Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Why unionism's understanding of identity is more generous: Des Browne

Friday was Saint Andrew’s day, an occasion which was marked on more focussed (or observant) blogs than mine. In the Times Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Scotland, took the opportunity to ponder the increasing tendency to conflate a strong sense of Scottish identity and nationalism. Browne refutes the idea that nationalism is the natural vehicle for pride in Scottish identity and correctly recognizes the differences between patriotism and nationalism.

One of the key accuracies in this article is Browne’s identification of nationalists’ preoccupation with a geographical and cultural prescription as the only substantive definer of identity. This he rejects:

“In other words, it is possible to love your country without it being the sole principle of your identity, a pillar of nationalist thinking.”

The nationalist is unable to grasp the nuances which allow people to assume a multiplicity of identities. It is the broader, more generous and more flexible understanding of identity which defines civic UK unionism and distinguishes it so starkly from the narrow confines of nationalism. Part of this flexibility allows a separation of cultural and political identity.

The unionist, whether he is Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh has a breadth of thinking on identity lacked by the nationalist. He can own completely his cultural identity within those descriptions, he can even tie his national identity to those descriptions, but that does not in any way contradict his sense of belonging to a wider UK or to a broader British identity.

Because unionism assumes a much more complicated understanding of identity, in practice it must be more inclusive than nationalism. Browne’s formulation is as follows:

“I am unequivocally against narrow-minded nationalism in all its guises for the simple reason that it is divisive rather than unifying. It excludes by inference all those who do not accede to its credo and it makes its arguments through an unwavering reliance on sentimentality and populism. Being a modern Scot is a good deal more varied than the simple formulations of nationalism allow.”


He continues by reaffirming the wider sense of self held by the unionist Scot. Without compromising pride in the Scottish identity the unionist does not reject the broader social, political and historical contexts which tie him to the institutions of the United Kingdom and to the other peoples of these Isles.

“The Union has as much claim to a formative influence on our sense of our selves as any nationalist rendering of the past. Scotland continues to benefit from having an identity that has the confidence to stand side by side with others as a single, powerful whole. For most of us, there exists no great contradiction in being both Scottish and British.”

Browne is directing his comments towards Scots, but they have equal resonance in the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom where nationalism appeals to atavistic, tribal instincts. British nationalism too, which seeks to define itself on an ethnic and mono-cultural basis, shares all the characteristics of its regional cousins. The conclusion he reaches is framed in the context of St Andrews day and the issue of Scottishness is his prime concern, but it is applicable on a much more general basis wherever a nationalist basis for understanding identity competes with a broader, civic analysis:

“The choice on St Andrew's Day is between a parochial inwardness or a more generous, open and modern way of describing Scottishness both to ourselves and others that allows us to go forward as a nation with pride but not prejudice."

23 comments:

Kloot said...

The unionist, whether he is Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh has a breadth of thinking on identity lacked by the nationalist. He can own completely his cultural identity within those descriptions, he can even tie his national identity to those descriptions, but that does not in any way contradict his sense of belonging to a wider UK or to a broader British identity.

Hmmm... youve got me thinking. Are you talking about modern Unionism or do you believe that this has always been the case with Unionism. I do realise you are talking about Unionism in the wider context and not specifically the Irish context. I dont believe its correct to try and put all Unionists into the same camp on this issue because I believe that differing reasons lie behind why Irish/Scottish and English unionists hold their identity so valuable.

Maybe im not qualified enough to comment being a nationalist, but anyway, here are my thoughts before I rush off to see Jesse James.

Unionism (Irish) was always going to find it easier to identify with a UK parliament or a sense of Britishness because from the very start the Union they were so in favour of represented them and their interests far more closely then it did others, for the simple reason that it was a protestant parliament, with a protestant ethos and pro union Irish saw this as a means of preserving their interests in Ireland, in preserving the ascendancy control over Irish affairs. Unionists looked at a UK parliament from the view point that they would now be part of a state where as a whole, Catholicism was in the minority, rather then the majority that it was in the Irish context alone, and that provided security to them.

Nationalists would surely have found it harder to accept this new sense of "Britishness" when this Britishness rejected them because of their religion. If the Union had any chance of survival the cause of emancipation for Catholicism should have been addressed before the Union took place. In reality it was a bit like the letter Blair gave to trimble with regards to decommissioning, yeah, this is what im saying, but in reality its not part of the deal. I say this because Irish catholic leaders were given the impression that their interests lay in a Union, because emancipation would flow more quicker there, Pitt being pro reform, however it wasn't conditional, and as it turned our George III was having none of it.
What played out in the end can only have driven Irish catholics away from associating with this British identity.

