Monday, 1 December 2008

Unionism is not just nationalism by another name

I have posted at length previously explaining that unionism and ‘British nationalism’ are not terms which can be conflated. ‘Nationalism’ is a term implying a set of assumptions which unionism does not require. That is not to say that some unionists do not submit to those assumptions, but the United Kingdom does not need to adhere to those precepts which nationalists demand. Nationalism, as it is normally understood, is not driven by the civic motors which provide the most compelling basis for unionism.

I was struck by the elegant defence Scottish Unionist offers against allegations of ‘British nationalism’ which nationalists frequently throw at unionists. It is buried in the comments zone of this post.

“But much as it mightn’t fit with your semantic misconceptions, the fact is that I am not a nationalist of any kind. Rather, I am comfortable with nested and even overlapping entities (Cornwall, England, Scotland, Ireland, Britain, Catalonia, Spain, Brittany, France etc) all considering themselves to be nations, if they so desire. Existing nation states should of course accommodate their constituent nations, or parts thereof. But separatism, the idea that state lines should always coincide with the borders of the smallest possible nation, is an inherently divisive and destructive force.”


As I have observed before, nationalism, in evaluating unionism, often tries to crowbar the philosophy into its own conceptual framework, and then rubbishes the United Kingdom because it does not provide a snug fit. Nationalism cannot conceive of any means of ordering states other than its own. That does not mean that every dissenting voice is just nationalism by another name and it does not mean that unionism is some form of nationalism either.

16 comments:

Garibaldy said...

I note that comment you quote suggests that Ireland is part of Britain. The author mightn't find that particular overlap problematic, but the majority of the people on the island of Ireland have long since said that they do so.

Which then of course opens the question of whether this is a freudian slip, or an indication of an imperialist attitude. Isn't imperialism a form of nationalism?

I also note Chekov that the quote doesn't actually negate the possibility of a British nationalism, nor have you really offered a definition of what unionism is if not a nationalism; nor how it doesn't require the civic motors that nationalism does.

So what is unionism then? And isn't its whole philosophy that unionists form part of the British and not the Irish nation?

Chekov said...

The quote suggests nothing of the sort. It names a series of 'nations' where the idea of nesting identities is relevant. The majority of people on the island of Ireland can't deprive me of me right to be both Irish and British. He is deliberately severing the cultural idea of nationhood from the political idea of the nation state. The notion that these two thing must coincide is where nationalism differs from the type of unionism which he espouses.

Toque said...

I agree that British nationalism and unionism are not the same thing. I am an English nationalists, yet still, just, a unionist (though my patience is tested).

However, the people that are shouting loudest for the Union are, at the minute, very much British nationalists - Gordon Brown being the prime example.

He's not content with making the case for the union, he also wants a British national day, flag-waving, a reinvigoration of "Britishness" (by which he means British national identity). For Brown the Union must be underpinned by a national (British) feeling. Britain must have the personality of a nation unto itself, and because of this he finds it hard to think of Britain (and "Britishness") as an umbrella identity or a fusion of four national identities (I say four even though he rarely mentions NI).

My position is that the union is a union of nations. I don't think "Britain" needs to compete with the nations of the union in the national identity stakes for there to be a union.

There's a very good paper by Simon Gilhooley that discusses nested identities. Lost Brits - Secession and the Problem of Overarching Nationalities: How Britain highlights the flaws of ascriptive group theory. Well worth a read.

Toque said...

I recently left a Bernard Crick quote for Scottish Unionist to ponder:

"Over many years I have fought a losing battle to impress on sub editors the use of an upper case for separatist `Nationalism' and lower case for cultural `nationalism', for strong national
consciousness that is not necessarily separatist. Gordon Brown in the 2001 general election attacked fiercely, as hes aid, `nationalists' in the name of the advantages of the Union. I was pompously moved to write to him to suggest that he either gave the SNP its real name or firmly polemicised against `separatist nationalists'. For I humbly pointed out that, to my old English and new Scottish immigrant eyes, nearly all Scots were nationalists, in the sense of having a strong feeling of national identity: the majority were not separatists. I suggested that attacking nationalism as such, lumping separatism and patriotism together, could cause offence as well as confusion and drive some cultural nationalists into separatist politics."


Unionists should attack separatism, but they should not attack nationalism. My English nationalism is a question of sovereignty and where that sovereignty should lie. My view is no more or less valid than someone who believes sovereignty should rest with the UK parliament - it's a question of identity, and mine is English. As a nationalist I believe that England is a nation, and sovereignty should lie with the English people. That's not incompatible with unionism because the English (and Scots, Welsh and Irish) can choose unionism, just as they can also choose independence. The English, being a pragmatic people, and with an affection for Britain, would I think choose union. But whether the Scots would is another matter.

