Uncertain Unionisms

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  By Peter Geoghegan

‘The one thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.’ Hegel’s quip might be a witty line, but when it comes to the referendum the occasional dip into the annals can often prove illuminating – if only to show mistakes of the past in a new light.

Take the 1895 general election, when a Conservative-Liberal Unionist government was returned to power in Westminster. Shortly afterwards, Gerald Balfour, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, summarised the government’s Irish policy as ‘killing home rule with kindness’.

By Peter Geoghegan

‘The one thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.’ Hegel’s quip might be a witty line, but when it comes to the referendum the occasional dip into the annals can often prove illuminating – if only to show mistakes of the past in a new light.

Take the 1895 general election, when a Conservative-Liberal Unionist government was returned to power in Westminster. Shortly afterwards, Gerald Balfour, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, summarised the government’s Irish policy as ‘killing home rule with kindness’.

Over the next four years, the British government introduced new local government, land and agricultural acts that transformed how Ireland was run. Nevertheless, the thud of the home rule drum only grew louder, until, within a decade or so, it could be ignored no more.

As we trundle towards September 18, it can feel at times as if the ‘No’ campaign has learned a little too much from the failure of jam today to stop calls for devolution tomorrow in Ireland more than a century ago. Every week there is another CEO in the media warning against the dangers of independence. If the desired effect has been to push anxious Scots into the arms of the union, polls would suggest it is not working terribly well.

Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is a failure to grasp a central facet of the debate. The referendum – when pared back to its fundamentals – is a question of where power resides in Scotland, and in Britain. Wheeling out well-fed businessmen delivering doom-laden warnings bolsters a nationalist narrative about power in Britain residing more with corporations than citizens.

But this approach could have repercussions long after the ballots have been counted. It is very difficult to combine apocalyptic warnings about an independent Scotland as a land so impoverished that grown men will be left fighting with bare knuckles over the last bottle of Irn Bru with a unifying narrative of Britain and Britishness. The unionist side might win the battle in September with this tactic, but they could pay a very high price in doing so.

Wisely some unionists have recognised that a little bit of carrot is needed along with lashings of the stick. ‘Love bombing’ has been much mocked, but it does speak to a nascent awareness that a non-economic case for the union needs to be made.

‘Love bombing’ is essentially an appeal to similarity and difference: ‘We are different peoples, but we are stronger together’. History would suggest that this approach has limited appeal – according to some commentators the federalist rallies held in Montreal ahead of the 1995 Quebec referendum actually boosted support for the nationalist cause.

All of this makes even more noteworthy the appearance of what the estimable David Leask at the Herald recently called on Twitter ‘ultraunionism’. In the Spectator this week, Chris Deerin provided the clearest articulation of this motif: ‘we inhabitants of these islands are the same people. It’s there in our culture and in our language — with its shared phrases and idioms and slang, and the ideals that they frame and shape. In the five months left until polling day, let’s remind Scots that we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns — even the English’.

Ultraunionism has a certain uncluttered, raw appeal. There is no talk of jobs on the Clyde, or currency zones, no comparing of respectively dull tables of public revenue and expenditure. No pointy-headed debate about legislative competencies at Westminster and Holyrood. It is unashamedly emotional, and no harm in that.

But looked at another way, these strengths can become weaknesses. The referendum is an outworking – logical or otherwise – of a process rooted in a widely held sense of Scottish distinctiveness. The question of what – if anything – this difference constitutes  is an interesting one, but the results of any interrogation are largely academic. Scotland is another country because it thinks it is another country. Benedict Anderson 101, if you like.

This ‘ultra’ formulation of unionism also struggles to appreciate why sub-state nationalisms develop: look across Europe, from the Catalans to the Venetians, the Frieslanders to the Welsh, demands for autonomy or independence, and notions of distinctiveness, at the furthest points from the political and/or economic centre. Physical barriers, particularly mountains, help, too.

An appeal to an inchoate ‘oneness’, an essential unity of the people on these islands, is a reasonable response to a Tom Nairn ‘Break Up of Britain’ scenario. But what if our state-nation is slowly crumbling, rather than swiftly splitting? If that is the case, then unionism might be better to consult the fine print, rather than the pages of history: ‘past performance is not a guide to future returns’.