In the wake of the near-death of the United Kingdom as we know it on September 18 2014, unionists have sought to define the purpose of union, Britishness, “what unites us” and “shared values”.
This new unionism is profoundly misguided. Yet neither of our main parties seems aware of it.
Union has never been one thing, defined and codified. It takes different forms in different places – think of an Orange march in Ulster and a Conservative garden party in the home counties. For many English people, England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom blend imperceptibly into each other. For Scots, concepts of Scottishness and Britishness are distinct, some feeling only Scottish and most balancing dual British and Scottish identities.
This makes the UK a state in which the very meaning of nationality differs from one part to another. “Britishness” is not something that sits above particular local and cultural identities but is constituted by them. Unitary nation states like France are characterised by a shared national identity, vision of future and view of the past. As a plurinational state, the UK has none of these.
In these circumstances, it is futile and potentially dangerous to the union to try and define it one way, as the new unionism seeks to do. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have suggested a constitutional convention, which could only rehearse fundamental differences about the nature of the polity. The unionist parties have presented democracy and liberty as quintessentially British, underpinned by a revived Whig history of progress.
The limits of Britishness
The problem is that in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, many citizens fully share these values but do not feel British. Indeed, these values also underpin their own national projects. Linking civil and social rights to being British ties fundamental human rights to contested national identity and excludes those who do not so identify.
Canada and Spain have wasted decades trying to define the foundations of sovereignty and shared accounts of the future and the past. Eventually the Canadian political class just gave up. Attempts to define Spain as a nation have bedevilled efforts to include Catalans and Basques. The UK used to do these things better, with its acceptance of differentiated national identities and a reluctance to push definitions to the limit.
None of this means that the union is lost. There is an argument about whether devolution poses a threat to social welfare. Gordon Brown argues in favour of uniform levels for key services, for instance. But in practice, devolution has posed no threat to social solidarity or sharing. Such threats have come from the centre.
Social values across the UK have not diverged. There is a consensus on liberal democracy and respect for minorities. There is even broad support for sharing resources according to need, which is more than the current Barnett formula does.
The union can even survive the circumstance that substantial proportions of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland want out. Unionists insisted that the Scottish referendum question be a simple Yes/No choice, but the evidence is that most people sought a reshaped union and that is what both sides ended up offering. Alex Salmond famously declared that the SNP wanted out of only one of six unions, while the No side offered more devolution.
Following the referendum, the new unionists made two further anti-union gestures. Labour declared the SNP to be ineligible to participate in the government of the UK even through a parliamentary pact. The Conservatives stoked up English nationalism through a rush to English votes for English laws and taxes. These do not just contradict unionism, they have helped to destroy the Britain-wide party system that served to integrate central and territorial politics.
The union is changing in profound ways. Scotland has become a distinct political community, Northern Ireland has a fragile peace settlement and Wales is thinking through its political status. The debate in England is only starting. There is a lot of work to be done on the mass of devolution legislation in the pipeline.
Progressives used rightly to lament that the UK still had a pre-modern state system with its monarchy, House of Lords and lack of popular sovereignty. Many of these features remain but the failure to define sovereignty or invest it in a single people might be seen as a positive. The United Kingdom has multiple peoples, and their character and relationships are still being worked out. There may eventually be time for a citizens’ convention and a grand debate on how it all adds up, but it is not now.