29 March 2018

Theresa May’s unhelpful Unionism


The question of what counts as news is always a useful one. Should it really be considered news, for instance, that the prime minister is not in London today? On one level, yes, the prime minister’s public appearances and even, sometimes, what she says during these engagements, have an inherent news-making quality. But on another, rather more profound, level it seems all too telling that it is still considered “news” when the prime minister dares to venture beyond London.

Today, the prime minister celebrated the fact there is just one more year to go until the United Kingdom’s day of liberation from continental entanglements by visiting all four parts of the realm. This was “news”, naturally, because it was rare. The far-flung corners – which is to say the distant nations – of the United Kingdom are only occasionally graced by Mrs May’s presence.

Mrs May’s flunkies informed us that the prime minister’s round Britain trip – encompassing visits to Ayrshire, Newcastle, Belfast and Barry before returning to London – would “outline her determination to deliver a deal that works for every community and protects the integrity of the Union”. A four-nation stunt, then.

Or, as the prime minister put it herself: “I am visiting all four nations of the Union to hear from people across our country what Brexit means to them” because as we leave the EU, “we will strengthen the bonds that unite us, because ours is the world’s most successful union. The UK contains four proud and historic nations, but together we amount to so much more than the sum of our parts and our Union is an enormous force for good”.

Well, maybe. But if you’ve got to say it, is it really true? The “four proud nations” line has become a mantra, repeated endlessly by almost every government minister. At a certain point it begins to seem like protesting too much; overcompensating for previous complacencies by refreshing them with new absurdities.

It is true, of course, that the United Kingdom has never been a unitary state, even if it has also often been equally true that many people have unusually been blissfully unaware of the UK’s complex, jury-rigged, even laughable, constitution. Still, it is a patchwork state in which some matters are decided on a pan-UK basis but many others are not and, more to the point, almost never have been.

We are 20 years into the devolution era, however, and at long last even cabinet ministers are beginning to catch up. For decades Westminster enjoyed legislative privileges even as policy was devolved to, for instance, the Scotland office. Scottish ministers decided Scottish policy even if they sometimes, as in the Thatcher and Major years, needed English votes to push through Scotland-only legislation.

The creation of a Scottish parliament was, initially at least, not much more than creating a legislature to match the existing administrative structures that governed Scotland. In time, however, it has changed the psychological balance of the United Kingdom. Westminster is no longer wholly sovereign. (Technically it could abolish the devolved parliaments; politically this is impossible.) You can – as Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson have shown – become a figure of some national clout without going to London.

So the way we think about Britain changes too. In previous generations, Scottish politicians might insist that Union meant partnership, not incorporation, but this was not a concern ever felt greatly by their English counterparts. “Unionist” was a label that referred to the Union with Ireland (and then with the diminished Ulster), not to the marriage between England and Scotland.

And with some reason, since that first and greater Union was never seriously challenged. You could agree with John Buchan that “every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist” without ever thinking this imposed any kind of duty to support the idea of an independent Scottish state. Scots might, from time to time, agitate for a greater measure of home rule and even Tories would sometimes join in this (Churchill, in 1951, assured Scotland that a Tory government was needed to protect distinct Scottish prerogatives from the ravishing socialist centralisation). But independence? No, not really.

2014’s referendum changed many things and we are still in the process of just discovering how deep and significant those changes are. The United Kingdom presently exists as a provisional entity, subject to further or fresh ratification at some point in the future. The SNP may lack the wherewithal to force a second independence referendum this year or next but the issue is barely slumbering, let alone dead. Opinion polls continue to show that something in the order of 45 per cent of Scots still support the idea of independence. Britain remains on probation and will continue to do so as the Brexit process works its way through the political system.

In one sense, the acceptance – albeit the belated appreciation – that neither Great Britain nor the United Kingdom is the same as Greater England is a worthy and worthwhile one. It is good that cabinet ministers pay even lip service to the complexities of British identity.

But as they do so they risk two further errors. Britain is not a unitary state but nor is it an equal one. It is neither a formal Union nor even, officially at least, an informal federation. It is, in fact, unlike anywhere else. Talking of it as a family of nations is not a risk-free enterprise; it allows the impression to be gained that all members of the family should have equal rights and an equal vote. It would, if pushed to one conclusion, require consent for major manoeuvres such as Brexit to be given by all four component parts of the UK state.

Except, of course, it doesn’t work like that. Parity of esteem is not the same as parity of power as, within the EU, the experiences of Malta and Germany might demonstrate in even a significantly more codified constitutional set up than that enjoyed by the UK. England, with more than 80 per cent of the UK’s population, casts an over-mighty shadow on everywhere else.

That is unavoidable. But there are other problems and dangers too. The more Theresa May talks about Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland the less space there can be for talking about the UK itself. Assertions of British exceptionalism only take us so far; once you allow the “family of nations” idea to take hold you cannot insist on a one-size-fits-all approach to major policy.

Moreover, though doubtless without meaning to, this particular form of Unionist language implicitly buys into the idea there is something inherently artificial about the ideas of Britain and Britishness. There are Scotch nationalists who undoubtedly agree with this; you don’t quite expect the prime minister of the United Kingdom to give this analysis her blessing.

But if Unionism is only – or even mostly – spoken of in terms of balance sheets and cost-benefit analysis then Unionism is shipwrecked if or when the people may be persuaded that these calculations and matters of accountancy no longer favour Union. Is Unionism really to be that transactional? The prime minister’s own frame of reference increasingly suggests as much, even if she does not recognise that it what she is suggesting.

She may talk of Brexit as an opportunity for a new era of pan-British unity but few people, I think, take this as anything other than mere blather. 2014 was a battle fought to keep Scotland in Britain; the next and in some ways rather greater challenge is to keep Britain in Scotland and, indeed, in England too. That is something that cannot be addressed by prime ministerial travel stunts. Brexit was a very English revolution; warm words about the “family of nations” cannot disguise that. Nor can they point to a viable and enduring future for a country that remains a house divided in more ways than one.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.