Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Unionism Without 'Britishness' is Nothing: A rebuttal to Ian James Parsley

  I've decided to structure this piece as a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis (and where necessary refutation) of Ian's argument, in a manner that appears similar to a fisk. This is often used as a format for quite hostile articles - you need only read my own fisks to see that - so I'd like to stress that no hostility towards Ian is intended.

A sudden inflow of links led me to this article by Ian James Parsley over on his blog. Saddened as I always am not to see the UCUNF logo at the top of it, I went to take a look.

 He has taken two articles on the issue of federalism - one by me, another by an English nationalist on Open Unionism - and used them as a basis for concluding that federalism is the only hope for unionism. Ian raised some interesting points which I would like to take this opportunity to counter if I can for I believe that his reading of what unionism actually consists of is wrong on quite a fundamental level.

Let's begin.
I have been increasingly of the view that Federalism and Unionism (both in the very broadest sense) need to be the same thing if the Union is to survive at all (I am not stating a particular preference for it to survive, merely my views on how it can).
 The article of mine that Ian links too makes clear my reasons for thinking that federalism and unionism are, in the British context, fundamentally incompatible. I don't see the need to repeat those arguments here. What I would like to know is that Ian means by 'the very broadest sense' of Federalism and Unionism.
Firstly, my judgement is that Unionists in England (and occasionally elsewhere) too often make the mistake of trying to present the Union as some sort of “Greater England”. This may or may not be intentional – in Dilettante’s case I have no doubt it isn’t – but it is the outworking of most English “Unionist” logic.
 The 'Greater England' line is one that crops up a lot in nationalist critiques of the Union. The rationale behind assuming that unionists in England were 'greater Englanders' is the idea that they shared the nationalist pre-occupation with a sub-British identity - that their primary identification was with England and they were only comfortable with Britain because they had projected England onto it. Even England football fans used to waved Union Flags, which must only have confirmed this suspicion in the minds of many of the more paranoid nationalists.

 Yet this belief is predicated on one fundamental misconception - the idea that most 'English' unionists prior to devolution had any serious conception of 'England' at all. Hard as it might be for a Celtic nationalist to believe, 'Englishness' really isn't - or certainly wasn't - much of a thing. 'England' was too diverse in makeup and origin to sustain a cohesive identity without institutions to frame it, and so the Kingdom of England quite happily blended into the United Kingdom. Lacking the myth of a unified celtic origin that sustained Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism, during the birth of nationalism in the 19th Century the English simply accepted Britain.

 Even today, the business of reimposing 'Englishness' on the English is largely left to external nationalists, especially the SNP. The English are being defined negatively - they are the ones who don't have a parliament, who don't get free prescriptions or tuition fees, or whatever. There is little to nothing by way of a grass-roots nationalist movement in England, and the country is all the better for it. So the word 'unionist' has no place in scare quotations in Ian's paragraph. 
Secondly, following on from this, English Unionists have been distinctly discomforted by devolution. Yet the opposite of devolution, implicitly advocated by Dilettante, is centralisation in England – with 85% of the UK population, that means English rule, intentionally or otherwise, with people in England prepared to justify it on numbers alone if necessary. English rule only gives ammunition to Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists to present their case in national and even anti-colonial terms.
 Just to clarify, I'm not 'implicitely' anti-devolution: I'm explicitly anti-devolution. I believe as I always have that devolving power to the nationalist - rather than the local - level is wrong.

 Now, this paragraph really gets to the nub of my problem with this piece. Before I get to that though, I'd just like to clarify something that came up in the comments: it is not a straight choice between devolution and centralisation. I advocate, as others such as Airey Neave have in the past, that unionism ought to be combined with genuine localism - devolving power to institutions such as county councils. 

 Indeed, at the core of Neave's sadly abandoned integration proposals - probably the greatest missed opportunity in the history of unionism after the failure to pass Catholic Emancipation in 1801 - the permanent abolition of Stormont went hand in hand with the resurrection of the province's county councils. This tandem approach ensures that great power rests in the hands of people to decide local issues while ensuring the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.

