When you consider the contributions to the Newsletter’s Union 2021 series it is striking that (with a few exceptions) contemporary Unionism – in all its diversity - is reasonably optimistic about its future, possibly the most consistently optimistic for a generation. Moreover, there is no appetite for unity in the Irish Republic and no significant constituency for unity in British politics. However, there is an irony here. In his short story The Bust of the Emperor, Joseph Roth wrote that multi-national states (in his case, Austria-Hungary) die not because of the arguments of those who wish to destroy them but because of the disbelief of those who should support them. In Northern Ireland, this could be the real weak point of contemporary Unionism. Nationalist and Republican arguments have never appeared more threadbare and Unionists have won the constitutional war - but one consequence has been electoral indolence, perhaps one of the best indicators of that anti-political, almost self-indulgently fatalistic, strain in Unionist culture. This is recoverable for it is as much a practical as it is an ideological problem. It requires Unionist politics to re-connect in policy terms with its changing constituency in Northern Ireland. There is no reason why this cannot be done and it requires the bringing on of younger political talent, especially women. However, one further weakness of Ulster Unionism is its tendency to ignore the larger picture and to miss what is going on in the rest of the United Kingdom. For it is here, I think, that Roth’s warning applies and it is in Great Britain and not Northern Ireland where the serious ideological battle for the Union is now taking place.
In this case, Roth’s argument needs to be qualified, if only because the arguments of those who wish to destroy the Union help to encourage the disbelief of those who should support it. And these arguments have purchase because of that besetting sin of intellectuals, the desire to be in fashion. A ‘fashion’ in interpretation identifies a range of arguments which together constitute a recognizable ideological position. And the great attraction of a fashion is the sense of being part of the Zeitgeist, a spirit not only of the present but also of certainty about the future. Once they take hold, such fashions are damnably difficult to shift. It is probably not unreasonable to argue that the IRA’s fruitless terror campaign in Northern Ireland was protracted by a fashionable mindset (amongst many journalists, academics, literary figures) that Irish unity was ‘inevitable’. And the great strength of such fashions is that they appeal to the intellectually lazy by providing them with a good reason not to think seriously about an issue (and many journalists, academics, literary figures are lazy). Why worry yourself with complexity when we all know how it is going to end - hence Roth’s rage against his own times. That is why it is important to shift focus from exclusive concern with the narrow ground of Northern Ireland.
There is an emerging ideological fashion about constitutional change in the United Kingdom. It is one which Unionists should take care to identify (if only because they have had to live with its local variant for most of their lives). It can be called ‘endism’. It is a style of argument where the ‘end’ informs the analysis and prescribes the inevitable course. And the ‘end’ is the break-up of the United Kingdom (there is no half-way house between unity – the old Westminster model - and separation - devolution being the road to that ‘end’). It has become common for some to speak and write of contemporary politics being already ‘after Britain’ (and not just by nationalists). Take just two recent examples. I recently contributed a chapter to Mark Perryman’s book with the title: Breaking up Britain: Four nations after a Union. Even Gerry Adams was in on that act. Next month I am speaking at a conference with the title 'Literature of an Independent England'. You can see the trend. Historians have grasped this quicker than most. Keith Robbins, reflecting on this fashion, claims that some writers appear to believe that ‘after Britain’ is already with us or, if not, the break-up is advanced and will accelerate. Such authors feel the urge turn to writing elegies or, alternatively, liberation anthems (like Perryman). And Paul Ward thinks that there has developed an intellectual fashion to concentrate on the tendencies towards dissolution of the United Kingdom (following in the footsteps of Tom Nairn).The attraction of the endist , ‘after Britain’, theme is a powerful one and how commonplace– and casually accepted - it now is can be illustrated by a recent interview with the novelist Ian McEwan in The Independent. McEwan remarked that the United Kingdom is an artificial construction of three or four nations and that he was ‘waiting for the Northern Irish to unite with the Irish Republic sooner or later and also Scotland could go its own way and become independent’. McEwan was undisturbed by this prospect believing that in his case the future lay now with the authentic identity of ‘Englishness’.
The danger of endist fashion for Unionism is exactly that sort of lazy, self-fulfilling mentality. Endism is has the charm of potentiality, the charm being its appealing suggestion of inevitability. It is at the heart of recent nationalist hubris - those wanting to end the Union (the future belongs to us) – and of the disbelief of those who should support it, especially those ‘on the left’ for whom nationalism is usually a dirty word (the future belongs to them). Insofar as this fashion takes hold it changes the terms of political debate if only because it requires supporters of Union to justify the value of staying in the UK rather than requiring nationalists to justify secession. In short: endism pronounces the UK as a failed ‘project’, no longer delivering (sufficient) benefits, lacking civil authority and a partnership in the process of liquidation. And the present financial retrenchment gives further opportunity for peddling the cause of national resentments.
However clamant these arguments are, their fashionable repetition needs to be confronted by equally repetitive responses. Namely: majorities in all parts of the United Kingdom continue to support its existence as a multi-national state. Support for separatism has not grown significantly in Scotland. In Wales support for independence still remains low. There has been a growth in English nationalist sentiment but it is a mood and not a movement. Northern Ireland is not leaving for the Republic of Ireland. Majorities in all parts of the UK have dual national identities. There is neither an unstoppable decline in British identity nor a continuous rise in exclusive national identities. Devolution does mean that the nations stand in a different relation to one another than they did a generation ago and also stand in a different relation to Westminster. But if the United Kingdom were now as endists suggest then it would recall Albert Einstein’s remark: ‘I regard allegiance to a government as a business matter, somewhat like the relationship with a life assurance company’. This is how most people think about the European Union. It is not how most people continue to think of the British Union (though sometimes the Belfast Telegraph’s coverage of ‘the cuts’ would make you think otherwise).
Unionist bloggers should be alert to the easy – and false – certainties of endist arguments whenever they come across them. They can do a great service - as they do already – in highlighting the fallacies of the argument. Indeed, they can do this much better than most of the salaried intellectual class.
And the good (Unionist) news they can preach is this:
- · Multi-national democracy, far from being an idea whose time has gone, is an idea worth conserving and proclaiming.
- · Common citizenship should be valued within the shared polity of the UK.
- · Acknowledging degrees of national identity does not conflict with multi-national allegiance.
We are not after Britain as nationalists would have it – but we are re-evaluating the Union in a newly constructive way.
Professor Arthur Aughey
Professor Arthur Aughey