Conservatives thinkers are hard at work to make the long overdue case for the Union, now dubbed “the Union state,” after the unexpected shock that still lingers (in England certainly) of discovering that devolution had whetted appetites for Union breakup and Brexit, you might think, makes their task more difficult. So far their ideas circumvent nationalism, described here as exaggerated “ identity politics,” rather than tackling nationalism head on. Although they claim for the Union “binding values”, they recognise Gordon Brown’s old pitfall, that “values” can seem too universal and anaemic as a rallying cry and need a “new patriotism with heart” to give them appeal. This is clearly work in progress. Until conclusions are reached, it’s hard to predict how successful the exercise will be. All you have to do is to read the post-wedding musings to realise the size of the challenge.
At the Policy Exchange conference addressed by Arlene Foster yesterday, rather more ambitious ideas for reimaging the Union were aired. Sadly no one directly addressed how the different Union with Northern Ireland would fit in.
Michael Gove had a busy day. He launched a new Tory think tank with the feisty Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called Onward – with echoes of President Macron’s En Marche – with a warning that, without fresh ideas and a broader appeal, the party will be “be finished for at least a generation.” Ruth suggested a joint English –Scottish bid to host a World Cup, (heresy for the Scottish FA?), her point being that a Union based on economics was “a shallow basis for a relationship.”
The younger generation, and society at large, is not yearning for a five-year plan of centrally delivered tractor quotas. Instead, we are a society that prizes individual autonomy and freedom of expression, and expects government to help us to achieve our goals, not set them.
Gove’s speech was counter-intuitive to say the least, as he made bold claims for Brexit. But his assertion that “taking back control” will make people welcome immigrants will take a lot of swallowing, although it is an important pitch to make to his party that unites him with Boris Johnson. But try as he might to finesse Brexit, narrow English nationalism remains the huge problem. Here he is really at odds with the Remainer instincts of Davidson. And while traditional redistributive generosity from the south east of England is a strong argument for the Union, it is counterbalanced by continuing Conservative austerity and inequality.
Gove and Davidson have it all to do to close the fault line between them just below the surface. As Scots together, they may need the target of a jaded government to hit like the SNP’s in Scotland. Their problem is that in England, the jaded government is Conservative.
A new National Consensus? Building a Union Which Endures
Unionism is radical, progressive and egalitarian. But deeper even than those attachments for Unionism are the underpinning institutions which embody the principle of equal respect for every individual. These institutions accord respect, freedom and dignity to individuals by virtue of their shared citizenship rather than because of possession of any specific identity.
One particular political trend that stands against these principles is the growth of identity politics.. Both right and left identity politics stand in opposition to the principles of genuine respect for diversity – of opinion and view as well as background and culture – and both subvert the idea of respecting the radical equality of the individual by demanding that some are owed more respect – and more equality – than others.
Unionism and Brexit – a Vote of Confidence in Britain
Scottish nationalism in retreat (certainly arguable)
But if Unionism is a political outlook that stands opposed to identity politics how does it fare in a post Brexit world where – we are told – assertions of identity are becoming louder and centrifugal political forces grow more powerful. Well, the truth, curious as it may appear to some, is that Brexit has, certainly so far, strengthened Unionist currents in our politics, not weakened them. Take Scottish nationalism. Since the vote to leave the European Union in 2016, support for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom has diminished
The Scottish National Party’s vigorous championing of another independence referendum has led it to drop in the polls, lose seats at the last General Election and now, lose momentum and authority in office.
Brexit means greater welcome to immigrants (counterintuitive stuff!)
It is also striking that another feature of Unionism – the explicit embrace of diversity – has strengthened since Brexit. Britain has become more welcoming to migration since the Brexit vote. The act of taking back control has allowed British citizens to show they can be more welcoming to new arrivals if allowed to be rather than required to be. And now Britain is one of those EU nations with the warmest attitudes towards migration, mirroring the attitudes in sister countries across the globe such as Canada and New Zealand.
The Unionist challenge – towards a new patriotism
One of the challenges for a new modern twenty-first century unionism is to bridge those gaps and heal those divisions, as well as working towards overcoming other tensions laid bare by the referendum campaign and indeed bringing more fully into the life of the nation those diaspora communities who have made the United Kingdom their home. That is why the work Policy Exchange is doing under John Bew and David Goodhart on re-inventing patriotism, refreshing the mandate of the UK nation state and reaching a new national consensus is so important. It is the Unionist mission for our times.
Policy Exchange have published an accompanying paper by Arthur Aughey professor emeritus of Ulster University, a leading theorist on the Union generally – not just the Union with Northern Ireland. It’s entitled The State of the Union – Lessons for a prosperous shared future. This short note fails to do it justice and it’s worth reading in full. It’s a major problem for Arthur’s case that what side to take on Brexit quickly became yet another signifier of the communal divide. And there are few specific ideas here for how Unionism should address demographic change.
There is a long-established tendency in British political and intellectual life to run down the Union.
It often takes the form of “endism” (predictions that the death of the Union is only a matter of time) and is usually tied up with a “declinist” view of the United Kingdom, as constitutionally weakened, bereft of former self-confidence and purpose.