 Yet Ian's complaint about 'English rule' giving Gaelic nationalists an 'anti-colonial' mandate is telling, because it reveals what I consider the key flaw at the heart of his argument. His whole piece is a comparison of the balance of power between England and the other Home Nations. At no point in time does he consider Britain, and the mandate of Britishness.

 If Britishness exists, then it stands to reason that a decision voted for by a majority of the British people is legitimate across the UK. If not, that raises serious questions - was the South of England living under 'colonial rule' since 2001? Can a government really claim a mandate to govern a constituency that didn't vote for it?

 Assuming that Ian doesn't hold this absurd view (and I don't think he does) then his analysis demonstrates a complete lack of any consideration for Britishness. This is expanded upon in his next paragraph:
The only chink of light for the Conservatives post-devolution was in Wales, where the party – unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland – moved quickly to embrace devolution and the opportunities it brought about, and backed subsequent yes-campaigns for more powers. This is not a coincidence. The social trends are towards greater devolution, a great sense of English, Scottish, Welsh and even (unmistakably in recent years) Northern Irish identity. That doesn’t stop anyone being British any more than being Bavarian stops someone being German, or being Norwegian stops someone being Scandinavian, but it does have implications on where people expect decisions over the laws and policies which affect them to be made.
 I'd like to make it clear, Scandinavia is a terrible, terrible example with which to illustrate a supposedly 'unionist' argument. Since the dissolution of Sweden-Norway in 1905 Scandinavia has consisted of entirely separate countries which share some very broad cultural similarities - which is where Britain and Ireland are now and where the nationalists would like all the Home Nations to end up. 

 At this point, I think Ian's clarification above about not actually being a unionist is very important, because he isn't describing anything I'd really call unionism. His response to the social trend towards the fragmentation of identity across the UK is one of enthusiastic acceptance, not reticence (the sign of a hard-core unionist) or balance (the sign of a moderate unionist). He shows no sign of mourning or wanting to defend the concept of British identity, nor to strike a balance between identities that allows both to function. Instead, he is yet another advocate of the idea that unionists should simply resign themselves to running with the nationalists. I'll deal with this in more detail looking at his final paragraph.

 His invocation of Germany and Scandinavia are as ill-suited to this argument as the CDU/CSU comparison is for the Conservatives, has he himself pointed out earlier in his article. In both of those instances, the devolution or independence was underpinned by a deep sense of blood-and-soil nationalism. In the pan-Scandinavian case it never got anywhere, but the identities that underpin Scandinavian and German identity are of the gut-instinct kind that nationalists work with. The British identity, based as it is around the idea of quite distinct nationalities overcoming their differences for cooperation and mutual enrichment, is both richer and more fragile than that.

Britishness has evolved; indeed, it has devolved! Deepening devolution – thus, in fact, a form of government within spitting distance of federalism – is the only route seriously open, and any party unaware of that aspect of contemporary Britishness has no right to call itself British. Or to call itself Unionist, for that matter.
 Of the whole article, this is the only paragraph I find actually objectionable. I find the suggestion that anybody who rejects the idea that we need to carry the nationalists to the brink of breaking up our country cannot call themselves unionist or British frankly insulting. In fact, the very idea that someone who goes against received opinion should be disowned is fundamentally wrong. I hope that Ian will withdraw this statement.

 It comes back to the question I wanted to raise at Conservative conference - why should unionists only be unionist when the polls permit them to be? That sort of thinking would never have got the nationalists anywhere. The SNP didn't give up after 1979, and both they and Plaid came from very humble beginnings indeed. Plaid and the SNP have achieved what they achieved by fixing a goal in mind and working tirelessly towards it, undermining both the fact and the idea of Britain at every turn. Unionists have shown no such resolution.

 Rather than simply treating the supposed Zeitgeist as part of an inevitable historical tide to which we are powerlessly subject, unionists should wake up to the fact that human beings are things whose minds can be changed, that public moods can be altered. And that includes standing up for the concept of Britishness, the marked absence of which lies at the heart of Ian's article.

