Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Why unionism is not merely British nationalism

An interesting point is raised by commenter Kloot as he challenges my contentions in the blog below about the BNP. In Kloot’s view, all unionism is commensurate with nationalism, it is simply British nationalism. He applies the same culture / identity templates which apply to Irish and Ulster nationalisms and to the doctrines of such groups as the BNP. Although I have attempted briefly to outline some of the distinctions I would draw between civic unionism and the various forms of nationalism in a reply to Kloot’s post, the subject is interesting and complex enough to require a fresh post and a more lengthy exegesis. Kloot’s analysis is shared by most nationalists, but I would respectfully submit that the root of this analysis is an inability or an unwillingness to acknowledge that there is an alternative to ordering states in anything other than primarily nationalistic terms.

Some of this ground has already been covered in ‘Unapologetic Unionism’ which has a link at the top right hand side of this page. As I acknowledge there, and in my reply to Kloot, some of the politics which masquerade as unionism are indistinguishable from nationalism as regards their impulse and rationale. Norman Porter labelled this strand of unionism as “cultural unionism”. I would further subdivide this category into British Nationalists (who can legitimately claim to be at some level unionists despite the fact that their philosophy disregards some of the most fundamental tenets of the Union) and Ulster Nationalists (who may describe themselves as unionists, but cannot be viewed as such in any meaningful way). Jennifer Todd suggested that Northern Irish unionism was divided along Britsh / Ulster lines, but this carries the implication of the civic motor for the former and the cultural motor for the latter. An intersection of these two categorisations is perhaps most instructive. Certainly however the cultural philosophies use unionism as a short hand for conceptions of Britishness that are prescriptive in terms of culture, religion or ethnicity. In this way they are similar to Irish nationalism.

In his comment below, Kloot takes me to task for identifying nationalism’s preoccupation with culture and identity and denying that preoccupation for unionism. To some extent I accept his point. My arguments for unionism could be open to criticism as overly theoretical and Kloot is after all making inferences from what he sees, hears and experiences from those who describe themselves as unionists and purport to represent unionism. Nevertheless I can only argue from the standpoint of the type of unionism which I advocate, a type which is part of an identifiable tradition of civic, pan-UK unionism. Of course my form of unionism does not ignore culture and identity or demean their relevance. Where the distinction with various forms of nationalism lies is in the emphasis accorded to identity as regards state-building and elasticity in understanding of identity as a concept.

I paraphrased Arthur Aughey in the previous piece drawing the distinction as follows: Irish nationalism is about identity whilst unionism is about values, institutions and freedoms. This synopsis is as useful a way as any to consider the difference in emphasis between unionism and nationalism. No matter how modern and inclusive nationalism seeks to be, it retains at its heart a preoccupation with an ethnic, linguistic or religious core – the fabled and self-evident nation which is its instinctive motor. In contrast unionism regards as its core an adherence to shared institutions and the values propagated by those institutions. A political identity can be established surrounding these values and institutions, but that identity is fluid and elastic. It constantly changes and assimilates to encompass people of various cultural or religious backgrounds. This inclusive ethos is necessary to unionism because at its historical root lies the Union between two nations, England and Scotland in 1707, and the subsequent assimilation of Ireland into this Union in 1800.

In the context of Northern Ireland the difference in attitude toward identity has been discussed many times on this blog. Nationalism accuses unionism of being confused in its conception of identity, because nationalism’s conception is something that is narrow and prescriptive. Unionism meanwhile sees no contradiction in acknowledging both Irish and British identities and will not countenance the notion that this nuanced attitude implies confusion. Consider this quote from the Ulster Unionist Health Minister Michael McGimpsey:

“As I see it, I'm an Irish Unionist. I'm Irish, that's my race if you like. My identity is British, because that is the way I have been brought up, and I identify with Britain and there are historical bonds, psychological bonds, emotional bonds, all the rest of it you know. I'm not so much anti-united Ireland as I am pro-Union with Britain, and I would be quite prepared to take a united Ireland tomorrow, if somehow the whole of Ireland could have some form of Union grafted [on]”


McGimpsey makes a clear distinction between his perceived ethnic or racial identity and his politics. There is no question of ignoring identity and its importance to someone’s political make-up, but there is a clear disinclination to tether ethnic, cultural or religious identity to what McGimpsey sees as his political identity.

