Dec 29

The advantages of trans-national unionism

Karl Johnson is a freelance writer with an interest in politics and history. He also works as an illustrator in Buckinghamshire.

One of the most common detractions levelled at unionists by Scottish nationalists is that the United Kingdom is an “artificial” body, fabricated to suit convenient political ideas.

But surely this is the point of the Union? The identities of the home nations are doubtless important to those that belong to them, but they are ultimately based on ethnic groups. The distinctions between them may be cultural or linguistic but are most often based simply on blood.

It was realised by the unionists of 1707, at the dawn of the Age of Reason, that a man-made identity would be a better vehicle for commerce, and the transmission of values across borders and generations. There is no British race as such, and that is the whole idea. Without a fabricated sense of nationhood, the extraordinary impact of the British Isles on world history would not have been possible.

This style of unionism is not an aberration unique to our part of the world, but is in fact a global trend, one of the defining experiences of modern European political thought. States broadly similar to the UK in their constitutional apparatus can be found all over the world. One of the most durable legacies of the British Empire in Asia and Africa has been a patchwork of European-style nation states, constructed out of nothing, many of them covering a certain fraction of two or three different ethnic groups.

These states are also constantly under fire, on grounds that their borders are incorrectly laid out, or that they obstruct a particular group’s right to self-determination, and although these are legitimate concerns, they are outweighed by the opportunities given to the people of these regions by allowing them to define themselves outside of tribal boundaries. It’s harder to encounter persecution when citizenship fundamentally stems from a matter of paperwork, laws and treaties rather than ancient tribes and misremembered battles.

Furthermore, it stands to reason that a state formed entirely to serve the interest of a single racial or cultural group is unlikely to have much to offer to the rest of the world. The great hegemonic powers of history have all been multinational to some degree; The British and Ottoman Empires, Austria-Hungary, and of course, the United States. All of these entities were designed for a purpose, rather than growing organically, and all demonstrated their ability for centuries to outmanoeuvre simplistic regional nationalist movements. Although not an empire in the historical sense, ‘Britain’ has nonetheless proved a fundamentally outward-looking place.

Many people might question if we really have a need to influence the rest of the world in a post-Imperial age. However, it is often a case of “lead or be led.” The ability to exert soft power abroad is important for attracting investment, ensuring security and building lasting partnerships with other countries, but above all it is a prerequisite of having your own agenda.

It might be tempting to assume that an independent Scotland could rely on the EU for this sort of thing, but the EU is steered by the larger and stronger member states. Observe how a reunified and resurgent Germany is presiding over affairs in Europe, and how Spain and Italy, which both have organised separatist movements, are not. Separatism is not responsible for the travails of either of these countries, or of Britain, but is standing in the way of recovery by damaging the constructed framework of civic nationhood that grants precedence to pragmatism over flags or ethnicity.

It is for these reasons that British unionism may be considered to be holding a logical and responsible position against separatism in the political climate of today.

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  1. Sammy McNally

    re. “that a man-made identity would be a better vehicle for commerce, and the transmission of values across borders and generations. ”

    Sounds very like the arguments advanced by those lauding the merits of the EU.

  2. David Wildgoose

    Sorry, but I disagree with this completely.

    Sammy McNally has already pointed out that this vacuous argument could apply just as well to the EU.

    Our nations are not based upon anything as ludicrous as ethnicity, they are based on shared culture, shared language, shared land and most of all on shared identity.

    England has never contained a single ethnic group. Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Celts, Romano-brits followed by Normans, Flemish, French Hugeonots, East European Jews, and so on.

    We speak the same language because you need to be able to communicate to have a community. Which is why I oppose tax-payer funded translation services.
    We live under the same laws, which is why I oppose the setting up of Sharia courts.
    Most important of all is sharing an identity – which is why I oppose the divisive ghettoisation of multi-culturalism.

    The United Kingdom lives or dies on the ability of its constituent nations to identify with each other.
    Sadly, nobody seems to care for the English as Devolution itself shows.
    And to my mind it is this contempt for the English that will be the downfall of the UK.

  3. Sammy McNally

    re. “Sadly, nobody seems to care for the English as Devolution itself shows. And to my mind it is this contempt for the English that will be the downfall of the UK”

    I think you are overstating the case somewhat – having said that, devolution does throw up scenarios which look unfair to England e.g. the subsidising of college fees. What is not clear, is what the Welsh (for example) are losing out on in other areas (which the English are not) because of this decision.

    As yet, there is no evidence that ‘contempt for the English’ is gaining any poltical traction in England – perhpas it is something UKIP will latch on to?

    1. Paul Turner

      The asymetric devoiution doesn’t just look unfair to England. It IS unfair. There are NO areas where Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland suffer in comparison to England. England ALWAYS gets the raw end of the deal. Maybe you have to live in England to appreciate this. Considering Wales and Northern Irelnd take a lot more than they give, they should be eternally grateful to the English people, because it’s our taxes that subsidise them.

      As for ‘contempt for the English’ not gaining any political contempt in England, that’s given me my first laugh of 2013. The political classes have held us in contempt for longer than most of us can remember. An example of this is the racist thug Jack Straw’s description of us as ‘potentially aggressive and potentially violent’ (is there any nation that isn’t potentially violent?) Straw used that phrase on the BBC, I believe, about a dozen years ago. About the same time, William Hague said that English nationalism is ‘the most dangerous natinalism in the Kingdom’ or words to that effect, as if any other nationalism doesn’t threaten the ‘Union’. You hardly ever hear the political classes mention England by name. It’s always UK/Britain/British when, usually, the word they should be using is ‘England’ or ‘English’.

      Have you ever actually lived in England for any great length of time? Somehow, I doubt it. You clearly don’t (and probably can’t) see things from our perspective.

  4. Sammy McNally


    I may be wrong (and no I havent lived in England for any length of time) but as I understand it if Wales for exmaple opts to spend its allocated money(via the Barnet formula) on subsidising college fees it will have less money for the Welsh health service.

    English nationalism, may have been unfairly associated with racism, but I think it is a credit to the ‘English’ that they have not seen the need to embrace English nationalism (rather than British nationalism) even when devolution seemed to not be working in their best interests – and it is difficult looking at it from the outside to understand their reluctance to do so.

    1. Alison O'Loan

      Sammy its a big counrtry thing. Britishness and Englishness aren’t all that distinct to English folks who take as given they live in a big country. NI is only 3% and Scotland 10$ so these areas don’t actually register that strongly with them – though English people on the whole tend to really like Scots and NI folk.

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