• Critiques of the Union have legitimacy, should be taken seriously and should be considered on their merits.
Those who want to advocate the case for the Union are often caught in a Catch-22: having to make the case for the Union today sounds like admission of defeat; talking about the future of the Union risks destabilising it; attempting further adjustments (such as changes in devolution arrangements or responding to the impact of Brexit) contains within it an inherent risk. This feeds into a tendency towards an implicit unionism that dare not speak its name. •
There is a way to talk about the Union that avoids what might be called “high unionist” language (such as “our precious, precious Union”) or attempts to “cry up the Union” with sombre warnings about its imminent demise. The Unionist message should be confident and clear-headed about the fundamental logic of the Union, while remaining attuned to the sentimental and emotional undercurrents on which it also draws as well as being aware of those sentimental and emotional undercurrents which could undermine it.
Understanding what the Union is
The instrumental case for the Union ‘despite Brexit’ remains strong and unionists should not be reluctant to continue to make it. This holds that it is in the self-interest of the component parts of the United Kingdom – usually seen in terms of the prosperity and security of its citizens – to remain in the same Union for the foreseeable future.
• At the same time, there is an “imagined community” and sense of common allegiance across the Union that is not dependent on a single, one-and-indivisible, collective identity (sport comes to mind here)
The Union depends, above all, on the “principle of consent”. That consent can be measured by something that might be called “elective affinity”: people elect to associate together through various democratic means (from referenda on the Belfast Agreement or Scottish independence to votes for Union-orientated political parties). The principle of consent also accepts a degree of contingency: that people may choose to separate if, for example, the instrumental case for the Union is diminished; or the affinities tht underscore these begin to fray beyond repair.
The Brexit challenge to the Union
Brexit can in part be explained by the return of the “English question” in a different form. This relates to the predominance (in terms of economic leverage and population share) of the English within the Union.
The two greatest Brexit-related challenges to the Union relate to the consent of Scotland and the border in Northern Ireland. A question is now raised about the long-term validity of the Scottish referendum because, at the time, the consent of Scots to remain within the Union was also tied to the understanding that they would also remain within the European Union. The issue of the Irish border post-Brexit presents a different sort of challenge to the Union in that a number of outcomes could undermine UK sovereignty by isolating Northern Ireland as a special case.
Confidence should inform the politics of the Union. It remains the case that the UK rests on much broader and firmer foundations of allegiance than its critics claim. • Consent is the democratic foundation stone of the Union. It is conditional and contingent but it remains potent.
Care should be taken in the use of language deployed to make the case for the Union in order to appeal to those not already persuaded of its value. However, the intellectual weakness of the case against the Union should be consistently highlighted. • The Union’s multinational democracy, its elective affinity, far from being an idea whose time has gone, is an ideal of contemporary significance.
It is likely that reform of what has become known as territorial “inter-governmental relations” will be necessary when Brexit eventually happens because many of the powers repatriated from Brussels will fall within the competence of the devolved administrations.
• It is worth revisiting reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) and its terms of reference in order to provide a stable framework for relations of trust between Westminster and the devolved administrations.
• Consideration should be given to a Charter of the Union in order to lay down the principles of the territorial constitution’ and which might reverse the notion that devolution is eroding rather than strengthening the Union.
• More thorough-going constitutional reform may be necessary to accommodate the consequences of Brexit as well as accommodating the demands for greater recognition of England’s place in the Union
. • A solution on the Irish border which creates a special status for Northern Ireland or customs border between it and the rest of the United Kingdom in the Irish Sea should be resisted.
Special status a breach of the GFA and not sellable (even for a Remainer)
If provision was made for Northern Ireland, as some suggest, to stay in the Single Market and/or the Customs Union while rest of the UK exited, then it alone, across a vast range of matters, would continue to be an EU ‘rule taker’. And since the UK Government would not be involved in making those rules – as it would then be ex-EU
– that would imply, by default and by extension, Northern Ireland taking
those rules from Dublin (which would be at the Brussels table) and not
from London (which would not). Such an outcome would have profound
implications for the institutional and democratic processes of Strands 1and 2. Furthermore, it would render more or less redundant Northern
Ireland’s political representation at Westminster.
This would breach UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland – which despite
the supposedly famous ‘constructive ambiguity’ of the Belfast/Good Friday
Agreement is what was actually legislated for. Sovereignty is not a minor
matter of detail but is fundamental to the 1998 Agreement. Some may
think that special status is desirable in order for Northern Ireland to remain within the EU (as it voted for in 2016) – but the point is straightforward:
such an outcome would bear no relationship to the substance of what people signed up for in 1998 and would constitute an even bigger breach of democratic contract.
Such a prospect is neither acceptable nor desirable and it is not sellable.
The UK’s response so far has been robust. It is a position to which the UK government should hold. In this case Northern Ireland is not an outlier. Its position is central to the state of the Union. Rose (1981) once considered Northern Ireland to be the test case of the UK as a state. On Brexit, the same may be said, irrespective of one’s view of its economic and strategic wisdom.
Tomorrow, all all-day conference on Brexit and the island of Ireland
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