Obviously my nationalism does require a new union of sovereignty ceded (pooled) rather than assumed by the centre and delegated. I have no problem with that because the old system of parliamentary (UK) sovereignty is failing the UK (England in particular) and leading to abuses of power, especially with the authoritarian tendancies of New Labour.

Worth reading on this is David's thoughtful post "No more Great Britain"

Garibaldy said...

"I am comfortable with nested and even overlapping entities (Cornwall, England, Scotland, Ireland, Britain, Catalonia, Spain, Brittany, France etc) all considering themselves to be nations, if they so desire."

That looks a lot to me like he is suggesting that Ireland is part of an overlapping entity with Britain, and therefore part of it.

I am not suggesting that you be denied the right to be Irish and British. I am saying that that formulation given above is not a sensitive one to the realities of the situation. And is blundering and insensitive, rather than acute and perceptive.

I'd still be interested to hear why you think that unionism doesn't require the civic motors that nationalism does; and what unionism is if not a form of British nationalism.

To put that another way. What is the core of unionism if not a national identity? Is it a set of identifiable political principles that are adhered to only by the UK, and therefore the desire to mainatin the union is not a national but a political commitment?

Toque said...

"I'd still be interested to hear why you think that unionism doesn't require the civic motors that nationalism does"

Me too. It seems fairly clear that Gordon Brown (and many others) believe that it does require a national feeling (sense of belonging) in order to be viable.

They're not putting the case in purely pragmatic terms, instead it comes across as a competition between British identity on the one hand and Scottish/Welsh/Irish identity on the other. This is a battle that "Britishness" is destined to lose.

Chekov said...

“My English nationalism is a question of sovereignty and where that sovereignty should lie. My view is no more or less valid than someone who believes sovereignty should rest with the UK parliament.”

Your view is not necessarily less valid, but it does link cultural identity to sovereignty in a way which unionists don’t necessarily accept. Nationalism need not necessarily be incompatible with unionism, but equally nationalism is not the only (or the main basis) on which unionism can be predicated.

“That looks a lot to me like he is suggesting that Ireland is part of an overlapping entity with Britain, and therefore part of it.”

Ireland and the United Kingdom do overlap, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. But SU’s comments very specifically refer to identity within the units he mentions. He could better confirm this himself, but that is certainly the way I read the excerpt.

“I am saying that that formulation given above is not a sensitive one to the realities of the situation”

The formulation in every way reflects realities. He refers to perceived ‘national’ units in which nested identities are relevant. He observes that Britain, Ireland, Scotland and England are such units. He mentions others elsewhere in Europe.

“I'd still be interested to hear why you think that unionism doesn't require the civic motors that nationalism does; and what unionism is if not a form of British nationalism.”

I didn’t say that unionism required civic motors which nationalism does.

“To put that another way. What is the core of unionism if not a national identity? Is it a set of identifiable political principles that are adhered to only by the UK, and therefore the desire to mainatin the union is not a national but a political commitment?”

I have alluded to the crux of the issue earlier in this reply. Unionism does not necessarily require cultural nationalism to adhere to sovereignty. The United Kingdom is made up of a number of felt nationalities, all of which I recognise. It is bound together by a political identity, nationality, call it what you will, which is powered by civic motors. If you can refer to it at all as nationalism, it is civic nationalism, which bears little resemblance to nationalism as it is ordinarily understood. That is the point which I am making in this post.

Unlike Toque, I don’t view Westminster’s remit as necessarily arising from the UK’s constituent nations ‘pooling’ sovereignty. Although that is in some ways the logical conclusion of Labour’s experiment in devolution. I believe the sovereignty of the existing state is derived from the whole of its people. Its integrity should be respected unless those people decide otherwise, although the will of parts of it would no doubt be taken into consideration. Within that state there are a series of nationalities, felt exclusively or in concert with others, which should be recognised and respected. But an individual’s political will is exercised through his political citizenship and not by his membership of a national group.

I’ve consistently said that not all unionists are not nationalists, but I don’t consider myself a nationalist of any stripe.

Toque said...

"Your view is not necessarily less valid, but it does link cultural identity to sovereignty in a way which unionists don’t necessarily accept."

I think unionists do this too. The "stronger together weaker apart" argument is usually accompanied by an argument about familial ties, common history and culture.

There is, of course, an ethno-cultural component that informs my nationalism, but it is about national identity not ethnic identity. I have the same ethnic identity as my wife, and our cultural points of reference are very close, but my national identity is English and her national identity is Canadian.

