Friday, 1 October 2010

Is 'Unionist' a counter-productive political label?

When I refer to my party membership, I always consider it important to refer to myself as Conservative & Unionist. Being a unionist is important to me, and I identify with the label. The decline of 'unionism' as a phenomenon and label in mainland politics is something I've long lamented. But the other day it struck me: why is this? Doesn't continuing to identify as a 'unionist' simply help to de-normalise the union?

I support the Conservative Party's attempt to break into Northern Ireland - and Labour's faltering starts in that direction - to bring mainland politics to the province. As Ian Parsley has argued on his blog, the basis of UCUNF was stepping outside the sectarian 'unionist/nationalist' spectrum in order to focus on bread-and-butter issues like the economy. In this context, referring to the party as the Conservative & Unionist Party is surely counter-productive? But beyond the particular issues surrounding Northern Irish politics, surely the problem is the same in Scotland? By emphasising 'unionism' as a belief with which a party needs to identify, does this not emphasise the 'separateness' of England and Scotland?

After struggling with it for a few days, I have arrived at the (tentative) conclusion that in principle at least the answer is 'no'. The inspiration from this came from the most unlikely of sources - nationalism in post-independence southern Ireland. Nationalism did not go away with the attainment of a statehood, and I may be mistaken but surely the continued presence of the Union in the north can't have sustained the deep nationalist undercurrents that have dominated politics in the Republic? Even after independence, nationalism has remained the political and cultural narrative du jour.

The United Kingdom is not a homogeneous nation-state. The state cannot ever hope to impose a uniform national identity upon the citizens of the UK because none exists to impose. British identity is less solid, more easily interwoven with other regional and national identities. I myself am British, Irish, English, Mancunian, Londoner and a Home Counties man. If unionists have anything to celebrate, it is that we have built so successful a state that can easily tolerate a such a multitude of mutually-compatible identities. Where unionism has failed, it is where it has become associated with the interests of one particular group or class - the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland being a key example.

This put me in mind of my own argument about 'neo'-unionism. If unionism were simply an attempt to hold the union together then yes, seeking to phase out the 'unionist' label might be a good idea. To me, however, unionism is more than that - it is the ideology that seeks to build an impartial state to govern free individuals, emphasising what we have in common rather than seeking to fetishise our differences. That is what makes Unionism distinct from British Nationalism - and to me that is a very important distinction indeed. And if this is the case, surely 'unionism' should continue to be a phenomenon in British politics even after the union is secure - defining our politics around a philosophy of cosmopolitan acceptance as the Republic defines its politics around cultural identity-building?

This being the case, the label 'unionist' - outside the context of Northern Ireland, at least - still has something to offer British politics. It evokes a spirit of free people joined in common enterprise, of tolerance and progress. Saying "I am a unionist" does not have to simply mean "I believe in maintaining the territorial and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom", but "I believe that we can achieve more together than alone, and that we should be building bridges between people rather than erecting walls".

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