hislop, Allan Little and Jeremy Bowen will ask different questions of each of the nations to discern the forces at work which may be pulling the UK apart, the glue which may continue to bind the UK together, and to examine how national identities are forged.
Richard Knight, Radio 4’s Factual Commissioning Editor, says: “The pressure on the union is an unfolding story which combines passion, history and identity. It’s a complex mix and it might change the nature of the place we call home. I am looking forward to exploring it with these four outstanding presenters, and I am expecting to learn a lot.”
Starting on 21 June, This Union: A Sea Between Us asks what unionism in Northern Ireland means now. Presented by Andrea Catherwood, who like many grew up during the Troubles and chose a future outside Northern Ireland – as she returns to discover what has changed.
When Andrea left home the IRA was still active and the talks that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement had yet to begin. Back then the prospect of a united Ireland seemed remote, and unionist parties enjoyed a comfortable majority at the polls. Now, in Northern Ireland’s centenary year, unionism may be approaching a critical turning point.
Having spent much of his childhood overseas, Ian Hislop has always felt himself to be something of an outsider when it comes to being English – and he is particularly intrigued by regional English identity. In the four-part series, This Union: The Ghost Kingdoms Of England, he looks for the origins of those identities by going back to the last time England had to establish what it was, and what it stood for: when the Romans left. Ian travels through four of the great Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex.
On each journey he seeks to tell the story of those places, but also to find out whether these ancient identities help us understand what Englishness might mean today.
In September Allan Little presents This Union: Two Kingdoms, a sweeping story of pride, passion and pragmatism in which he traces the events that led to the creation of a union between Scotland and England in 1707, a union forged in Empire, industry and war.
Having witnessed the emergence of new independent states in the Balkans, Africa and in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, Allan Little now examines the desire for independence at home and the pressures which might end Scotland’s place in the UK.
In each episode, Allan revisits events both historical and contemporary while on location in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Linlithgow and the old battleground of Culloden.
In October Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, explores what it is to be Welsh and how far and how fast Welsh identity is changing, in This Union: Being Welsh.
Jeremy is sometimes made to feel he’s not Welsh enough. That’s despite being born and raised in Wales and still having strong family ties in the country. He is a loud supporter of the national rugby team. As far as Jeremy’s concerned, he is certainly Welsh enough. But he doesn’t speak the Welsh language and doesn’t “sound Welsh”.
So what is it to be Welsh in 2021? At a time when a desire for outright independence for Wales is growing – and the nature of Welsh identity, and the role of language in the creation of that identity, is becoming clearer in the minds of many in Wales – there’s no better moment for Jeremy to look for answers.
Also starting on Radio 4 from August Bank Holiday Monday is United Kingdoms, an expansive drama series bringing together 50 writers from all corners of the UK.