 Britain and Britishness are, like most identities born of a union, mutually dependent. Britishness invests legitimacy in British institutions - in turn, these institutions provide a point of identification for 'Britishness'. Without those institutions the cosmopolitan, civic identity of the union withers against the pressure of 'purer', blood-and-soil nationalism. Ian's article thus fails to do several things: 

 First, it fails to describe how 'Britishness' would actually survive the disembowelling of the British state - the rapid implosion of the 'Anglophile' tradition in southern Ireland suggests it wouldn't. Contrast Northern Ireland, where the latest Life and Times survey shows a Catholic majority in favour of the union, with the Republic, where even the suggestion of joining the Commonwealth of Nations is now beyond the pale as the pro-Treaty tradition faded away. This is the same Commonwealth that countries like India are comfortable joining.

 Second, it fails to justify the continued value of any sort of residual union in a scenario where Britishness is so weak that it cannot provide legitimacy to any meaningful central government. If Britishness is not enough to sustain a government, where is the positive case for sustaining the state?

 Third, it fails to explain how unionists running with the ball right to the edge of the abyss would prevent the likes of Alex Salmond pushing us over it - again, the evidence of experience which suggests that the very opposite is true. For example, the Welsh nearly rejected devolution in 1998, but returning to that scenario is certainly difficult in the medium-to-long term. Every concession offered the Scottish nationalists has simply loudened their demands for concessions. The idea that weakening the British state somehow strengthens it is one I hear a lot from defeatist 'unionists', but I've yet to hear of any evidence that it will work.

 Looking over the article as a whole, what strikes me is that it isn't really a 'unionist' argument at all - it barely even bothers to dress up as one. Ian doesn't make a positive case for the union he outlines here. He doesn't even describe which parts of his 'union' would actually remain. The entire tone of the article is one of "Britain is over; unionists best get on the winning side while they can!" That isn't unionism. That's giving up.

 Unionists are unionists because they believe in Britain and what the union represents - multiple peoples coming together to build something stronger and richer (in both the cultural and economic senses) than their individual nations. They believe in being British and being governed as British, and they are loyal to British institutions. They believe that the many tribes of these islands are one people and should remain so, and no argument that doesn't can be described as 'unionist'.

 This isn't antipathetic to being Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even 'English', but it involves balance. Any unionist proposal must maintain a meaningful role for the united state, which this proposal fails to do. Implicit in Ian's argument instead is the complete resignation of the concept of Britishness and any legitimacy it bestows upon British institutions and instead 'deepening' devolution because the course of history is telling us to.

 In short, he isn't describing a way that the union might survive - he's surviving how we unionists might collude with its ending, in exchange for wrapping its corpse in the Union Jack for a while.


  1. "The British identity, based as it is around the idea of quite distinct nationalities overcoming their differences for cooperation and mutual enrichment, is both richer and more fragile than that"

    Isn't that just the problem though? The British identity has never been that. Rather it was conceived as a sop to the Celtic territories conquered by England. Reassuring them that total annexation to England was not on the cards. After all, Cornwall had been quietly swept under the carpet. No sign of welcoming their identity into a larger Britishness. Who's to say England wouldn't have tried the same with Wales? Britishness was conceived by the ruling elite in England's capital as a method to reinforce their control and legitimacy over the isles.

    By the by. If Celtic nationalism is all "blood and land" extremism as you like to explain why is it that British Nationalism is so infested with fascists and neo-nazis. You could continue by explaining why such extremist British ethnic nationalism is predominantly English in origin. The far-right is largely an English affair even when looked at proportionally.

  2. Celtic? The Scots and Welsh are not Celtic. Romantic invention of recent centuries.

  3. I'll address the underlying issues in a full post I think, but I'll take a few points here.

    First, the fact that the unionist identity didn't start off as the product of sunshine and rainbows is neither here nor there - 'nations' are as much the product of military conquest and tyranny as unions, if not more so.

    Second, I never used the word 'extremism' in relation to blood and soil nationalism. While I find that kind of nationalism distasteful in the extreme I do not associate it intrinsically with the far right.

    On a related note, I acknowledge the existence of blood and soil British nationalism but distinguish it from conscious unionism. Although both conviction unionists and British nationalists want to hold the country together, they want that for different reasons and aren't the same thing.