Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Culture and politics collide, unconvincingly.

I’d intended to leave Jason Walsh’s Comment is Free piece about Ulster unionism’s ‘identity crisis’ alone, particularly after Bobballs subjected it to a scathing, though elegant, critique. The article appeared to me to comprise an inchoate analysis, which did little more than hang a few unsubstantiated clichés upon a rickety frame, constructed by rather overestimating the importance to unionists of ‘Ulster Scots’.

Yes, it drew attention to Robert Ramsay’s book, ‘Ringside Seats’, which apparently recommends that ‘unionists’ (by which the former civil servant means Northern Irish Protestants) stress their ‘regional identity’ within the European Union. Certainly, it alluded to the particularist cultural emphasis of the DUP’s ‘unionism’, whereby the civic character of the modern British state is neglected.

But, Bobballs is correct to infer, that these casual references read as if they were intended to substantiate the “moribund unionism, ‘glories’ of Empire , unloved by the ‘British’” nonsense, which carries all the subtlety and insight we might expect from a drunk republican poised to fall off his barstool, imminently. Thank goodness, then, that Jason has intervened, in the comments zone, and on Slugger, to offer some illumination.

It transpires that the article was actually a subtle development of the themes of Ramsay’s book and an enlightened exploration of the interface between cultural unionism and civic unionism (I think). I’ll leave the reader to decide whether the piece should be more benignly interpreted in light of Jason’s clarifications, or whether it actually represents some anti-unionist sloganeering, carefully calibrated to appeal to intellectually stunted keyboard revolutionaries, accustomed to infesting CIF threads about Northern Ireland.

In my opinion it’s still a shoddy article which is careless with its definitions and selective with its evidence. However, in conjunction with the (much more comprehensible) Slugger piece, and the author’s comment on Bobballs, it does allude to some interesting frictions in unionism. On the basis that one does not require an especially wonderful diving board in order to execute a satisfying dive, it is hopefully not a wasted exercise to briefly develop one or more of these themes. And even to address one or two of the more explicit questions which Walsh poses.

Over at Bobballs, there are a couple of queries which, Jason insists, are crucial to his ‘actual argument’.

“Why is Ramsay, an establishment figure associated with the Britishness of not only unionism but Britain itself (sic), interested in creating an Ulster Scots identity? Surely the best thing that Britain has going for itself is a modern, forward-looking polity? What has local or regional or national identity got to do with that? That’s my question.”


Although I’m tempted to engage in trivial pedantry concerning the difference between a question and an argument, and in much more essentialist pedantry about definitions of ‘unionism’, ‘British’ and ‘Britishness’, to do so would represent a return to well worn territory. Suffice to say that when Walsh refers to ‘unionism’ he is describing only its Northern Irish variant. When he uses, ‘the Britishness of Britain itself’, we can assume that he means the character of the UK state. The fact that he describes the ‘Britishness’ of ‘unionism’ as if it were a distant relative of the central phenomenon need neither detain nor surprise us.

Despite the wearisome pejoratives in the original CIF piece, Jason does appear to recognise that a civic conception of Britain as a ‘modern, forward thinking polity’ is the most constructive avenue down which unionism can travel. I certainly cannot argue with that. But is there an implication that ‘regional or national identity’ is incompatible with modern Britishness or civic citizenship?

Clearly a multi-national state cannot exist without interacting, at some level, with the ‘regional or national’ identities which form part of its make-up.

I have never believed that concocting the supposed trappings of a ‘nation’ around the Ulster Scots’ identity is a worthwhile exercise. Neither am I convinced by Ramsay’s contention that there is a more compelling argument for such an attempt, within the context of the European Union. My politics are of an overwhelmingly civic character; however I am not naïve enough to believe that modern political identity can be separated so blithely from its cultural cousin.

The key character of Britishness is not that it supersedes, or ignores, competing cultural identities, but rather that it acknowledges the value of those identities within an overarching, pluralist political allegiance. Therefore the respective strengths, or otherwise, of an Ulster Scots identity, or a Welsh identity, or an Irish identity, are neither incompatible with unionism, nor intrinsic to it. Unionism must respond to any nationalist political claim which might proceed from the development of these identities, rather than any cultural component which they might comprise.

In Walsh’s Slugger post he links, much more explicitly, his conception of ‘moribund unionism’ to its embrace of a “nativist ‘Ulsterish’ identity”. Although I am not convinced that Ulster unionism is so surely gripped by a cultural preoccupation, or that it is as friendless as the author contends, he has a point that the strand which stresses the modern character of the UK state is much the most intellectually supple pro-Union proponent.

Clearly there is a substantial movement within Northern Irish unionism which aspires to roll out full participation in British politics to the province. Work is proceeding towards this end and the UK wide party which currently tops all major opinion polls, nationally, is a fully committed partner in this endeavour.

It is a bizarre commentary on the purported ascendancy of cultural unionism, and the supposed friendlessness of unionists in Northern Ireland, which omits this development. Particularly if it accepts the potency of a pro-Union case based on equal citizenship.

1 comment:

Fiber said...

"The key character of Britishness is not that it SUPERSEDES or ignores, competing cultural identities, but rather that it acknowledges the value of those identities within an overarching, pluralist political ALLEGIANCE."

I'm afraid, your own words give the game away.

The truth is that 'civic unionism' is in fact a corrosive force that sought historically to surreptitiously displace the distinct national characteristics of the individual nations through he use of centralised culture (BBC), educational structures which discriminated against local histories, culture & language and a centralised and domineering attitude to the UK economy.

Yes, devolution to Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland has helped restore balance but that process is far from complete and the redress of financial levers, economic diversity and political responsibility still have some way to flow before all will be well in this imperfect union.