Both Irish and Ulster nationalism fail to come anywhere close to this plurality of self-identification. For nationalisms history, race, ethnicity and political identity are indistinguishable (or at least so closely entwined as to defy disentanglement). To retain the focus on the two nationalisms we experience most closely in Northern Ireland, they both draw on historical narratives which imply homogenous roots to their respective cultures and attempt to link the adherents of those cultures with ancient connections to their perceived nation. These narratives share a mythical, almost mystical quality whether it is the Gaelic Irish narrative or the Ulster Scots “Cruithin” alternative. Such foundation narratives are interesting and compelling, but it is their connection with present day political doctrines which is the dangerous nationalist hallmark. In many ways this narrow conception of history begets the narrowness nationalism betrays as it conceives its identity.

I hope this short attempt goes some way to explaining why unionism should not be considered merely as British nationalism despite the fact that some ‘unionists’ undoubtedly betray an ethos which is difficult to distinguish from nationalism.

6 comments:

CW said...

Interesting point about "cultural nationalism" which could develop into a whole new debate. In theory, for example one could be a fluent Irish speaker, a GAA enthusiast and a fan of traditional music, yet for purely practical reasons (NHS, tax, etc)still be supportive of NI remaining within the UK. What you might call a cultural nationalist with a civic or political unionist outlook.

Chekov said...

Precisely so.

Kloot said...

Interesting post Chekov. Im want to reply with my own thoughts, but work is keeping me busy today so ill try tomorrow.

Kloot said...

Sorry for my delay in reply. This is a fascinating topic and Ive only had a short time to reply so my reply is probably all over the place

No matter how modern and inclusive nationalism seeks to be, it retains at its heart a preoccupation with an ethnic, linguistic or religious core – the fabled and self-evident nation which is its instinctive motor

In contrast unionism regards as its core an adherence to shared institutions and the values propagated by those institutions. A political identity can be established surrounding these values and institutions, but that identity is fluid and elastic. It constantly changes and assimilates to encompass people of various cultural or religious backgrounds.

The two paragraphs above summarise your core argument. Your belief that Nationalism is myopic whereas Unionism is the opposite.

To go back up a second to one a quote further up in your post

Irish nationalism is about identity whilst unionism is about values, institutions and freedoms.

Heres my take on this. Mainstream Irish nationalism was relatively happy to exist within a Union, a working Union, a Union which was economically, socially and culturally beneficial to Ireland.

The Irish home rule movement was about addressing the failures of the Union as it then stood. Economically Ireland was heading south. It was becoming more and more dependant on London and the economic activity generated there, to the detriment of the Irish economy. Policy engineered in Westminster was unable or unwilling to address issues local to Ireland. A democratic deficit existed in that the only way these issues could be addressed or would be addressed was when leading UK parties were forced into requiring Irish support to form governments.
Mainstream Irish nationalism saw home rule as a means of tackling this problem. In the end, militant nationalism got there before political nationalism, mainly due to a failure by Unionism to reform to Union to allow devolution.

As I acknowledge there, and in my reply to Kloot, some of the politics which masquerade as unionism are indistinguishable from nationalism as regards their impulse and rationale. Norman Porter labelled this strand of unionism as “cultural unionism”.

Now the question is, which form of Unionism is more prevalent in the UK and as such is the form of Unionism most representative of the UK.

I would further subdivide this category into British Nationalists (who can legitimately claim to be at some level unionists despite the fact that their philosophy disregards some of the most fundamental tenets of the Union) and Ulster Nationalists (who may describe themselves as unionists, but cannot be viewed as such in any meaningful way).

I take your point here.

Kloot takes me to task for identifying nationalism’s preoccupation with culture and identity and denying that preoccupation for unionism. To some extent I accept his point. My arguments for unionism could be open to criticism as overly theoretical and Kloot is after all making inferences from what he sees, hears and experiences from those who describe themselves as unionists and purport to represent unionism.

Well I suppose that is the point im trying to make. It would appear that "cultural" unionists are to the forefront. They are the ones "waving the flag" if you know what I mean.

. No matter how modern and inclusive nationalism seeks to be, it retains at its heart a preoccupation with an ethnic, linguistic or religious core

In contrast unionism regards as its core an adherence to shared institutions and the values propagated by those institutions. A political identity can be established surrounding these values and institutions, but that identity is fluid and elastic.

