Friday, 8 May 2009

After Britain? Arthur Aughey and 'endism'.

I’ve read two extracts from a book entitled, ‘Breaking up Britain: Four nations after a union’, over the past couple of days. One, by the volume’s editor Mark Perryman, is full of sweeping assumptions and portentous, imprecise sentences which squirm like eels in a bucket whenever the reader tries to grasp one and attribute to it a definite meaning. The other, by Arthur Aughey, is its antidote. Aughey believes that history cannot be understood in linear terms, and it is dangerous to interpret it as if it were a path which leads to an inevitable destination. He delivers a sober, realistic appraisal of devolution in Northern Ireland. And he explains his ideas clearly, picking illuminating, rather than obfuscating, images by which to illustrate them.

In order to tiptoe carefully around apoplexy I will leave Perryman’s piece to be inspected in readers’ own time. It is sufficient to quote the opening two sentences,

“Once the union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is broken, Britain no longer exists. And after Britain, England.”

Regular visitors to ‘3000 Versts’ will detect, in this excerpt, a style of written English which distresses me beyond reason. I’m sure they will agree that it is best, if only for the sake of my blood pressure, that I concentrate on Aughey’s article, which in any case forms an effective rebuttal of Perryman’s premise (and indeed the premise of the book).

Aughey’s strength, in comparison to post-devolution, purportedly ‘progressive’, nouveau nationalists, is that he is not new to nationalism or its assumptions. He is quite capable of placing ‘after Britain’ in an historical context and testing it against other ‘inevitable’ outcomes associated with nationalisms.

“To argue that we are already ‘after Britain' suggests that the fate of Britishness has already been decided, if not yet at the polls, then at the bar of history.
If this projection of a political future from the logic of history has become influential recently in discussing both Scottish and English affairs it has always informed thinking about Northern Ireland, implicitly and explicitly. And the experience of Northern Ireland casts doubt on the logic of being already ‘after Britain'.”

Aughey has turned before to the image of the ‘dry stone wall’ as a means of demonstrating that history has no ‘premeditated design’. By this interpretation history can be viewed as a series of separate, but interlinked events. Their interaction should be understood, not in terms of linear progress towards an inevitable end, but instead through the relationship of these ‘interlocking shapes’.

“The image of history as the dry stone wall of related events is a rather modest one because it is sceptical of two assertions: first, that there is in history some destiny to be fulfilled or some fate that awaits; second, that certain events or moments are of such revolutionary significance that all is changed and changed utterly.”

It is a subtle approach which has obvious strengths when applied to the subject which Aughey has been asked to consider.

Has devolution weakened the chords which bind together the United Kingdom? Perhaps. Has devolution rendered the United Kingdom’s break-up inevitable? Certainly not. Devolution is only one stone in a complex wall.

Even if one accepts an argument that devolution has made it more likely that the kingdom’s component parts will become independent, it is unnecessary to succumb to ‘endism’ (as Aughey terms it). Perryman might point out that, after ten years operating devolution, there is an appetite for more, rather than less, devolved power in Scotland and Wales. But to infer that, necessarily, that is one staging post in an inevitable progress towards separation is clearly flawed thinking. Such a conclusion selectively ignores the existence of other of the wall’s stones. And it blithely disregards pieces of evidence which contradict its thesis. For instance, the minority government in Scotland may be popular, but fewer Scots want full independence two years after the SNP came to power than at the stat of its term.

And neither has devolution swept away all previous assumptions, and delivered us into a brand new epoch in which events are without precedent, making a previously unlikely outcome inescapable. The thinking of post-devolution nationalism is not so very different in its dynamic from nationalism which preceded it, even within the United Kingdom. If previously, nationalism got things wrong, it would be remiss not to query the suppositions presented as fact by its present incarnations. Aughey turns to Northern Ireland, in order to draw out some lessons for people within Great Britain who are currently being seduced by philosophies, not so very different from those which have blighted our immediate past.

“The lure of historical destiny and the justification by transcendent historical suffering informed the terror campaign of the Provisional IRA but traces were also to be found in constitutional nationalism as well, what Conor Cruise O'Brien once called Ireland's ‘ancestral voices'. For unionists, this destiny was their apocalypse and like the Republicans they heard ancestral voices as a call to resist all restrictions of their civil and religious liberties.”

The author queries the perception that the Good Friday Agreement represented Northern Ireland’s epochal moment, after which all was changed, utterly.

