CommonSpace columnist Shaun Kavanagh looks at the predicament facing Scottish unionists in modern Britain
“The United Kingdom we cherish is not a thing of the past, but a Union … in which our national and local identities are recognised and respected, but where our common bonds are strengthened.”
– Theresa May
“Between the idea and the reality … falls the shadow.”
– T.S Eliot
NO ONE is making a principled argument for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK.
For years there has been a sneaking suspicion that UK politicians could give or take its own relationship with the province. This was articulated as the UK Government’s view as far back as 1990 when then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brook declared that Britain had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in the place.
This partly explains why, despite the growing crisis in Stormont, Theresa May has been strangely silent over the whole affair that threatens to derail the peace process, and threaten the union.
Despite this, kinship ties of unionism are still strong in Northern Ireland, for reasons that are well documented.
English nationalism seems unwilling even to articulate itself.
However, for Northern Ireland, Brexit changed everything. The border debate is no longer about whether they see themselves as British or Irish as part of a European Union or remain as part of an increasingly divided UK.
Deep-rooted changes to English feelings about their own interests and identity are an important factor for explaining Brexit. This was not new. During the 2015 General Election campaign, the then prime minister, David Cameron, and the Tory party indulged in a scorched earth policy that campaigned hard to portray the SNP as home-wreckers in the event of a Labour minority government.
The point was not lost on spectators that there was a distinctive tinge to this tactic which placed the interests of English voters over Scots.
English nationalism seems unwilling even to articulate itself. This new nationalism, of English Votes for English Laws and Brexit, is much more appropriate to an English nation state than to a more diverse United Kingdom.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with there being an English nation state. Yet this leaves Scottish unionists in a precarious position within the body politic – a curious middle place between divergent nations, still clinging to a perception of a kingdom united that is more fantasy than reality.
This new nationalism, of English Votes for English Laws and Brexit, is much more appropriate to an English nation state than to a more diverse United Kingdom.
In the midst of a growing English nationalism, of a slightly dissipating sense of Britishness across the Irish Sea, where do the Scots stand?
Today, many unionists rely on identifiable narratives and collective memory to reinforce perceptions. For many, the best rejoinder is to draw on deeply embedded – often spurious – collective memories of an idealised version of the United Kingdom.
Such interpretations of the past are rooted in communal perceptions and reproduced at various levels – both formal and informal – through discourse and discussion, interaction with publications and the media, and even public commemorations.
As such, the end of Empire, globalisation, increased in-migration, the decline of old industries and even the refusal of individuals to wear a poppy on their lapel in November play heavily on the minds of unionists.
Within unionism, there is little appreciation of how the concept of Britishness is, and always has been, multi-faceted and characterised by hybridity and fluidity.
This leaves Scottish unionists in a precarious position within the body politic – a curious middle place between divergent nations, still clinging to a perception of a kingdom united that is more fantasy than reality.
For example, how similar is the expression of British cultural identity to that of an Ulster unionist, or to that of a Welsh counterpart? Most expressions of cultural British loyalty tend to draw on collective folk memory that evokes a national past that differs with the contemporary – which is multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and even multi-parliamentary.
Even today, after nearly two full decades, there is often little acknowledgement by sections of unionists of how far devolution has changed the democratic and institutional relationships between Westminster and Scotland.
Moreover, there can be little doubt that a particular form of Englishness is increasingly being asserted which has nothing to offer the Scots or the Northern Irish. This has its implications, and parallels can be drawn between both countries.
Let’s be clear – Northern Ireland is not Scotland. The ways in which history, religion, politics and identity have existed and endured in the former have never been replicated in the latter.
Northern Ireland emerged in 1920 as a political accident. Its borders were drawn deliberately to ensure a perpetual protestant electoral majority and a catholic minority. The situation was loved by no-one, but at the same time accepted by sufficient numbers on key sides of the conflict, though it still led to a brutal civil war in Ireland.
There can be little doubt that a particular form of Englishness is increasingly being asserted which has nothing to offer the Scots or the Northern Irish.
Anyone who ever claims that the two entities are similar in such terms (the ‘Ulsterisation of Scotland’ argument) are, to put respectfully, hyperbolic, and more specifically, guilty of hysteric nonsense.
Scotland has had its historical issues with sectarianism and religious bigotry, but it has not had to endure the decades of ethnic violence that occurred in Ulster during the so-called ‘Troubles’, which resulted in over 3,500 dead from both nationalist and unionist communities.
This analogy will not be given credence here, but parallels will be drawn in other ways. England’s, and by proxy the UK’s, relationship to Northern Ireland has been increasingly tenuous and fraught. If Theresa May really believes, as her patronising rejection of another referendum in Scotland might suggest, that ‘the Scottish question’ can be indefinitely delayed, then she will be joining a long and infamous list of British leaders down the centuries who made the same mistake about Ireland.
Scots may well see themselves as the last true standard bearers of traditional Britishness. The questions that unionists will need to ask themselves are –
1) how long can this foreseeably maintain; and,
2) is the feeling of ‘Britain uber alles’ reciprocal from over 80 per cent of the population south of Berwick?
There is a growing sense that, among certain demographics, the English are becoming just a little fed up with the demands of the Scots. If that is the case, where do the standard bearers of unionism in Scotland then stand?
In 2014, 1.6 million Scots voted to leave the United Kingdom. The history of political unions – Spain/Portugal, Austria Hungary, Czechoslovakia – in the world show that once nearly half of a population wants change, then change will come.
After September 2014, there was an opportunity for the UK Government to extend the hand of friendship across the border. Instead, the Tories in particular have seemed content in capitalising on the political tensions between Scotland and England for their own gain.
Two recent polls in England can provide some clarity on this. One poll sampled Leave voters in the north of England and the Midlands. The results showed that, overwhelmingly, they would be comfortable with Scots leaving the union if it meant that Brexit went ahead without any hindrance.
A further poll sampled 600 Conservative party members in England. It showed clear signs of frustration with the Scots, and a relative degree of comfort with the Scots leaving the union altogether.
Indeed, there is a growing sense that, among certain demographics, the English are becoming just a little fed up with the demands of the Scots. If that is the case, where do the standard bearers of unionism in Scotland then stand?
Unionists in Scotland need to choose a side; and we need to lend a hand across the void.
The post-Brexit Britain that unionists claim kinship with is long gone. Those who complacently think otherwise must confront their own delusion. Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales exist in different political spheres.
Theresa May’s announcement of an early General Election showed her to be far more concerned with partisan politics than saving the union. Between two increasingly diametric poles, the chasm is growing – and in between are Scottish unionists.
Despite the speeches Theresa May will make about “common bonds” and a “family of nations”, this increasingly looks like unrequited love.
Unionists in Scotland need to choose a side; and we need to lend a hand across the void.
Picture courtesy of The Laird of Oldham
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