Professor Arthur Aughey has kindly given us permission to publish the following template for what needs to be done if we are to define the Union positively:
1. Devolution, according to Vernon Bogdanor, ‘transforms not only the state but also the nation’. And it has been well said (James Mitchell) that the UK is becoming a ‘state of unions’. If the idea of nation is not to be completely separated from the notion of state (the often foretold ‘break-up of Britain’) how can one define the Union positively (if one wishes to do so)?
2. It is necessary to identify the instrumental value of the Union. Alan Trench asks: ‘What is the United Kingdom for in the 21st century?’ The problem he identifies is: how to explain not only what the UK does but also why it should do it.
3. Instrumentalism cannot be enough. The UK (as Burke knew) must be more than a partnership agreement ‘to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the partners’. There needs to be a sense of non-instrumental belonging which patriotism tries to capture.
4. Both the instrumental and non-instrumental both need to be set in the context of political allegiance – where material entitlement and political obligation meet (the popular term ‘dual identity’ doesn’t properly capture the political character of allegiance).
5. Reflection on the relationship between instrumentality, obligation and allegiance should provide a clearer perspective on the values held in common. They were once relatively easy to specify: civil and religious freedom (see Ulster Covenant 1912). We have difficulty putting it so precisely today (eg Gordon Brown’s attempts) but a modest statement is necessary.
6. The UK exhibits the dual aspect of contract (instrumental bargaining between nations and regions) and solidarity (mutual support/risk sharing across all parts of the UK). Both need to be acknowledged and recalibrated post devolution. There is a further requirement. Defining the Union means distinguishing its character as an artifice (with a changing political architecture) from the charge that it is artificial (as nationalists claim). How can one conceptualise this relationship?
7. The paradoxical, Weberian, concept of elective affinity suggests itself (a concept I develop in a forthcoming book). It does not presume that everyone and everywhere in the Union are the same. It proposes that different nationalities elect to stay in constitutional relation with one another and that this relationship constitutes an affinity giving meaning to the term British.
8. Or to put that in language, familiar now in Northern Ireland but of relevance elsewhere, especially in Scotland: multi-national affinities are sustained on the basis of consent. People can only be convinced by those constitutional arguments which they themselves are already prepared to accept.
9. The Whiggish view of the ‘genius’ of British constitutionalism and its related idea – to paraphrase Seamus Heaney – that faith and destiny providentially rhyme to make the Union especially favoured are no longer persuasive. In this disenchanted world, the defining issue for the UK is the capacity of central government – now in discussion with the devolved authorities – to calibrate demands for ‘self-rule’ with the requirements for ‘shared-rule’. Fantastic uncertainty attends notions of British break-up/ Scottish independence, but neither break-up nor independence is by any means inconceivable.
10. In sum, Union comprises a principle and an ideal. The principle is free association (elective) and the ideal is multi-nationalism (affinity). The shape of the Union at any time (as this conference attests) is negotiable.
Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster and has published widely on various constitutional issues affecting the United Kingdom.Share on Facebook