Take Murphy’s disdainful opening gambit,
“It would appear that 800 years of fighting here have been reduced to whether or not we wish to ally ourselves with a red bus, David Beckham and some woman singing. These were the symbols which Britain chose to represent Britishness to the rest of the world in the transfer of the Olympic Games from China. They raise questions as to what Britishness means, what unionism stands for and, in the light of the answers, where unionists are headed in the current political impasse at Stormont.”
Although I appreciate the artifice implicit in establishing a launch-pad for his opinion piece, nevertheless this paragraph betrays a startling lack of subtlety as regards the columnist’s treatment of history and identity. ‘800 years of fighting’ is implicitly ascribed to an alien British presence in Ireland, upsetting the natural and indelible order whereby Ireland is a self-evident and inevitable nation state. Of course, in actuality, the interrelatedness of the peoples of these islands goes back far further than 800 years and the reasons for conflict in Ireland have been various and remain contested. The easy conflation which Murphy makes is that unionists in Northern Ireland are the outward manifestation of Britain’s continuing involvement in Ireland; ergo the implication is that Britishness and by extension unionism is responsible for all of the bloodshed in Ireland over the past 800 years. There is no acknowledgment, or investigation of, the possibility that unionism’s existence might reflect that relationships between the peoples of the British Isles necessarily became entwined because of proximity and shared history. That unionism might indeed be a natural and logical phenomenon given our shared common space.
To take Murphy’s central contention literally, it is ridiculous to aver that the essence of any identity or state can be distilled into an eight minute song and dance routine at a sports’ event’s closing ceremony. As his article develops he conveniently proposes ‘what defines Irishness is a discussion for another day’. But to occlude a more general discussion of identity and nationality is to render his points about Britishness irrelevant. Who or what defines any identity or nationality? Nationality is essentially a modern invention and each nation is defined by those who belong to it. To rubbish a nationality as meaningless because it cannot easily be reduced to a series of clichés is manifestly nonsense.
It is in the next passage however that confusion properly takes hold,
“The English are clearly a nation united by a common history, culture and language. So are the Scots and the Welsh, for the same reasons. But it is difficult to find a common bond which binds all of them, and unionists, into a British nation. They have some common characteristics, but these are a consequence of political union, not a cause for it. For example, many of them now share a common language, but that is because the English succeeded in suppressing languages other than their own.”
There is one thing in particular which will leap out at unionists of a similar mind to me. To prevent O’Neill and others bursting various blood vessels, I shall deal with it first. The constituents of the United Kingdom are, according to Murphy, England, Scotland, Wales and ‘unionists’. By which he presumably means Northern Irish unionists. But unionism is not confined to Northern Ireland. Unionism connotes anyone within the UK wishing to preserve that kingdom and maintain the unions which form it. Unionists can be, are, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. Unionism is not an ethnic label, nor is it an identity. Unionism is adherence to a political belief.
Murphy’s confusion is compounded as he indulges in a pastime which is a great favourite for nationalists, prescribing what comprises, and what does not comprise, a ‘genuine’ nation. By anyone’s standards this particular attempt is bewildering. By his formulation, England, Scotland and Wales are ‘clearly’ nations. There is even (not all nationalists extend to this effort) an attempt to define criteria which accords them this status, ‘common history, culture and language’. ‘But it is difficult to find a common bond which binds all of them, and unionists, into a British nation’. Except, of course, that all of them share to a greater or lesser extent, common history, culture and language! Apparently, however, we have to disregard these commonalities because they have developed, as “a consequence of political union [and are] not a cause for it”. This is a novel notion, albeit completely ahistorical and contradictory. Does political union not count as history? Does a common political culture not count as culture? Must a common language have been spoken from time immemorial by all their antecedents to qualify as something which binds people? Murphy’s formula makes no sense, other than to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of the nationalist’s concept of nationhood. England, Scotland and Wales are ‘clearly’ nations, just because they are. Britain is not, just because it isn’t. He further expounds,
“Historically there were significant differences between the three nations in language, culture and society. But they were held together, with Ireland, in a political bloc, through the creation of the concept of Britishness.”
This could equally be said of various regions of Italy, Germany and a number of other ‘nations’ whose authenticity I don’t imagine Murphy would challenge. Historically differences in language, culture and society have been present in almost any antecedent of a state which you care to mention. Every state undergoes a period of conceptual ‘invention’; every nationality is forged in similar circumstances. The only distinction between Britishness and these other nationalities is that Britishness has retained a multilayered aspect. Its basis remains a civic sensibility, rather than cleavage to a specific, monolithic identity, with the clichéd determinants which Murphy seeks as indicators of authenticity.
His piece swiftly degenerates into an attack on Britain’s imperial past. There is little value in trawling through this hugely partial narrative, given that the central thesis is merely to define the sum total of Britishness as a common history of oppression. The paradox of defining Irish, Scottish and Welsh people who consider themselves British, both as coloniser and colonised is not explored. It is, however, worth picking up on one more blatantly nonsensical remark.
“So where does unionism find common ground with Britishness?”
Unionism finds common ground with Britishness by virtue of being a British doctrine. Unionists are British people. Unionism is a British creed and those who consider themselves at some level British are necessarily unionists. I believe we are back to unionists = Ulster unionists for Mr Murphy.
The conclusion to his piece reads as follows,
“Until unionism offers a more positive and coherent political philosophy by defining both itself and Britishness, it will be seen by many as emotional attachment to nothing more than a red bus, David Beckham and some woman singing.”
The problem is that Murphy and his ilk will only listen to definitions which are couched in their own assumptions. Unionism and Britishness coheres around common history, common institutions and common culture. However, it is not fixated on an easily distilled, monolithic conception of itself, nor is it focussed primarily on identity or a prescriptive reading of nationality and the nation state. Britishness invites a multiplicity of identities and it is stronger because of it. The very essence of the United Kingdom is that it cannot be represented by a series of easy clichés in an eight minute package. If nationalists require the nuances of statehood to be presented in such a fashion, that says more about limits of their ideology than anything problematic about Britishness.