“The problem here is the historical misunderstanding of the Agreement as a foundational event from which a radically new society emerges rather than conceiving of it as an event standing in contiguous relation to other events, the particular qualities of which are more apparent than their world-historical significance.

Understood in this manner, the Agreement is not a new beginning or a re-foundation but a modification of circumstances in Northern Ireland, an adjustment of how practices stand in relation to one another. Some things come on to the agenda but some things also fall off it. Some things come up for debate but yet others are settled, at least for now. Some things may improve but others may get worse. The dry stone wall of Northern Irish history changes shape, as does the perspective on the relations between its parts, with each addition to it.”

This is not baseless theorising. Aughey is able to buttress his contention with evidence of Northern Ireland’s Assembly in practice. It did not operate from 2002 to 2007. Only last year the Executive saw a prolonged spell of inactivity whilst one party refused to participate. There are issues about accountability, about mutual sectarian veto, about failing to build a shared future, which have each been individually discussed on this weblog. Aughey’s dry wall becomes conceptually stronger when one takes its model and begins to superimpose the stones of actual, fluid, changing history.

I will finish this piece by quoting Aughey’s own conclusion which once again highlights the flawed methodology of ‘endism’. It neatly demolishes the central assumption that sustains ‘after Britain’ as a thesis and epitomises its author’s thorough approach to the subject. This is concrete, historical and political thought, rather than woolly wishful thinking.

“The certainty of ‘endism' of whatever sort, of reading history and the future as the crow flies, is part of the problem which analysis needs to address. The eccentricities, irregularities, inconsistencies and - some may think - absurdities, even surrealities of Northern Ireland's political condition are not irrationalities to be resolved but an integral part of its distinctive shape. If the wild catastrophist expression of that distinctiveness has recently exhausted itself might a mildly moderate version succeed? For this to happen, there is a requirement to develop what Eugenio Biagini has called a ‘sense of the state', a common commitment to the politics of responsibility and to the rule of law. For the first time in a political generation, that at least is now a possibility.”


Jim Livesey said...

If arguing form the general to the particular really insenses you then you should avoid doing it. Just because there are no inevitable dynamics in history does not mean that nothing ever ends. The arguments about the possible futures for the United Kingdom and the probable prospects for British identity need to be assessed on their own merits. Hiding behind a general dislike of general arguments hardly establishes the health of either the union or British identity. And how do you justify an affection for metaphors "dry stone wall?" over arguments for working out historical processes?

The Baron said...

Hi Chekov, thanks for linking to that article.

Money quote:

"The problem here is the historical misunderstanding of the Agreement as a foundational event from which a radically new society emerges rather than conceiving of it as an event standing in contiguous relation to other events, the particular qualities of which are more apparent than their world-historical significance."

The problem with NI is that if we trust in radical nationalism's narrative and the GFA represents a 'conceptual year zero', then anything is possible. Public policy choices are only selectively informed by the past and you end up with inflated notions for 'truth recovery', a maximalist BoR etc...

By the way, if you're interested Arthur is great on fatalist unionism. Check out chapter 10 of Wilford's Book

Chekov said...

“If arguing form the general to the particular really insenses you then you should avoid doing it.”

There is a subtle difference between ‘arguing from the general to the particular’ and starting out with fairly wild speculation and presenting it as a given.

“And how do you justify an affection for metaphors "dry stone wall?" over arguments for working out historical processes?”

You’re getting two separate things confused here. The metaphor is useful simply because it illustrates that the ‘historical processes’ which you reference are far from linear. It is a different way to understand the interaction of those processes, rather than a replacement for considering their dynamic.

Incidentally it is the vague language which Perryman uses which offends me more than the specifics of his argument.

Jim Livesey said...

Granted Perryman is unreadable. BTW you might be interested in Donald Winch's new book which does a great job of analysing the scope and power of utilitarianism as the language of public moral debate in Britain. It is a joy to read something on this topic that doesn't turn on identity but instead on the capacity of of a cultural resource to allow for rational negotiation of interests. Not that utilitarianism is particularly my cup of philosophy, but if one is trying to understand the strength of Britain as an idea this seems to be a better place to start than most. All the versions of the mosaic, which are derived from Burke in one way or another, seem to me to be question-begging. I can see that gravity holds the dry stone wall together, but doesn't the mosaic need some other civic philosophical glue? The quality of the glue would then seem to be the essence of the issue.

Chekov said...

I don't advocate 'utilitarian' language Jim, just clear language. And I'm afraid you've lost me with the rest of the comment.