The Problem of Unionism
This week, Teresa May condemned the SNP for what she described as their ‘tunnel vision’ nationalism. Addressing the Conservative Party conference in Glasgow she noted:
I wanted to make clear that strengthening and sustaining the bonds that unite us is a personal priority for me. I am confident about the future of our United Kingdom and optimistic about what we can achieve together as a country. The fundamental strengths of our Union, and the benefits it brings to all of its constituent parts are clear. But we all know that the SNP will never stop twisting the truth and distorting reality in their effort to denigrate our United Kingdom and further their obsession of independence. It is their single purpose in political life. We need to be equally determined to ensure that the truth about our United Kingdom is heard loudly and clearly. As Britain leaves the European Union and we forge a new role for ourselves in the world, the strength and stability of our Union will become even more important. We must take this opportunity to bring our United Kingdom closer together.
But there is one thorny problem committed Unionists like May have. They don’t seem to be able to directly answer the question: what exactly is the Union for? They often talk about economic prosperity and opportunity. These generic goals are hard to generate enthusiasm for at the best of times. Yet after seven years of public sector cuts and rising in-work poverty, they are doubly difficult to sell. But the problem runs deeper. It is not only that Unionists can’t sell their generalised slogans, they are not certain what these slogans amount to. This lack of a positive and coherent vision became blatantly obvious during the Scottish Referendum in 2014. It included the extraordinary sight of an impeccably English PM admitting how much ordinary Scottish voters ‘effing hated his party. He looked like a Persian general at Marathon who had just been handed over to the Greeks. This wasn’t his country anymore. Consequently, the Unionist side wrestled over what they loved about modern Britain (or more specifically what contemporary Scots should love). In the end, the British establishment fell back on Project Fear. It was easier for the No Campaign to imagine Scotland covered in a plague of post-Referendum locusts than it was for them to conjure some new sunny uplands for Scotland inside the Union. And why was this? Primarily, because the tried and tested symbols Unionists habitually used in previous decades to bolster their story of a single ‘Realm of nations’, had been exhausted by the march of political circumstances. Every declaration of patriotism sounded like an old, slightly grubby cliche.
The Decline of Identity: The Lightning Bolt of Thatcherism
1945 was the height of Unionism in the UK. National solidarity was at its zenith. Britain had a whole series of shared institutions. Not just the BBC and the NHS, but the great nationalized industries which bound communities together from North Yorkshire to Strathclyde. And while the Conservative government remained a dominant electoral force in the post-war world, many Conservative politicians (including Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, and Iain Macleod) understood that to keep Britain united, the Party needed to respect the Social Democratic values of many parts of the country. They couldn’t go imposing a rigid ideological plan without consultation and sensitive application. In this respect, Keynesianism was not merely good economics for these centrist Conservatives, but a method of sustaining a stable national community. But these bonds began to come under strain in the 1970s as economic instability caused the politics of full employment and social moderation to unravel.
The Union was always a state-sponsored creation and as large parts of the state withered in the late 1970s and early 80s) people began to associate themselves more with regional and local identities and less with something called the United Kingdom. This process predated the emergence of Thatcherism, but its formal adoption by State elites after 1981 certainly accelerated the process. Thatcher’s repeal of the Scottish Devolution Bill early on in her tenure was a signal that she would not compromise like her predecessors, but it was also a sign that she was uncomprehending about the need to renew the Union. Her inattentiveness to this issue eventually decimated the Conservative Party in Scotland and secured the rise and rise of Scottish nationalism. With every laid-off pit worker and every industrial closure, Thatcherism shot bolts of high-voltage electricity through the weak heart of the Union. The Welsh story is a slightly different one (without the surge in nationalism) but with similar outcomes. While there is no overwhelming appetite for a formal separation in Wales, there is little love for Westminster and the apparently shared symbols of Britishness. One thing Mrs Thatcher never seemed to understand was the extent to which her political project of markets and deregulation was in many ways toxic to the cross-national, cross-regional connections which continued to make the Union possible in a post-imperial setting. This was compounded by her petite bourgeois snobbishness which made few concessions to local identities and customs not infused with the mores of Middle England. These peculiarities would be bent to her policy objectives or else they would be bulldozed.
