What’s important for the Union (and Unionists)…

Is not necessarily the Union, if it comes to it. Or so says Andrew over at A Tangled Web in response to Adam Maguire’s original question. As he points out, break up seems a highly unlikely outcome to the current controversy. But such conditionality is part of the Presbyterian, contractarian view of the Union. However it’s possibly worth returning to a couple of things mentioned towards the end of our study of the future of Unionism, A Long Peace?There are few more acute observers of unionism than Arthur Aughey. He precisely captured the creative problem of managing relationships within the Union with the retelling of this modern fable:

‘A number of porcupines, Schopenhauer wrote, huddled together for warmth on a cold day but as they pricked one another they were forced to disperse. The cold drove them together again and the process was repeated. After many turns of huddling and dispersing they discovered that a comfortable relationship involved maintaining a little distance from one another. It is only when we discover a moderate distance, Schopenhauer believed, that life becomes tolerable: our mutual needs can be reasonably satisfied and, as far as possible, we can avoid pricking one another.’

Our conclusion:

The fable is powerful. But there is one problem. To the rest of the UK’s inhabitants it seems that Northern Ireland’s unionists now prefer a chilly distance to exchanging heat and light with their neighbours. Re-engagement is needed at many levels. Unionist MPs have the opportunity to move into the mainstream of UK politics and to start arguing for long-term changes that will strengthen the Union, as well as Northern Ireland’s place in it. Relationships must be deepened right across the United Kingdom.

Re-engagement is needed at many levels. Unionist MPs have the opportunity to move into the mainstream of UK politics and to start arguing for long-term changes that will strengthen the Union, as well as Northern Ireland’s place in it. Relationships must be deepened right across the United Kingdom. It is not enough to focus on the Scots, considered as favoured cousins. Northern Ireland’s unionists may not care much for the English, but with over 80% of the UK’s population, they should not be ignored.

Also somewhat puzzling is the lack of unionist engagement (widely, but particularly here on Slugger) with the Conservative case on the West Lothian question. As Iain Dale points out in his recent Slugger podcast interview, in essence, it is not an anti Scots measure, but a way of addressing the quality of relations within the Union. Precisely the issues Aughey highlights with the Schopenhauer fable.

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  • Am I incorrect to assert that no Unionist politician has had any impact in mainstream British politics since Carson?

  • Jamie Gargoyle

    Am I incorrect to assert that no Unionist politician has had any impact in mainstream British politics since Carson?

    For good or ill, Paisley has an impact in whatever sphere he happens to move in.

    On a more specific note, the Molyneaux deal to prop up the Conservative government in the 1990s may have had quite an impact on UK politics. What if Major had had to call an election earlier than 1997? Would newLabour have won a landslide without the years of capitalising on a tired government in its death-throes? Would Blair have had to rely on Ashdown’s LibDems? It’s now fairly clear Ashdown had a Lib-Lab merger in mind – would it have happened? Would a united left have meant the Tories had to focus on rebuilding much quicker than the have managed thus far?

    Perhaps more relevant than that avenue of speculation is this – what Welsh politician has had any impact in mainstream British politics since Lloyd-George?

  • Tochais Siorai

    Nye Bevin.

    Anyway, not many British politicians never mind Welsh have had as much impact as L-G except Churchill but lots of Welsh have been centre stage politically at some point e.g Roy Jenkins, Neil Kinnock, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine.

    I think Ramsay Mc Donald might have been Welsh as well (son of a Scottish miner like Kinnock)

    And Jim Callaghan & Michael Foot represented Welsh constituencies.

  • To take up the Schopenhauer analogy, I suppose the problem for the union is is this, what happens if one hedgehog is bigger than all the others with proportionately longer spines?

  • PHIL

    Tom,

    One day the big hedgehog must leave the other hedgehogs and let them fend for themselves.

  • harpo

    ‘Unionist MPs have the opportunity to move into the mainstream of UK politics and to start arguing for long-term changes that will strengthen the Union, as well as Northern Ireland’s place in it. Relationships must be deepened right across the United Kingdom.’

