Thursday, 20 August 2009

Why devolution needn't mean the end of Britain.

On Unionist Lite O’Neill has published a thoughtful post which invokes the idea of the United Kingdom as a ‘fifth nation’, embodied by the parliament at Westminster. It is an interesting notion through which to explain the interlocking set of identities and allegiances which define a pluricultural and multinational state. O’Neill contends that the political framework which draws Britain together could be more accurately described as a ‘collection’ of fifth nations. I understand what he means, although I wonder whether, in a devolutionary age in which the ‘four nations’ of the UK have assumed a very definite and meaningful political form, the need for a ‘fifth nation’ allegiance and the relevance of the image is not greater than ever.

In maintaining an overarching construct of political identity to which the peoples of the United Kingdom can continue to adhere, unionists might be thought to face a tricky conundrum. It is commonly asserted that ‘Britishness’, in so far as it is exhibited at all, is characteristically understated, unostentatious, even unspoken. How can we encourage greater loyalty to the United Kingdom, its politics and its institutions, without adopting the nationalist methods which we seek to counter? Without destroying much of what we consider intrinsically British and placing, in its stead, a larger replica of competing nationalisms?

I would argue that unionism should not seek to replicate the emotional claim which nationalism makes on its supporters. Or, at least, unionism should seek to make its own claim in starkly different vocabulary. O’Neill’s original source is a piece by Arthur Aughey entitled ‘What is Britain For?’ (published in this PDF, page 4). Aughey includes in his article a concise, but serviceable, definition of nationalism; “a political project to engineer the conformity of identity and allegiance”. If we were to attempt to break this equation down further we would doubtless discover that the identity variable requires a great deal of engineering in order to foster the end result of allegiance. Aughey’s point is that Britain’s sovereign claim on its citizens, coupled with the multitude of ‘civil’ associations in which those citizens are engaged, is at least as ‘primordial’ or ‘organic’ as nationalism’s engineered identity, which it claims embodies those characteristics.

What is implicit in the piece, as I understand it, is that the survival of the United Kingdom does not depend on a toe to toe battle with nationalisms on the issue of national identity. Instead unionists should be eager to emphasise the variety of identities which contribute to a mutable political and cultural concept – ‘Britishness’.

“Britishness means diverse national identities within a common sovereign allegiance.”

The appeal of a multi-national identity which can accommodate a range of composite nationalities should not be underestimated. But, O’Neill correctly observes, devolution has opened up a new context in which the political elements of those identities interact. There are now competing political loci which attract attention and loyalty, in addition to Westminster. Devolved institutions provide succour to nationalists who wish their prescription of identity to conform to a particular national allegiance. Although, as unionists, we might bemoan this development (and like O’Neill my unionism is coloured by an integrationist hue), realistically we must seek to work within its confines in order to strengthen the Union.

If we are arguing that Britishness and the Union are inclusive, and compatible with other felt national and regional identities, we ought to be attempting to minimise attrition between Westminster and the devolved assemblies. Nationalists in each of the three devolved regions have sought to portray plucky, circumscribed proto-national governments, battling with the authoritarian centre for their fair share of power and resources. It is a narrative which a supposedly unionist government has allowed to go unchallenged and which unionist politicians have even, on occasion, contributed to. It provides sustenance to political ideologies devoted to proving that continued membership of the United Kingdom involves unacceptable constraints on perceived nationality.

The countermanding, unionist narrative, which should be advanced and substantiated, is that the devolved institutions are inextricably linked, culturally and constitutionally, to the parliament in London. And that the two strands of government are dependent upon and complement one another. Whitehall and Westminster must be in visible communication with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast and there should be demonstrable cooperation, consultation and mutual involvement where jurisdictions overlap. Without wishing to introduce a party political element to this post, David Cameron has shown signs that he understands this imperative. It would be a triumph of a Conservative government’s unionist instincts if, confounding most expectations, it were to improve the way in which Westminster’s relationships with sub-national governments are publicly perceived.

I agree with Vernon Bogdanor (and Arthur Aughey, who quotes him) that ‘Britain is less of an artificial or imagined construct, and British loyalty is more organic and primordial than many commentators have suggested’. Britain and 'British loyalty' are sustained by associations which are at least as real, and robust, as those which nationalism claims for itself. Unionists should keep faith in the validity of these associations and argue their importance on their own terms, rather than submit to the vocabulary, and assumptions, of nationalism.

O’Neill recently discussed Karl Popper’s ‘The Poverty of Historicism’ on his blog. The notion that devolved institutions will inexorably drain more and more power from the centre and inevitably result in the break-up of the United Kingdom is hardly historicism in its purist form, but it is shaped by a discernibly ‘holistic’ mode of thought. It would be difficult to argue that devolution is not a constitutional alteration which will prove, in the foreseeable future, almost impossible to reverse. Or that its haphazard implementation has not damaged the United Kingdom as a coherent unit. But I believe it can be modified to better safeguard the Union which still, thankfully, stands at the heart of the constitution.


andrewg said...

It never ceases to amaze me that a country whose former colonies are great enthusiasts for federalism (USA, Canada, Australia, India, ...) has never considered federalism for itself. Instead we have endless arguments about integrationism vs. separatism, as if there were only two options...

fair_deal said...


"It is commonly asserted that ‘Britishness’, in so far as it is exhibited at all, is characteristically understated, unostentatious, even unspoken. How can we encourage greater loyalty to the United Kingdom, its politics and its institutions, without adopting the nationalist methods which we seek to counter?"

The common assertion is wrong. This is the problem. People's view of Brishness has been shaped by the 60's generation and afterwards. Between a pincer movement of multi-culturalism and local nationalism expressions of Britishness were systematically curtailed. This lead to people opting for understatement etc and the present generation thinking that this is the way it always was. It wasn't.

If you go through any newspapers especially pre WWII open large and public displays of patriotism were a norm not an oddity.

The last Queen's Jubilee showed that given the excuse the people were pretty damn happy about getting an opportunity to express it.

An identity that refuses to assert or communicate itself doesn't last.

O'Neill said...

There was an interesting survey in The Economist a few months back which revealed that a high % (in the 70s from memory) of British Asians felt British- this was a much higher % that French Arabs/N.Africans etc felt French. France has followed a very integrationist and assertive policy with regards national identity, until recently it didn't even acknowledge there was such a thing as a French-Arab etc.

The typical British Asian will have a different idea of Britishness than a loyalist from NI, a stockbroker from Surrey or whereever...but does that matter, as long as all three have the same pride in being British?

Julian Dobson said...

I have a lot of sympathy with your point of view here. But is 'Britishness' the right place to start? I've posted some thoughts in response on my blog.

Mick said...


That's true. But I think it is related to a deeper trend: the parcelling up of sovereignty and passing it up and and down the food chain...

That's most commonly cited in relation to the EU, but international treaties from non proliferation to climate change agreements operate in an ah hoc version of the same way...

Britishness is weaker because British sovereignty is weaker than it has been at any time since the last Act of Union.

I'm just not convinced it matters as much as we think it does.