A series of taster articles will appear at Forth Magazine before the event.
I kick off with a piece about Irish unionism, the nature of British citizenship and the conditions Alex Salmond is attempting to put on Scottishness.
FOR NATIONALISTS it is often a working assumption that Irish unionism is defined and limited by reaction. Its genesis was simply a retort to Ireland’s burgeoning consciousness as a nation, from the 1790s on. And today, in the third century of its existence, unionism is understood to remain primarily a response to, and a denial of, legitimate national aspirations.
John Bew has written a fascinating little book, the Glory Of Being Britons, challenging these foundational myths about unionism. He describes a burgeoning civic philosophy, rooted in enlightenment values, which developed in Belfast from the outset of the nineteenth century. He argues that, far from representing a simple repudiation of Irish nationalism, unionism developed alongside a positive, mainstream association with the British state and its interests.
For Bew, Irish unionism owes at least as much to Victorian state-building, the industrial revolution and an interaction with the British constitution, as it does to recovered memories of 1641 or the Siege of Derry. The implication for modern politics is obvious.
Appeals to a civic, secular unionism can no longer credibly be viewed, through a nationalist lens, as an invention of modern unionists, grafted unto a more elemental framework of ethnic rage and false consciousness. There is a deep and enduring strain of Ulster unionism which is entirely at home within the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom and fosters a rational, defensible and attractive case for Union.
The civic argument for the UK, and Northern Ireland’s membership of it, is not new-fangled. It appeals to selfish instrumental interests but it also encompasses ties of community that rival cultural equivalents, on which nationalism often bases its assumptions of superiority.
It is, of course, difficult to disentangle completely economic and political arguments for the United Kingdom from cultural preoccupations. After all, even the central contention that unionism is more capable than nationalism of separating the concepts of culture and allegiance is, at its essence, a cultural argument, despite the fact that it is also undoubtedly profoundly political.
But whereas Irish nationalism is principally about nationality and the coincidence of allegiance, culture and a claimed territory, British unionism, and specifically civic British unionism, is about citizenship and allegiance to shared political institutions within the confines of territorial sovereignty. This is the ‘fifth nation’ which Richard Rose claimed provides the conceptual glue for the United Kingdom.
The functional nature of the United Kingdom’s constitution provides a strong incentive to participate. Put simply, if you are prepared to work within the political system, and recognise the legitimacy of the institutions which comprise it, then it is likely to work for you. Citizenship of the United Kingdom comes at a low ideological price and its politics encourage a strictly practical focus.
Scotland provides an interesting case in point. There nationalism has attempted to weld itself on to a vibrant cultural patriotism. Its response to the instrumental arguments of unionism is that they are unpatriotic, they ‘do down’ Scotland, they rely on a ‘Scottish cringe’.
Alex Salmond’s nationalist populism exerts an undeniable emotional pull. It attempts to avoid the practicalities of economics by placing a very definite ideological price on Scottishness. In order to be proudly Scottish you must believe that Scotland can be independent and successful. Holding your Scottishness in common with any other political allegiance infers a crushing lack of self-confidence which is anathema to the national spirit.
However susceptible Scots have proved to Salmond’s irrepressible, and rather kitsch, enthusiasm for Scottish culture, they have proved resistant to his arguments against membership of the UK. Support for independence has flatlined at around 30 per cent of the population, which is roughly comparable to previous nationalist peaks. Scotland has shown an appetite for national self-expression, but Scots have stubbornly clung on to an instrumental commitment to Union.
Although the mismanaged British economy was right at the heart of the global economic crash the crisis has been slow to trickle down, whereas the ’Arc of Insolvency’ forms a stark warning of the susceptibility of small, national economies. The UK’s size and influence has partially inured it from the worst financial vicissitudes. There was much talk, prior to the crisis, about the nimbleness of a smaller economic model. But while the larger countries might be slower to turn, they are also better able to weather a sustained buffeting.
The practical benefits of UK membership are widely accepted in the current climate and therefore there has never been a better time to emphasise the civic aspects of Ulster unionism and its inextricable link to the British unionist mainstream. Unionism, as Bew points out, has formed the instrumental core of the United Kingdom for three hundred years. Its functional focus is a sure base from which to aspire to another three centuries.
Northern Ireland – democratic future or peace at any price?
A debate at the Belfast Salon
February 16, 2010
Belfast Exposed Gallery