    Mick:

    Before relationships are deepened they first have to be defined. The UK is currently going through the first phase of moving from a centralized system to one that involves certain powers being devolved from the central government to regional governments.

    The problem is that once you move to such a system, the process never ends. In the US for example there are constant issues regarding state rights versus federal rights. You may remember they even had a civil war over the issue. The same goes for here in Canada, where there are constant disputes about where provincial rights and federal rights begin and end.

    If the UK is going to end up with such a system there are bound to be early teething problems. And I think the main one will be what to do about England. The biggest mistake would be to take England for granted so that the West Lothian problem remains. More and more English people will get resentful if they are not given the same treatment as the other regions that get devolution.

    If that issue gets settled so that there is an English parliament in adition to the federal level parliament, that’s only the beginning of the fun. Once all of these regional parliaments get going, then the US and Canadian style fun begins about what are the respective rights and responsibilities of the various parliaments. And that is an endless process given that the regional parliaments will end up wanting local taxation powers etc. From then on it’s just one long line of negotiations and trying to come to deals that everyone can live with.

    In Canada there are constant problems, especially with Quebec, since Quebec seperatists always want special treatment that is different from the other Canadian provinces. It is difficult in Canada for all of the provinces to find concensus on what their common position is when approaching the federal government on an issue. So often different deals are made between the federal government and each province, with the obvious result that some deals are seen by other provinces as being unfair.

    That’s what the UK has to look forward to.

  • PHIL

    Harpo,

    The English people are already getting more resentful because we are being treated differently to the other nations in the union. The government plans for devolved regional government has already been rejected by the region that was felt to have the greatest sense of regional identity (the so called “North-East” consisting of Northumberland, Co. Durham and a bit of Yorkshire’s North Riding) and they will surely be rejected elsewhere. The English want national representation, just like Scotland and Wales and until that happens English resentment will continue to grow and become a greater threat to the union than an English parlaiment will ever be.

  • irishinuk

    Those pesky Quebec people. Still think they’re french after all these years, why can’t they admit they’re Canadian and just join the rest of the nation? Or something like that.

  • harpo

    ‘The English want national representation, just like Scotland and Wales and until that happens English resentment will continue to grow and become a greater threat to the union than an English parlaiment will ever be.’

    Phil:

    I agree.

    I wonder if when there is an English parliament there would then be the further demand for English independence, on the basis that England (with most of the people and money) shouldn’t be carrying the poor relations – Scotland, Wales and NI?

    Here in Canada there are often rumblings of dissatisfaction about the rich provinces having to subsidise services for people who choose to live in the poorer provinces.

    I wonder if the Canadian experience would be repeated when things like taxation became partly devolved, so that there would be a federal tax to cover federal services, and regional taxes for the ‘nations’. Imagine the situation developing where (like here in Canada) you end up with a federal tax that isn’t just used for supplying federal services, but also to support ‘transfer payments’ to the poorer nations, so that they get to enjoy the same levels of locally provided services that they can’t actually afford to pay for out of their locally raised taxes.

    The whole thing becomes a farce then and ends up achieving the opposite of what devolution is meant to mean. If the plan is to have locals control their local issues, then surely part of that is living within your local means – ie only spending what you can afford. If you end up making local decisions but expecting someone else (folks outside your nation) to help pay for them then the whole model becomes stupid.

    If you truly want the federal/local split model then you have to be prepared to live with the consequences of that.

  • PHIL

    Harpo,

    I would prefer outright independance for England, partly because of the points that you raise and because of our sheer size in terms of population which would result in an unbalanced federation that would be unlikely to survive long term. I think that Blair and Brown realise this now and it is why they are doing all that they can to surpress English nationalism. Unfortunately for them they didn’t think of that when they opened Pandora’s box and started the chain of events that ultimately will destroy the UK, namely Scottish and Welsh devolution. Whilst I think that we all have much shared culture and identity, the UK in its preset form is doomed and I can’t see a way in which it can be saved without the Balkanisation of England which the English will never tolerate. We cannot and will not sacrifice our country for the sake of the union.