For as long as I have been political, I have been a unionist. Unionism is not usually a preoccupation of a home-counties mainlander such as I, so perhaps my half-Irish heritage has played some role in bringing my attention to the issue of unionism vs. nationalism and the status of the United Kingdom. Regardless of cause, I am a conviction unionist who passionately believes in unionism as a forward-thinking, cosmopolitan ideology.
This has never been particularly controversial, most of the time. I’m more preoccupied with unionism than the average Conservative in my local association but most of them (the dreaded Little Englanders aside) are sympathetic to the view as far as the United Kingdom is concerned. Similarly my Liberal Democrat friends are broadly supportive of my stance on the European Union. Allies in different places for different policies perhaps, but allies nonetheless.
My stance on southern Ireland, however, is usually met with incredulity. I believe that – in an ideal world, at least – unionists should aspire to the south of Ireland rejoining the union. It fascinates me that, even as a point of idealistic principle, so few self-confessed anti-nationalist unionists share this view. And I discovered the other day that the technical term for this political belief is the unbearably scary-sounding neo-unionist.
Why is it not just ‘unionist’? I can’t see what is ‘neo’ about it. The prefix implies some kind of ideological break or innovation in thinking. But I can see none. If you whisked me back to any point at which the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was in existence, I would have fought tooth and nail for its retention. If I believed in the union before the secession, why should I not believe in re-union post-secession? Why must a nationalist victory in 26 Irish counties involve me surrendering my unionist convictions with regards to them? Why is a nationalist victory viewed as in some way ‘final’?
So far, so many rhetorical questions. But to avoid this post simply remaining a man shouting questions into an uncaring internet (and that is what I started it as), I have found a point to the above rant. The mental state that distinguishes between Unionism and Neo-Unionism is that the former views unionism as a sort of stagnant, static defence of the status quo. Where "Neo-Unionism" is bold, "unionism" is prone to apologetics. Sadly, this pessimism is endemic in unionist politics.
In southern Ireland independence saw accelerated demographic shifts and an almost-ubiquitous government backed process of anti-British identity-definition and myth-building combine to deeply entrench the nationalist malaise in Irish politics and national culture. But that should not distract from the fact that, when independence became fact, southern unionists simply stopped fighting. There remains a tiny unionist movement in the south, but it is hardly what it could have been had the main body of southern unionism not rolled over in the 1920s.
In Scotland, Alex Salmond declares that a referendum on Scotland’s place in the union should be put to a referendum once in a generation – until independence, at any rate. Nowhere do you hear unionist politicians in Scotland challenging him to maintain that referendum in an independent Scotland towards reunion. The Scottish Conservatives at times appear almost ashamed of their unionist credentials, sometimes seeming to try to occupy SNP political territory - as if people who dream of an independent Scotland would ever vote Conservative over SNP. And Three Thousand Versts and Unionist Lite have both decried at length the staid, ultra-defensive stance taken by mainstream unionist politicians and parties in Northern Ireland.
What all these examples highlight is a tendency for unionism to function as a fundamentally defensive ideology. Think what you will of nationalists, they don’t tend to stop fighting their corner. In contrast, British Unionism (excluding Euro-Unionism) seems to focus around the idea “Britain works”. This is undoubtedly true, but it should only form part of a unionist argument that hinges on the proactive belief that unionism is the moral superior of nationalism: that it is a rational, cosmopolitan ideology that puts at its heart an attempt to transcend the divisions between peoples. An ideology that acknowledges and encompasses cultural diversity without accepting cultural borders as delineating the limits of statehood. An ideology that believes that lines on a map, carved out by medieval warlords and sanctified by nineteenth-century academics, are not the be-all and end-all of anybody's identity. In short, an ideology we can trumpet from the rooftops and be deeply proud of.
Alex Salmond keeps postponing the date of the “inevitable” Scottish secession. Support for independence north of the border remains resolutely low. The status of Northern Ireland has never been more secure. Icing in the cake, Plaid Cymru didn’t have a good general election either. Unionism has to shake off the pessimism that presently dominates it. That done, it must prepare to go on the offensive again: to stop apologising for itself; to stop accepting every nationalist triumph as a new status quo, and fight like an ideology that believes in itself. Fingers crossed, we could all be “neo-unionists” yet.