Are you saying these are features that Unionism has developed over time or something that was always the driving force behind Unionism. If you are saying these character traits developed over time, when abouts to do seeing the beginnings of these traits. I find it hard to believe that these goals of Unionism were there from the beginning. The Irish union was largely supported by the pro Union protestant ascendancy as a means of protecting their religious and ethnic position in Irish society. It wasnt about any particular need to be ethnically diverse or secular in nature.

I also find it hard to accept that Unionism holds the very high pedestal that you place it on with regards to your view that Unionism “regards as its core an adherence to shared institutions and the values propagated by those institutions. A political identity can be established surrounding these values and institutions, but that identity is fluid and elastic. It constantly changes and assimilates to encompass people of various cultural or religious backgrounds. “

The reason why I say this, is that were these features the core values of Unionism and were Unionism not about ethnic, and religious issues at its core, then Unionism, and all of the political party advocates of such Unionism would surely see the EU as a means of expanding this unionism. Surely the project didnt end once Ireland was incorporated. Surely Unionism would be pro EU, and not worried about its Catholic nature. Surely Unionists woulnt not be afraid of the immigration from members of other EU states, controlled or otherwise. Surely Unionism would be pro the Euro and not worried about sterling, it after all just being a currency and another one of those “cultural” throwbacks.

In reality the UK is one of the least enthusiastic member states of the EU, in contrast to the ROI. (and before you say it, Irish engagement is and was not about the money) I doubt there is a single UK minister in favour of the Euro because they are aware that it would be political suicide to suggest to the UK people that their currency would disappear. Yes some of the fear is about losing control over certain fiscal matters, but I bet the biggest backlash, the one the Sun and Mirror would be running as headlines, is the loss of the British Pound, ie the cultural loss.

While I do believe that you and others do see themselves as civic Unionists, I do also believe that the majority of residents of the UK are cultural Unionists. Its matter of culture that often gell people together, or matters of shared history. Its the fear of the dilution of ethnicity and culture that politicians play on, and its that what extremists play on to as well. This manipulation works as well in the UK as in any other country in the world.

Chekov said...

There’s quite a lot to think about in your post Kloot, but I’ll attempt a very brief reply off the top of my head. To take one of your general questions, it is my belief that cultural unionism is more prevalent in Northern Ireland, but that civic unionism is the glue which holds the UK together. Paradoxically I think it is this form of unionism to which unionists increasingly turn to justify the Union, as devolution bites and regional particularism becomes more widespread.

“Mainstream Irish nationalism saw home rule as a means of tackling this problem. In the end, militant nationalism got there before political nationalism, mainly due to a failure by Unionism to reform to Union to allow devolution.”
Whilst I think you might have a point here, I would maintain that nationalism was neither as based in economic rationality nor was it as content with Home Rule as an end in itself as you contend. As far as I can see, whilst constitutional nationalism may have gained impetus from land issues initially, it soon become intrinsically linked with cultural projects and the European wide trend of “national” invention that was prevalent in the 19th century. I don’t see Ireland as being separate from that tradition. There was a process of inventing and defining a nation which went alongside the development of Home Rule politics and that necessarily entailed linguistic, religious and ethnic criteria. Whilst constitutional nationalism may not have embraced such features as enthusiastically as republicans, neither was their movement separate. Also Home Rule was seen as part of a process, not as a goal in itself. Perhaps devolution may have stilled nationalist aspirations whilst maintaining the UK link which unionists propound but that is a large and counter-factual assumption to make.
“Well I suppose that is the point im trying to make. It would appear that "cultural" unionists are to the forefront. They are the ones "waving the flag" if you know what I mean.”
In Ulster I believe that to be the case. In Britain I do not believe it to be the case. The Union Flag may be considered by some in an exclusivist fashion, for example, but I believe tolerance is much more prevalent than intolerance and most people within the UK see their state in that light.
“Are you saying these are features that Unionism has developed over time or something that was always the driving force behind Unionism. If you are saying these character traits developed over time, when abouts to do seeing the beginnings of these traits. I find it hard to believe that these goals of Unionism were there from the beginning. The Irish union was largely supported by the pro Union protestant ascendancy as a means of protecting their religious and ethnic position in Irish society. It wasnt about any particular need to be ethnically diverse or secular in nature. !
It’s a little of both. I think that a cleavage to Westminster institutions was always at the heart of unionism. As the UK became an increasingly diverse place necessarily fealty to these institutions became more closely entwined with the vision of a diverse and multi-cultural Britain. But those institutions have for a long time been redolent of democratic traditions and traditions of law and justice. Of course there were religious and cultural drivers which made Irish unionists particularly keen to retain the Union, but I think it is presumptuous to define those drivers as the main or only motivation of those people. Because they saw Westminster as a guarantor of their religious freedom does not necessarily imply any desire to limit others religious freedom. Unfortunately their fears that a nationalist state in Ireland would be religiously intolerant proved to be correct. They were correct in assuming that the UK would be a freer environment for them to maintain their religion and culture. The difference is that the UK contained other religions and cultures and did not define itself by one.