One must also surely ask which identity Unionists (Irish) more closely identify with, their Irish or their British identity. Are they comfortable with both. The problem here is that it depends at what stage in time you ask this question. Around the debates on the Union itself Irish parliamentarians would, im sure, have considered themselves Irish, they had after all, argued long for the independence that the
Irish parliament had prior to union.

Even up to the time of the early 20th century Unionists were still comfortable with their Irish identity, but I think that because of the threat they say from Irish nationalists, that they began to veer towards a stronger association with the British identity, as it offered more protection, again a fear of Irish Nationalism. Their best interests lay with a British identity rather then an Irish identity.

Then came WW1 and to a greater extent WW2, where it was perceived that the 'Irish' had let down the 'side' and therefore it would have been better again to associate with the British identity and as such be part of the loyal side as opposed to the 'Irish' identity which Irish Nationalism was perceived to portray.

The troubles further eroded the likelihood of Unionists associated with their Irish identity as opposed to their British identity. Which brings us up to modern Unionism.

The nationalist is unable to grasp the nuances which allow people to assume a multiplicity of identities.

Again this comes down to a difference between NI unionism and UK wide unionism. Lets face it, the majority of Irish Nationalists or Unionists living in NI, hold their sense of Irishness or Britishness due to a matter of Birth, ie depending on their parents and the community they were born into. A child born into either community is indoctrinated into a belief in either of the two political or cultural spectrum's by their respective communities. 30 years of violence and indeed the violence before that, and throw in the 1920s and WWII and what you have is two communities strongly indoctrinating their children in defence of their respective tradition and against the other. Heck, its one of the fundamental reason why organised religion continues to thrive.

My point here being, that a NI Unionist (not all mind you) is unlikely to have sat down and worked out the pro's and cons of the Union as opposed to solely one irish identity and decided to switch side based on the results of that comparison. Ditto a nationalist. Its just not a reality, there are no stats which shown the results of conversions from one political/cultural viewpoint to another, why, well is it possible the indoctrination is just too strong.

However, what of the Scottish or English or Welch nationalist. They have not grown up in a similar environment. Have they ? Has the same strength indoctrination taken place. What is it makes a child in Wales or Scotland or England grow up with a stronger sense of Britishness then Englisness or whatever. I dont see the same reasons there for a non NI Unionist for holding such a strong sense of britishness as Ive postulated exist for a NI unionist. I'm sure WWI and WWII must have encouraged a strong sense of Britishness as must the empire before that. But taking the last 50 years, where does those newer generations get their sense of Britishness from ?

Anyway im running late for this movie and ive not fully got across my thoughts, and as im rushing they are a little off the cuff.

Kloot said...

Just one further addition. Is It not arguable that nationalists have a much more positive attitude towards the EU then unionists. For nationalists they can perceive both a national identity and a European identity, where the national identity is given more opportunity and freedom of expression, removed from the negative and most often derogatory commentary that accompanies their identity within the UK.

Chekov said...

“Hmmm... youve got me thinking. Are you talking about modern Unionism or do you believe that this has always been the case with Unionism. I do realise you are talking about Unionism in the wider context and not specifically the Irish context. I dont believe its correct to try and put all Unionists into the same camp on this issue because I believe that differing reasons lie behind why Irish/Scottish and English unionists hold their identity so valuable.”

I’m talking about modern unionism Kloot. I’ve no doubt that support for the Union arises for a variety of reasons and that in the past a sense of chauvinism was often among those reasons. When I talk about unionism, I am deliberately differentiating between civic unionism and fealty to the Union which springs from a sense of British nationalism. I’m also a bit wary about defining unionism primarily as an identity. Of course unionism has aspects of identity in its make-up, but it is important to stress that for many people it is a secondary identity, or a political identity. I wrote a series of articles about unionism and how I define it earlier this year. I’m sorry for self-referencing but perhaps some of these might be more coherent in explaining exactly where my unionism is coming from.

http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/06/defining-modern-unionism-i-uk-unionism.html


http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/07/defining-unionism-ii-ulster-unionism.html

http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/07/defining-unionism-iii-unapologetic.html

http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/07/defining-unionism-iv-redefinitions.html


“Maybe im not qualified enough to comment being a nationalist, but anyway, here are my thoughts before I rush off to see Jesse James.”

