David Melding asks whether unionism and nationalism can come together to provide a strong narrative for a federal Britain
It is time to examine the compatibility of Unionism and Nationalism and ask whether they can combine to provide a strong narrative for a federal Britain. Such an ambitious objective might at first sight appear fanciful, but one thing these theories of identity certainly have in common is a desire to shape the horizontal plane of politics on which socio-economic ideologies strike vertically. Consequently, there are left and right wing Unionists and Nationalists.
There are intimations in both Unionism and Nationalism that suggest the possibility of compromise and unexpected coalition. Both Unionism and Nationalism are crucial forces in Britain because much Britishness lingers in Celtic Nationalism while Unionism requires a heavy dose of national sentiment in order to lift it above a mere civic identity.
The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation
This is an introduction to the fifth chapter in the online serialisation (here) of a new book by the Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly, David Melding AM. Entitled The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation, the book is being serialised in six chapters at regular intervals during 2012-13, continuing with Chapter 5 today:
Online serialisation of a book in this way is a first for ClickonWales and demonstrates the new directions that dissemination of serious thinking through the social media is taking. Responses to this fourth chapter are welcome and can be posted in the normal way. Once all the chapters are published David Melding intends to rework the material in light of any criticism it receives. We will then re-publish the revised edition.
Celtic Nationalism has regularly sought to embrace aspects of Britishness as can be readily seen today in the SNP’s belief that a social union would replace the constitutional union after Scottish independence. And Unionism has never merely been a constitutional concept but rather one that has sought to accommodate, even sublimate, Nationalism, in order to produce a sense of dual identity. However, a hint of cultural paramountcy is present in Unionism.
Unionists face a big constitutional moment because a Union based on the superiority of British national identity cannot survive. However, one that represents a partnership, where Britishness is the common but not dominant identity might prosper. More: it ought to prosper. In retaining its integrity as a multi-national state, the UK would demonstrate that the constructive forces within identity politics can be accommodated by wider political associations. We would not face a world made fractious by the principle that states and nations must be necessarily co-terminous.
Britain is stumbling towards common ground that could accommodate the most constructive elements of Unionist and Nationalist thought. That common ground might be a federation that would allow the British state to meet the aspirations of the Home Nations. Or, should that attempt ultimately fail, it would allow for the British state in time to evolve into a looser confederation. It would be a productive compromise allowing for the development of the British state and the two most vital forces that now seek to shape it. Speaking of compromise is appropriate because federalism is best understood as a treaty relationship in which the interests of the different spheres of government are constantly being modified and negotiated. It creates a lot of space for constitutional development and allows states to adapt to challenges that cannot be easily anticipated.
At first glance, federalism appears a difficult option for Unionists. There is always a danger that Unionism will over compensate in its desire for unity and become insular in outlook rather than expansive and open to change. Today, some strands of Unionism are dominated by a Euro-sceptic vision that yearns for a more classically independent British state. Here the need for international co-operation is still acknowledged but believed to be achievable by bilateral agreements between states. But it is doubtful that the traditional character of Britain can be easily preserved in such a confined context.
Britain was the first global state with an expansive mission first in Empire and then in Europe and the various international organisations that were set up after the Second World War (many of which Britain was instrumental in founding). Narrow Euro-sceptism is now one of the principle threats to the emergence of a reformed, neo-Unionism. Such Euro-sceptism threatens to fuse with a rather brittle English Nationalism that resents outside interference and finds more inspiration in contemporary Switzerland than in the historic achievements that created the English speaking world. This ‘stay at home’ Britain looks a meagre version of the state that defeated the Nazi menace and established many of the international pillars of democratic government, human rights, and free trade. Britain would surely not survive by becoming the last place in the British Empire.
The dilemma facing Celtic Nationalism is something of a reversal of that confronting Unionism. While Welsh and Scottish Nationalists have largely accommodated the concept of European unity, opinion within the EU is turning against secession (although it was to a degree accepted in the 1990s when Eastern Europe emerged out of the shadow of communism). Nationalists in Britain, Belgium and Catalonia face a stern examination from those who see the greater use of federal mechanisms as a way to sustain the constitutional integrity of multi-national states.
The EU could expand alarmingly in terms of constituent members if secession becomes an increasingly ordinary political process. When the EEC was formed in the 1950s most political observers would have thought an independent Scotland as likely as an independent Bavaria or Burgundy. Yugoslavia stands as a grim warning of what can happen when multi-national states dissolve suddenly, although the Czechoslovakian experience amounted to a ‘velvet’ divorce that perhaps indicates a more likely pattern.
Much ideological common ground exists between Unionism and Nationalism. The shared faith in parliamentary institutions is striking. What is often called the Westminster model of government has been the template for Welsh and Scottish political institutions. Many parliamentary states are federal and there appear few arguments in principle against Britain adopting a federal constitution (there is a big argument in practice, the dominant size of England, which I discuss in Chapter 3 of The Reformed Union).
Many political-cultural values are also shared. Most Nationalists in Wales and Scotland agree that some form of British connection would survive independence. The SNP has called for what amounts to a confederation of considerable depth with a single market and currency, a shared head of state and joint armed forces. Even when this is described as a social union it still looks like a treaty relationship not a million miles away from federalism. Indeed, one can take this further and argue that the presence of Britishness is being acknowledged in such proposals. Britishness is ancient unlike the British state and it seems fanciful to expect Scots in an independent Scotland to start relating to the English as fellow Europeans rather than fellow Brits! Dual identities are clearly at play here, otherwise why call for a social union at all?
Finally, and most surprisingly, Unionism and Nationalism in Britain accepts the legitimacy of secession. This embeds the principle that sovereignty ultimately resides with the peoples of the Home Nations separately and not in the people of Britain collectively. If the peoples of the Home Nations are sovereign and want a federal Union, both Unionism and Nationalism will have to accommodate such a desire if they are to practice liberal and constructive statecraft. The agreement on the conduct of the Scottish referendum signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond on 15th October 2012 in effect convened Britain’s constitutional convention. It remains to be seen whether a politician of the first rank has the imagination to combine the most positive attributes of Unionism and Nationalism in a Federal Union.