Aughey prophet of unionism

You remember the phrase “campaign in poetry, govern in prose?” Arthur Aughey professor politics at the University of Ulster is neither quite a campaigner nor a professing poet but he comes close to both as a writer. Aughey is an apologist – that is, an explainer – of the elements not only of Ulster unionism but of what Gordon Brown call “Britishness,”. a far more complex and imaginative entity than is usually discussed along the twisty tramlines of structural analysis and identity politics. For the Constitution Unit and many others, Arthur is one of the principal guides through the journey that the UK – and Ireland – are going through to arrive at a still uncertain destination. In the modern debate England is the new kid on the block and Aughey is well placed to lead it. His ideas may have traction in the gloom of recession because they draw out the best of British rather than bemoan its worst – in the jargon, they have a confidence building effect. Despite the rise of English and Scottish nationalism and the confused (but clarifying?) picture in our own corner, the future according to Arthur is one in which the parameters of the United Kingdom will survive.

Here is Arthur Aughey reviewing A Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture, and Technology on Britain’s Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930

“Harvie’s brilliant work shows that life was indeed elsewhere outside the Home Counties and it is a life where Belfast was not the dismal background for cultured melancholy but really was (to use that old Ulster Unionist, self-enhancing, phrase) the ‘heart of the British Empire’. “Harvie’s brilliant work shows that life was indeed elsewhere outside the Home Counties and it is a life where Belfast was not the dismal background for cultured melancholy but really was (to use that old Ulster Unionist, self-enhancing, phrase) the ‘heart of the British Empire’. Not only did the ships, ropes and engines of the city help pump the commercial lifeblood of that Empire but also the intellectual influences of the city contributed as much to the character of the country as did the playing fields of Eton. And for Belfast also read the other ‘provincial’ cities of the United Kingdom from Glasgow to Swansea, from Hull to Hartlepool.”

Harvie and Aughey chime together in a threnody for a richer, higher working class culture than today’s – and where more than with…

.”those shipyard workers of Harland and Wolff and Workman and Clark about whose achievements Harvie is so eloquent. That street has a bookshop that formerly sold religious commentary, the immense dusty variety of which was shifted to the attic as the shop became a circulating library for the aristocracy of labour, dealing in popular novels but also books on history, arts and sciences, a localised version of Belfast’s famous and radical Linenhall Library. Slowly but surely the books began to disappear, like the shipyard itself, to be replaced mainly by videos, cds and dvds and with them, it seems, a whole mentalite (as Harvie would describe it). That this decay – of a spiritual life of religious, political and cultural ferment – represents a real loss is something which Harvie’s book recalls to mind. It is not, of course, confined to Belfast”

While Arthur has his sharply analytical side his vision of Britishness sometimes reads as a throwback but with a contemporary twist.

“Though Ulster Unionists get the accustomed bad press, the ‘geotechnic’ of the Atlantic coast he describes shows more clearly than before how right they were to opt out of the Irish nationalist dream (see especially the lame argument of G B Shaw on page 173 that Ulster was needed to save the Irish nation from its own worst self). Times do change, though, and the reverse is now true (Harvie, like all Scottish nationalists, makes much of the experience of the Celtic Tiger). The Belfast Agreement of 1998, however, allows the citizens of the Irish republic to veto unification and if Ulster Unionists were not altruistic enough to sacrifice their interests for Irish unity at the beginning of the last century then the same is probably true of the Southern Irish at the beginning of this century.

Whether or not you accept Arthur Aughey’s standpoint, he has done much to give articulate voice with imaginative power to the general unionist case, just at the time when it has never been more under threat. The greatest weakness of unionists in all GB parties is that until Gordon Brown, they never had to explain themselves so never acquired the knack. Coming from the edge of the union has given Arthur Aughey the edge in explaining unionism to unionists afresh, not just as a system but as a rejuvenated idea.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London