Now here is an interesting non-political point! I wanted to go and see Jesse James last night and couldn’t find any cinemas in Belfast that were yet showing it.  Was it a preview showing? Was it any good? We ended up seeing Darjeeling Limited which is worth seeing. Anyway, I digress.

“Unionism (Irish) was always going to find it easier to identify with a UK parliament or a sense of Britishness because from the very start the Union they were so in favour of represented them and their interests far more closely then it did others, for the simple reason that it was a protestant parliament, with a protestant ethos and pro union Irish saw this as a means of preserving their interests in Ireland, in preserving the ascendancy control over Irish affairs. Unionists looked at a UK parliament from the view point that they would now be part of a state where as a whole, Catholicism was in the minority, rather then the majority that it was in the Irish context alone, and that provided security to them.”

I assume that by unionists in this paragraph you are really referring to Protestants. I can accept your point in relation to the formation of unionist sentiment to a point. Although it should be pointed out that the Protestant ascendancy class actually lost influence when the parliaments were united in 1803. At no point in the existence of the Irish Parliament was it possible for Catholics to sit. So I don’t think that the formation of the Union was a huge reverse in favour of Protestants. Perhaps what the early stages of the Union actually caused was further alienation of Catholics from the Westminster Parliament, whereas previously this alienation would have been felt from Dublin. Bearing in mind that Catholic Emancipation took place in 1829 and the history of alignments between Home Rule liberals and nationalists, there’s less of a history of antagonism and estrangement between Catholic representatives from Ireland and the mainstream in Westminster than you might think.

“Nationalists would surely have found it harder to accept this new sense of "Britishness" when this Britishness rejected them because of their religion. If the Union had any chance of survival the cause of emancipation for Catholicism should have been addressed before the Union took place.”

But emancipation took place relatively quickly under a British Parliament. Had the Union not come about in 1803, it is doubtful that it would have occurred so quickly in a parliament dominated by a fearful Protestant ascendancy.

“What played out in the end can only have driven Irish catholics away from associating with this British identity.”

I think that in the context of a modern United Kingdom, 26 years during which Catholics were not emancipated plays a very small psychological role in dissuading Irish Catholics from supporting that Union. I would imagine there are other factors which provide more of a psychological block.

“One must also surely ask which identity Unionists (Irish) more closely identify with, their Irish or their British identity. Are they comfortable with both. The problem here is that it depends at what stage in time you ask this question. Around the debates on the Union itself Irish parliamentarians would, im sure, have considered themselves Irish, they had after all, argued long for the independence that the
Irish parliament had prior to union.”

But Irish parliamentarians at that time were not unionists. It isn’t accurate simply to conflate unionism with Protestantism. In an Irish context that is the way we have come to understand the term, but that does not make it accurate. I’ve argued strongly in other pieces that a new understanding of the term “unionist” is needed. Unionists may embrace a sense of themselves as Irish, they may also reject that sense of themselves. The point is that unionism can encompass any number of perceived identities without prescribing what those identities should be. So actually I reject the assertion that we need to examine which identity unionists or anyone else feels most.

“Even up to the time of the early 20th century Unionists were still comfortable with their Irish identity, but I think that because of the threat they say from Irish nationalists, that they began to veer towards a stronger association with the British identity, as it offered more protection, again a fear of Irish Nationalism. Their best interests lay with a British identity rather then an Irish identity.”

Kloot, I wouldn’t disagree with that analysis. I think it belongs to another debate in a sense, because civic unionism is big enough to include the multiplicity of identities which people feel. Those who take a narrower view of the UK and British identity I would define as British nationalists.

“Then came WW1 and to a greater extent WW2, where it was perceived that the 'Irish' had let down the 'side' and therefore it would have been better again to associate with the British identity and as such be part of the loyal side as opposed to the 'Irish' identity which Irish Nationalism was perceived to portray.”

I’m not sure that that is accurate at all. From purely anecdotal evidence I believe it was common for unionists to identify themselves as Irish right up to the 1960s. Although once again we come at this from different standpoints, because I do not believe that the pivotal issue in someone’s politics should be the national identity they assign themselves. Of course a strain of unionism which trumpets its Irishness has always existed and will always exist to an extent.