“The reason why I say this, is that were these features the core values of Unionism and were Unionism not about ethnic, and religious issues at its core, then Unionism, and all of the political party advocates of such Unionism would surely see the EU as a means of expanding this unionism. Surely the project didnt end once Ireland was incorporated. Surely Unionism would be pro EU, and not worried about its Catholic nature. Surely Unionists woulnt not be afraid of the immigration from members of other EU states, controlled or otherwise. Surely Unionism would be pro the Euro and not worried about sterling, it after all just being a currency and another one of those “cultural” throwbacks.”

I wouldn’t disagree with much of what you say here. I think there is an element of doublethink in many unionists suspicion of the EU. I don’t think anti Catholicism plays much of a role in Euro-scepticism. I think that scepticism is more focussed on a lack of accountability. Also I am not arguing that the bigger the Union necessarily the better. There is a need for some kind of political identity to grow up around institutions. This is built on values and history rather than on nationalism’s preference for ethnicity, language etc., but nevertheless it is difficult to build up if people do not know what the values and ethos of those institutions are.

“In reality the UK is one of the least enthusiastic member states of the EU, in contrast to the ROI. (and before you say it, Irish engagement is and was not about the money)”

I’m afraid they are and were about the money. Money which has lifted the ROI out of the economic mire and into a position of strength. A position of strength which is now causing Euro-enthusiasm to wither fast.

“While I do believe that you and others do see themselves as civic Unionists, I do also believe that the majority of residents of the UK are cultural Unionists. Its matter of culture that often gel people together, or matters of shared history. Its the fear of the dilution of ethnicity and culture that politicians play on, and its that what extremists play on to as well. This manipulation works as well in the UK as in any other country in the world.”

I can only ever speak for my particular brand of unionism of course, but I think that strand is growing, particularly within the UUP. And I see many similarities between the vision I have of the UK and that of O’Neill or Beano for example. I would actually contest your last comment. Take immigration as an example. Whilst the spectre of immigration has been raised as an issue many times, it has singularly failed to make an impact on the polls.

I’m about to read Irish Freedom by Richard English (who wrote the best account of the Provisional movement). It purports to be a “magisterial” history of Irish nationalism, so perhaps it will give me a new perspective on some of these issues.

Kloot said...

Cheers for the prompt reply. Ill give it a little thought and come back. Just one initial point to take you up on.

’m afraid they are and were about the money. Money which has lifted the ROI out of the economic mire and into a position of strength. A position of strength which is now causing Euro-enthusiasm to wither fast.

I disagree on this to a certain extent. Its a myth to say that it was money from Europe that caused the celtic tiger or fuelled it. The seeds for the celtic tiger were sown in the 60's/70's long before EU membership. Investment in education, social partnership, fiscal policy all helped create the celtic tiger. The grants that were given were used wisely in most cases.

Irish ( politicians ) adopted a positive role on the international scene upon independence, whether that be the UN, the OECD, or the EU , and have a track record that's well commented on.

As for the public, well they saw the EU as beneficial for a number of reasons. The common market and common travel area has allowed Irish people to work across the EU to expand their skills and to experience different life styles. It offered a release from the Catholic Hierarchy dominated country that the ROI was up until the 90s. It offered business opportunities which were very keenly taken up on. It offered Irish people an alternative in terms of purchase power. A wider choice in terms of services was allowed via the common market.

I seriously think you underplay the Irish attitude towards the EU. As regards the current scepticism. That has nothing to do with money, and all to do with confusion over the exact nature of the Constitution that isnt a constitution. Worry over a dilution of our influence within the EU, the Irish do not want to be part of a union where decisions are made without input from Irish ministers, and also the fear that this constitution might threaten the "neutrality" (what ever that is in this day and age) of the ROI.