The union unit at No 10 has lost a second director in a matter of weeks. There is to be a new “union strategy committee”. These are the latest moves in a frenzied campaign to shore up the UK as it faces its most serious challenge in 100 years. A recent YouGov poll showed that around half of Scots are in favour of independence, while the goal of Irish unity gathers momentum in Northern Ireland and there is increasing interest in the idea of independence in Wales. Leave voters in England, according to surveys, would have accepted the secession of both Scotland and Northern Ireland as an acceptable price for Brexit. It is easy to attribute this to rising nationalism in the constituent nations, but there is a deeper and more powerful cause: the failure of unionists in Westminster to understand what the UK is.
The problem is that British unionism has transformed into a nationalism in its own right. Historically, unionism was not a single ideology but a complex set of practices across these islands. There were multiple ways of being British, all of them carrying different meanings and emotive charges, from the Orange parade in Ballymena to Conservative garden parties in the home counties, to patriotic Scottish unionism that is fiercely protective of local traditions and rights. And that’s not to mention the Britishness of the Commonwealth, which brought many people from south Asia and the Caribbean to these islands in the postwar period. Yet this diversity was subject to the absolute sovereignty and supremacy of the monarch in parliament.
At the end of the 20th century, unionists gave up on their historic opposition to legislative devolution and we got the Scottish parliament, Northern Ireland assembly and Senedd Cymru. Nationalism gained a political voice and nationalists have since served in government in all three nations. Unionism has found it more difficult to adapt to these new realities and has lost its old feel for the complexities of union. A neo-unionism, instead, has sought to create a single British nation, below which would be a secondary level of local attachments.
The union, rather than being a multiform creature, is now presented as a single thing in need of definition and codification. The nebulous concept of Britishness is pressed as a common foundation, and higher values such as democracy, freedom and fair play are appropriated as “British values”. Michael Gove defines unionism as being about liberty, institutions and the rule of law, and says it is based on individuals, in contrast to “identity politics” of left and right and the peripheral nationalisms. However, these are universal rather than distinctively British values; more tellingly, they underpin the modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms. Only in England do these common values feature in the school curriculum as being distinctly British.
For the unionist left, best exemplified by the Labour party, Britishness is founded on solidarity and welfare – but the same objection about what’s uniquely British about this applies. Indeed, from the 1980s, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish nationalism incorporated a defence of the (British) welfare settlement against English-dominated Conservative governments, which rolled back the welfare state, into their appeals.
Neo-unionism also asserts itself in the realm of symbols. The union flag now regularly features in the background to ministerial appearances and across the nations, where once unionists would proudly use the local emblems. The presence of the UK government is proclaimed on buildings such as the new UK government hub in Edinburgh, which faces the Scottish government headquarters across the valley. Money is being spent directly in the devolved territories, bypassing the governments, and is prominently labelled.
Unionism has sought to contain peripheral nationalism by enhanced measures of devolution. Yet these have been accompanied by a doubling down on parliamentary sovereignty. Even schemes for federalism and “devolution-max” usually include a Westminster sovereignty clause. This tendency was supercharged by Brexit, when scant attention was paid to the concerns of Scotland and Wales in the negotiations. The Conservatives’ new embrace of Northern Irish unionism was dropped the moment that Democratic Unionist party votes were no longer necessary. The new Internal Market Act undermines the regulatory capacity of the devolved governments. The convention under which Westminster does not legislate in devolved matters has repeatedly been overridden and has been effectively undermined by the supreme court.
Is this neo-unionism likely to work? There are deep reserves of common feeling and shared historical experiences across the peoples of these islands. Even in the Republic of Ireland, there is growing recognition of the service of Irish men and women in the two world wars. Yet if this becomes a flag-waving Britishness founded on a sense of moral superiority, it will simply destroy itself. The Northern Ireland peace settlement recognises this. Not everyone is obliged to sign up to the same national identity and nationalism, with its long-term ambitions to Irish unity, is recognised as a legitimate force. In Scotland, nationalism and unionism have not always been polar opposites but have met and overlapped at numerous points. Now unionism, rather than being a capacious vehicle, is taking the shape of a nationalism in its own right that is opposed to the others, including the emerging nationality of England.
The union is made up of multiple strands, woven differently across the islands. If it becomes a single strand, then all that is required is for that strand to snap for the UK to be finished.