An English parliament and executive, along with national civic institutions, that are expressly English (as opposed to British and partly English) will help create an inclusive English national identity. At the moment unionists would prefer to keep English identity as just an ethno-cultural identity. This is the battle between "English" and "British" as competing national loyalties, which I think will result in the end of the anglo-British state in favour of a less anglo-centric union.

Garibaldy said...

Thanks for the clarifications Chekov. Apologies for misreading the bit about civic motors. I would still like to hear more about what the civic motors that you see as inherent to your brand of unionism - which I take to be influenced by Norman Porter's - are. I also think that the old cultural nationalism view you are presented here is no longer representative of Irish nationalism (a philosophy to which I do not adhere), but that's another argument.

The examples of the units he gives are clearly related to the various nationalities that can be conceived of as forming bigger states - i.e. the UK and Spain. It is inaccurate to use the term Irish when the majority of the Irish people are separated from the UK.

I think this is a clear problem with the argument you are presenting here. The UK indeed overlaps with part of Ireland - not Ireland as a whole. So there is a brand of Irish identity that is compatible with Britishness. But one cannot elide that brand with the other varieties of Irishness.

As for your notion that the UK state's legitimacy comes from all its people. Two things I'd be interested in getting your view on. Firstly, the Uk was formed by the representatives of the Scottish and Irish Parliaments voting themselves out of existence - given that fact, surely they have the right to resume those parliaments?

Secondly, you say this: "I believe the sovereignty of the existing state is derived from the whole of its people. Its integrity should be respected unless those people decide otherwise, although the will of parts of it would no doubt be taken into consideration." Well surely then if the whole people of the UK can reject its break-up (whether it be Scotland or elsewhere), then the whole of the people can decide to break it up without regard to the local majorities. Or in other words, the logic of your post seems to me to be that the UK has the right to expel the unionists.

Toque said...

Technically speaking the English Parliament also voted itself out of existence. It may have been incorporation in many peoples' eyes, but what we atually got in 1707 was a unitary parliament of Great Britain at the expense of both Scottish and English legislatures.

Chekov said...

“I would still like to hear more about what the civic motors that you see as inherent to your brand of unionism - which I take to be influenced by Norman Porter's.”

Garibaldy. I’ve read Norman Porter, but I’ve got reservations about his interpretation of civic unionism, in which I do not detect a sufficient ‘pan-UK’ element. His reading of civic unionism is too squarely centred on Northern Ireland and he too readily conflates recognition of cultural Irishness with political recognition of Irish nationalism.

By civic motors I refer to the institutions and citizenship which form the basis of British nationality, which contrast to the motors of identity, which are stressed as the basis of other nationalities. I acknowledge that there must be a mixing of these elements in all nation states, but it is a difference in emphasis and exclusivity.

The multiplicity of national identity which the United Kingdom offers and the civic nature of its political nationality, I think, allow an argument for Union which is not identifiably nationalist either in content or inclination.

“I think this is a clear problem with the argument you are presenting here. The UK indeed overlaps with part of Ireland - not Ireland as a whole. So there is a brand of Irish identity that is compatible with Britishness. But one cannot elide that brand with the other varieties of Irishness.”

I’m afraid I don’t follow you’re point here. I don’t think anyone has suggested that all Irish people could or should feel British. It is the idea that the two identities can not exist in common which is offensive.

“Firstly, the Uk was formed by the representatives of the Scottish and Irish Parliaments voting themselves out of existence - given that fact, surely they have the right to resume those parliaments?”

I don’t think that should necessarily be the case, although it seems that Scotland has acquired that right. Constitutionally it is now the part of Ireland which remains in the Union which has the right to secede or remain. That much is very clear.

“Well surely then if the whole people of the UK can reject its break-up (whether it be Scotland or elsewhere), then the whole of the people can decide to break it up without regard to the local majorities. Or in other words, the logic of your post seems to me to be that the UK has the right to expel the unionists.”

Well sovereignty has to be derived ultimately from a state’s people, so clearly if a majority of people in the UK were opposed to the state’s existence we would have to look at alternatives. I can see where you’re going with this. By inclination I dislike breaking up states. I don’t regard self-determination as some overriding principle.

Toque I can’t access the linked PDF.

Chekov said...

Toque. I got the document. Thanks.

Toque said...

Good. It's a bit of a long read but it's interesting in that it builds on the old "Britain as the fifth nation" theory.

Garibaldy said...

Thanks for those responses Chekov. I'm still inclined to think that there is too ready a conflation of Irish with one version of Irishness.

The UK has a decent record recently of supporting Scottish Gaelic and especially Welsh, the same cannot be said to be true of Irish. That is true both historically and today.

If self-determination is not to be the overriding principle, what is to be the basis of democratic politics?

Chekov said...

The sovereignty of the state as derived from its people.

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