Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Federalism and Unionism: Not the same thing.

 Since I first heard about Murdo Fraser's plan to abscond with the Scottish Conservatives a few days ago, I've been trying to work out how to respond. Whilst trawling my archive to see what I've written on the subject in the past, I realised that I have written about why the party splitting is a terrible idea before. I've also written about the need for an optimistic, courageous unionism to replace the staid, defensive, defeatist version we have at present. Neither of these cases really need restating.

 Instead, I want to look at the issue in more specific terms: namely, with reference to the federalists and other separatist fellow-travellers within the unionist tent, particularly the Conservative and Unionist Party. I've taken a few days out before writing this, as anything I wrote in the immediate aftermath of my hearing Mr Fraser's proposal would have been unprintable.

 Now I'm a counter-devolutionary, and proud to be so. I see no reason to hide the fact that I am an integrationist as a matter of principle. However, I'm not a fantasist. I fully accept that devolution is here to stay for the present, and that Conservatives must work within the British constitutional framework, even as they try to change it. As long as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments, the Conservative Party should do its utmost to engage with them all. I believe there are few members of the party who don't hold this view.
United yet distinct: the Conservative and Unionist Party reflects our country.
 However, a distinction must be drawn between those unionists who are compromising with their political circumstances on a pragmatic basis, and those who demonstrate an ideological inclination to go far further than is right or necessary. There are those within the Conservative Party who argue that only by out-doing the nationalists at their own game can the party and the union be preserved. Their argument appears to be that if you actively pursue a fully autonomous parliament, support divisive language differences and assist in the cultivation of completely separate political arenas in each of the home nations, then maybe, maybe, we'll get to keep the currency, the crown and the flag.

 The logic of this argument is - at least from a unionist perspective - ridiculous. It's like trying to head nationalism off at a pass that doesn't exist. Every step taken to weaken the union does just that, weaken it. The federalist 'solution' would reduce this country to a mere alliance, a defensive and economic contract between the home nations with Westminster and the monarchy providing a skeletal constitutional superstructure. The United Kingdom is more than a flag and a name, and any unionism worth its name should defend the fact of union as well as the appearance of it. The day that Great Britain is not governed in the greater part as one entity, the union is already half-gone.

 Which of the two schools of devolutionary 'unionism' is Murdo Fraser from? Is he simply defeatist, unable to see a future for 'old' unionism and thus determined to redirect it down the disastrous road upon which he himself is set? Or is he, as evidence suggests, a committed and enthusiastic pseudo-federalist, who would be set on pursuing an autonomist agenda even if he could not make the case that electoral exigency was forcing his hand? If he is of the former school, he is selling the Scottish Conservatives short. If he is of the latter school, he is betraying their principles. In neither case should he be leading them.

Selling them short, or selling them out?
 Mr Fraser's new party, should it happen, might see a partial recovery in the electoral fortunes of the Scottish centre-right. But it would come at an unacceptable cost to the political unity of the UK. What the Scottish Conservatives should be pursuing is the renewal of the British centre-right in Scotland. Creating a separate party in the style of the Ulster Unionist Party is (as I explain more fully in a ConHome article that may or may not be published) a terrible precedent that plays right into Alex Salmond's hands.

 Mr Fraser may dream of setting up a centre-right pseudo-separatist party. So, too, might whoever it was that proposed that the Welsh Conservatives rebrand themselves to "Ymlaen" - an idea even Nick Bourne dismissed as "nonsense". But these people should have the decency to go and found their own party, rather than trying to abscond with the assets, both material and political, of the national Conservative Party. Murdo should not have the gall to try to enact his separatist vision under the label of a 'new unionism'. 

 Unionism must aim to preserve the union in fact as well as in name. British Federalism is its own ideology, currently espoused principally by the Liberal Democrats. In my view, it pays lip-service to the cosmetic aspects of unionism whilst abandoning its fundamental principles. This is not always the case where federalism is concerned: in Europe, for example, federalism represents an historic attempt to overcome centuries of bitter divisions and move towards "ever closer union". But for a country as old and well-integrated as the UK, every step towards federation is a step backward.

1 comment:

  1. So are other languages always divisive? What about documents which are published by local governments in various languages including, say, Bangladeshi, do they weaken the union? Why should the preservation of alternative languages necessarily be negative? Welsh and Scottish are still alive and kicking but there hasn't been the kind of violent anti-unionism there which characterised Anglo-Irish relations. Labelling basic cultural differences as 'divisive' seems a bit simplistic given that various analogous states (e.g. Singapore, Switzerland) survive after their own fashions with equally pronounced historic linguistic divides. It seems to me that cultural similarity is not a pre-requisite of a successful state.
    Is the fundamental problem with old Unionism that it could no longer cope with the more complex attitudes people had towards their identity?
    As a point of interest, would you support greater localism in the English regions? For what it's worth, my theory is that devolution might represent a nationalistic form of localism which recognises that central government can't cope with the demands and needs of regions which are really quite different from one another.