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.