“Again this comes down to a difference between NI unionism and UK wide unionism. Lets face it, the majority of Irish Nationalists or Unionists living in NI, hold their sense of Irishness or Britishness due to a matter of Birth”.

That may be true. I am of course talking about unionism in its wider context. I have stated many times that I view the identity focussed unionism of the DUP for example as a brand of nationalism. It is a problem of definition. There is also a strain which denies its Irishness. Strangely I’ve read newspaper articles from around 1900 in which people from here describe themselves as “England” or English which is truly bizarre.

“My point here being, that a NI Unionist (not all mind you) is unlikely to have sat down and worked out the pro's and cons of the Union as opposed to solely one irish identity and decided to switch side based on the results of that comparison. Ditto a nationalist. Its just not a reality, there are no stats which shown the results of conversions from one political/cultural viewpoint to another, why, well is it possible the indoctrination is just too strong.”

That is probably very true.

“However, what of the Scottish or English or Welch nationalist. They have not grown up in a similar environment. Have they? Has the same strength indoctrination taken place. What is it makes a child in Wales or Scotland or England grow up with a stronger sense of Britishness then Englisness or whatever. I dont see the same reasons there for a non NI Unionist for holding such a strong sense of britishness as Ive postulated exist for a NI unionist. I'm sure WWI and WWII must have encouraged a strong sense of Britishness as must the empire before that. But taking the last 50 years, where does those newer generations get their sense of Britishness from?”

I’ve covered this in some of the posts I linked earlier, but briefly, A sense of Britishness is in no way incompatible with a sense of Scottishness, Welshness, Englishness or indeed Irishness. Neither would I prescribe to what extent people should feel any of these things. I have postulated that I feel subscribing to unionism implies a more generous, inclusive sense of identity that being a nationalist. There is also that sense of separation again whereby national sentiment is not the primary driver of political allegiance.

However, I would also argue that actually there is a huge area of shared experience, culture, language, history and institutions that connect people from the constituent parts of the UK. I don’t think that however much nationalists try to diminish these connections that they truly believe that English and Scottish people, to take a random example, feel no more connection to each other than they do to the Swiss, to take another random example. In actually fact the people of this archipelago have closely entwined, inseparable histories, closely linked cultures – a vast range of shared references.

“Anyway im running late for this movie and ive not fully got across my thoughts, and as im rushing they are a little off the cuff”

Remember to let me know what it was like!

Chekov said...

http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/06/defining-modern-unionism-i-uk-unionism.html


http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/07/defining-unionism-ii-ulster-unionism.html

http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/07/defining-unionism-iii-unapologetic.html

http://threethousandversts.blogspot.com/2007/07/defining-unionism-iv-redefinitions.html

I'll try these again!

On your point about the EU, I think you could perhaps argue that. Although it's my perception that the fascination with the EU is often more fixated on money that would enable independence than with an actual wish to come together with other Europeans in a shared identity.

Chekov said...

Kloot. I can't seem to get those links to work. Search for "defining unionism" and there should be four articles outlining my thoughts on the subject.

On the nationalism / EU thing, didn't the Republic reject the constitution and it is likely to do so again in its new guise?

O'Neill said...

"Is It not arguable that nationalists have a much more positive attitude towards the EU then unionists"

Kloot,
Sinn Fein ran on an anti-EU platform until quite recently.

Kloot said...

I wanted to go and see Jesse James last night and couldn’t find any cinemas in Belfast that were yet showing it.  Was it a preview showing

Slightly disappointed with Jesse James to be honest. Amazing setting for the film, the imagery of the movie was beautiful, however I did feel that it dragged a bit. Ill not say any more so as to avoid spoiling it. It might well have been a preview, but if it was, then it was in a few cinemas in Dublin.

I’m sorry for self-referencing but perhaps some of these might be more coherent in explaining exactly where my unionism is coming from.

Nice one on those links. Ill google them later on today hopefully and try get some reading done on them. Work is catching up on me at the moment. Ive taken a few mins out to reply to this thread as it interests me greatly.

I assume that by unionists in this paragraph you are really referring to Protestants. I can accept your point in relation to the formation of unionist sentiment to a point. Although it should be pointed out that the Protestant ascendancy class actually lost influence when the parliaments were united in 1803.