The Forces of Change
Rapid de-industrialisation and the rise of mass unemployment in the Thatcher era raised key questions for national solidarity which were not answered by the ministers who implemented the Thatcher revolution. As old identities and occupations died out, the government did relatively little to generate new identities and shared occupations. Anonymous, low-skilled service-sector jobs replaced employment rooted in a language civic pride and communal effort. This left behind a bitter resentment and bewilderment of which the political and social symptoms in Britain are still legion. It is principally expressed, however, by a bitter assertiveness with voters talking about a loss of national pride expressed in the decay of their local areas. Scottish nationalists similarly draw on a narrative of mismanagement and decline inflicted by politicians in London.
And what part has the Labour Party played in this sorry tale? At every turn, Labour has been outwitted and outpaced by the forces of change, and found it hard to develop its own reason for the Union. With its own political heartlands now gutted, the old industrial and class symbols which once made sense of Britannia for 20th century Social Democrats has died a pitiful death. And with the destruction of such a symbolic framework, has come the demise of the Left’s deep love affair with the Union. In 1997, Labour believed it could rediscover its political soul by embarking on the experiment of devolution for Scotland. But in the end, it merely compounded Labour’s modern identity problems. Scottish Labour now feels pulled between a Scottish identity it feels uncomfortable defining, and its instinctive desire to oppose the Nationalists. Suffice to say these conflicting impulses have caused Scottish Labour politicians into a series of undignified contortions which frequently end with them saying very little at the podium. This haziness underlies the reason for Labour’s electoral decline in Scotland. No-one knows what the point of Labour is anymore. Like Unionism more generally, the flame of progressive Britishness has been reduced to a mere ember.
Does Unionism Have a Future?
These new conditions of dislocation point to a deep and abiding emptiness- a lack of something shared emanating from the imaginary heart of the country. But human beings are by nature story-telling animals and won’t tolerate narrative emptiness forever. They soon start telling new stories which are more closely aligned with their experiences. The problem with May’s Unionism is that she has no definite vision for developing a new story nor a new set of institutions to embody that story. This fact is made more curious given that her speech this week identifies exactly this task. She noted:
[The] Union which we all care about is not simply a constitutional artefact. It is a union of people, affections, and loyalties. It is characterised by sharing together as a country the challenges which we all face, and freely pooling the resources we have to tackle them. The existence of our Union rests on some simple but powerful principles: solidarity, unity, family.
How does she envision these values working in practice? Like many modern managerial politicians, the Prime Minister talks about issues to be fixed but is less able to articulate what all this fixing is in aid of. She seems as unclear about the essential glue of the Union as she is about the mechanics of Brexit. Her struggle lies in the fact that she evidently finds it hard to summon up a deep and abiding symbolic language. She is captured by the banality of political prose when she really needs more poetry, more emotion, and more understanding of the images that make many ordinary Scots feel proud. This is not an existential problem faced by Nicola Sturgeon. Despite losing the Referendum campaign, the SNP has a much stronger sense of what it is, and the kind of future it wants to build. In the long-run, it seems that this sense of vision will have a greater effect on the future of Britishness than any Conservative bluster about the Union at the level of the abstract.
The problem for the modern Conservative Party is that they mistake antagonism for a positive project. This is also a legacy of Margret Thatcher, who was defined more by what she was against (state-dependency, socialism, overmighty trade unions) than what she was for. But the Union cannot be conjured into existence by merely bashing the SNP as ‘the enemy within’. Making the Union work takes courage, imagination, and vision. Yet, it seems that the present government hasn’t the faintest idea about how to accomplish that. Their plates are too full with the complexities of European disentanglement to be seriously engaged in the task of domestic political renewal. Indeed, the Westminster government appears to be continuing with the same shallow politics of divide and rule which will doubtless benefit it electorally in the short-run, but drive the United Kingdom further apart. Should we resist this process? I used to think so, but now I wonder what the point would be. So, these lands can be dragged further down a heartless neo-liberal rabbit hole? So we can have more customers and fewer citizens? Here’s the blunt truth. If Unionism is going to survive, it needs a guiding reason to exist. If Unionist politicians are incapable of telling a new and convincing story about what Britain is and what it could be, it would better for the Union (and 1945 Britishness) to be left to die. The United Kingdom has no God-given right to exist, and Unionists, in particular, should remember that.