“You cannot undermine the very institutions and history that define what it is to be British and then lecture the public about the importance of Britishness. And yet this is precisely what Labour has done.”
Reading closely Elliott’s comments, I am not sure he is placing enough stress on the most damaging of the government’s assaults on Britishness, but he is nevertheless identifying much of what is wrong-headed in New Labour’s policies on the Union and the constitution. Although immigration and Europe are issues which could be handled better, to the benefit of the Union, they are relatively tangential when set against the erosion of basic British rights and freedoms and persistent constitutional tinkering, as epitomised by the disaster of asymmetric devolution.
It is not perhaps politic for a representative of a party which remains an advocate of devolution for Northern Ireland to stress too pointedly the manner in which the government’s devolution experiment has eroded the Union. I don’t, however, accept that there is necessarily a contradiction between recognising that devolution is here to stay and attempting to offset the damage which it has visited upon the Union. Neither should unionist politicians be reluctant to stress the ultimate sovereignty of Westminster nor disinclined to insist that devolution should be subject to strict limits and represents an end point rather than a process.
Although Elliott might have explained more clearly the nature of institutional damage which Labour has visited upon the structures which bind the United Kingdom together, the points he does choose to stress have merit. There should be greater effort to integrate immigrant communities and enhance social cohesion. The means to achieving such an end must see government interacting with citizens as individuals, possessed of certain rights and entitlements, rather than treating them as adjuncts to particular ethnic or religious groups.
Elliott observes of integration,
“This must be done through engagement with the community via public events, historical events; more education based on British values of family and democracy and increased opportunities for public displays of patriotism. We must show people that no matter what faith they believe in or colour they are, there is a place for them in British society and as British citizens.”
He is correct. All these things are important. But more important still is the character of the interfaces through which government interacts with society. If these interfaces facilitate, rather than impose, if they treat people equally, rather than as members of particular preconceived groups, then a sense of belonging will flourish much more readily.
Similarly, Elliott is quite right to aver, “for too long, the Labour Government and others have sought to destroy feelings of patriotism by introducing laws that were always going to dilute the civil and religious liberties that many here hold dear”, although I believe that he is not highlighting the most egregious instances whereby Labour has attempted to visit this destruction.
It does not require reference to the EU to find examples where the government has attempted to unravel the very fabric from which Britishness is made. Forty two day pre charge detention is a particularly prominent example, but there are others. Labour has bequeathed Britain a surveillance society, it wishes to introduce ID cards, it has undermined basic tenets of the British legal system, it has sought to establish torture evidence as admissible in British courts. That is not to say that there is not an important debate to be conducted as to the benefits or otherwise of the Lisbon treaty, but it is not the EU which has played the greatest role in causing people to examine whether Britain stands for anything honourable or important in the modern world.
There are stronger, more pertinent arguments to be raised against Labour’s mismanagement of the Union and its poor husbandry of British identity. But Elliott has made some useful points and he is clearly thinking about unionism in a wider pan-UK context. It is these types of debates in which Northern Irish unionists must be involved and a UUP / Conservative realignment would facilitate that involvement.