Hmm, yes the Unionists I refer to would have been Protestant, however the the anti union element of the parliament at the time would also have been Protestant. I think that the Protestant ascendancy would have balanced out the loss of influence with the fact that it meant that their influence, while reduced, remained in effect. The RC was unlikely to rule the roost, and this in effect did continue up until the Free State was established.

Perhaps what the early stages of the Union actually caused was further alienation of Catholics from the Westminster Parliament, whereas previously this alienation would have been felt from Dublin.

Agreed.

Bearing in mind that Catholic Emancipation took place in 1829 and the history of alignments between Home Rule liberals and nationalists, there’s less of a history of antagonism and estrangement between Catholic representatives from Ireland and the mainstream in Westminster than you might think.

I agree completely. Irish parliamentarians had a similar role in Westminster as Ulster Unionists had in the early to mid 90s. Parties of all flavours courted them for support, promising favourable bills. I believe that those 30 years could and probably did have the potential to encourage Catholics to have a sense of alienation and frustration with Westminster. It hardly endeared them to it thats for sure. Its not fare for me to try put myself in the shoes of a Catholic at the time as many more factors need consideration, but I know if I were denied representation because of my religion, Id be pretty peeved.

But emancipation took place relatively quickly under a British Parliament. Had the Union not come about in 1803, it is doubtful that it would have occurred so quickly in a parliament dominated by a fearful Protestant ascendancy.

In fairness it was heavily fought against and only begrudgingly passed in the end. It hardly sent out the right message. An even when granted was not complete. Now if it had of been the reverse, where the Westminster parliament was coming to the rescue of Catholics, things could have been so much different. Something not to forget of course, was that it was emancipation for all catholics in the UK and not just Irish.

But Irish parliamentarians at that time were not unionists. It isn’t accurate simply to conflate unionism with Protestantism

Thats not what I mean to be doing. Apologies if that is what it is coming across as. The first attempt to introduce a Union was widely defeated in the Irish parliament, all of whom were Protestant. An interesting fact, the Orange Order took neither a positive or negative view on the Union and some lodges were downright against it.

I’ve argued strongly in other pieces that a new understanding of the term “unionist” is needed.

As Ive said earlier, I look forward to reading those. I believe that most Irish people would be surprised to hear the term "Unionist" applied to an Englishman, Scotsman or Welshman, because they are only familiar with its use in the Irish context and with all the connotations that come with that.

I would also argue that actually there is a huge area of shared experience, culture, language, history and institutions that connect people from the constituent parts of the UK.

I agree with you here. And I would even broaden it to include the entire British Isles. Despite independence, the ROI still continues to share its history and its culture with the UK and vice versa. There are differences of course, but still quite a large number of similarities.

Although it's my perception that the fascination with the EU is often more fixated on money that would enable independence than with an actual wish to come together with other Europeans in a shared identity

Bit of both to be honest. Often enough it was the cash that was used to sell it. I would say that Irish politicians take to the EU with vigour and participate at all levels there and European elections get quite a lot of coverage in the media. For a lot of people the EU provided the force for change that necessarily would not have come from within for various reasons. The EU helped immensely in the liberalisation of Ireland.

The question is, do irish people consider themselves European. I wont try and kid you to say that there is a massively strong sense of this, but I do believe that they do feel a European identity to a certain extent, with the more younger generations being exposed to more and more European culture and cross Europe events and customs. I do believe that an Irish people look to working and holidaying across Europe. The single currency has helped inject a sense of European attachment, whether thats the same as identity is another question

On the nationalism / EU thing, didn't the Republic reject the constitution and it is likely to do so again in its new guise?

They sure did and I predict they will reject the constitution as well. Ill be voting against it. Support is always conditional. It would be stupid to have unconditional support. The ROI is a small country within the EU, and Irish (ROI) people are fearful of their clout within the EU being reduced, and as such will vote against measures which attempt to do this. They will also tend to vote against measures which try to exert too much control. Its just natural and healthy in my view.

Kloot,
Sinn Fein ran on an anti-EU platform until quite recently


I was talking in the broader sense to be honest. Put it to you this way. Anti EU sentiment appears to be on the rise in the UK. If a vote was taken across the UK on support for the EU, and the results gathered separately in NI, Wales, England and Scotland, how do you imagine the voting patterns might pan out. In my view, you would largely see a strong anti-EU vote within England with a largely pro-EU vote across wales and Scotland. I cant read NI to be honest.

Chekov said...

Thanks Kloot. That's an interesting an honest reply.

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