Saturday, 6 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 4: Shared institutions and symbols


Another argument made by unionists for the continuation of the UK is that there are UK-wide institutions which we share and which bind us together. It was a central part of the pitch made by Andrew RT Davies in an article in the National this week. It is, though, a very narrow range of institutions which they normally refer to – the armed forces usually top the list, followed by the monarchy, the flag, the NHS, and the BBC. Well, maybe not the BBC so much these days, given that the current government seem determined to control and neuter the organisation’s so-called ‘independence’. And using the NHS as a symbol of ‘unity’ whilst failing to adequately fund it or pay the staff what most people feel they deserve isn’t the brightest of ideas. Whilst people in general might well feel pride in the NHS, it's not a pride which is obviously reflected in government actions towards the institution.

There are certainly those who see the monarchy as something quintessentially British, a living link to a long history. It depends on a rather selective interpretation of a somewhat inglorious record of infighting, murder, and treachery, but there are three rather more important difficulties. The first is that many of those who support the monarchy are already on the unionist side: they aren’t the ones they need to convince. The second is that, from a Scottish perspective if not a Welsh one, the Scottish Crown, both legally and conceptually, isn’t the same as the English Crown. Historically, the union of the crowns and the union of the parliaments were two entirely separate events; reversing them separately is not at all the strange concept which it appears to be from the perspective of the English establishment. And thirdly, there are plenty of independent countries in the world which have, for various reasons, chosen to retain England’s monarch as Head of State. It is, therefore, perfectly possible to be a supporter of the monarchy, and even the present incumbent, and still advocate independence. The institution does not depend on the structure of the union.

When it comes to the armed forces, it is true that there is a long-standing, albeit often vague, sense of loyalty. However, in Scotland that is often to traditional Scottish regiments rather than the armed forces as a whole and those regiments have suffered cuts and mergers over decades at the hands of the London government. Scots might reasonably be excused for thinking that the bit of the armed forces to which they feel the greatest loyalty and attachment might be better protected under independence. There are also generational differences: even amongst the older generations ‘the war’ is now outside the experience of most, and whilst many unionists seem to see it as ‘the’ defining characteristic of the UK, for younger people it’s now almost ancient history.  It’s true that, partly because of its possession of nuclear weapons, the UK’s armed forces remain amongst the deadliest in the world, but whether that’s a matter for pride or not depends on perspective. The unionist argument depends on an assumption that their perspective is widely shared, which is, like many of the assumptions they make, increasingly out of kilter with the twenty-first century UK.

That leaves us with the biggest and most obvious symbol of all: the Union Flag. There really does seem to be a prevalent belief amongst the unionists that simply plastering the flag on anything and everything will somehow engender a pride in Britishness and a feeling of being together. There was a time when it might have been true – it was the union flag rather than the cross of St George which was flown for the English world cup team just 55 years ago, and it felt like a British, rather than simply English, victory at the time. But things have changed, and clocks can’t be reversed. What was entirely natural just half a century ago jars today. The one echo of 1966 which still has resonance today is the reverse of what it was in 1966, and it’s a negative one for the union. It is that the union flag represents England, rather than the whole UK. That in turn means that trying to replace saltires and dragons with union flags has, for many, precisely the opposite effect to that intended; rather than strengthening a feeling of union, it strengthens a feeling that English people conflate England and Britain. If I were looking for a strong argument for the union which would appeal to those currently inclined to support independence, I wouldn't try  and base it on a particularly English interpretation of institutions and symbols.


CapM said...

We seem to be going through a period of flag inflation (inflagation?)with massed jacks framing and forming the background of every government minister who appears on television.
I don't know if it's just the contrast on my TV but those furled jacks with their jagged blocks of colour appear to be in red white and black.
An unfortunate visual for any modern day call to promote patriotism.

Alan Morrison said...

Scotland already has a separate NHS, so that is no argument for the Union.

John Dixon said...


True. As do Wales and Northern Ireland. But it's far from certain that he unionists actually understand or accept the fact, as we've seen throughout the pandemic.

Anonymous said...

The branding of Britain is not just related to flags. TV has been doing it for quite a while. Britain's Got Talent with attendant Union Jack graphics came on line in 2007. A few years later The Voice UK popped up on our screens. The Great British Bake Off came on line in 2010 with its more subtle union bunting. Since then we have had the Great British Sowing Bee, Great British Throwdown and the forgetable Great British menu.

dafis said...

Anon's point earlier today highlights the major media - BBC , ITV , C4 SKY - fixation with the "Great British" brand. There is no doubt that the wider Establishment is hell bent on preserving the Union without allowing it to even evolve in any way outside of their control or their approved parameters. The appearance of The Flag behind or around most ministerial broadcasts is probably as a result of some P.R initiative dreamt up by a SpAd who spent to much time watching old films of Hitler, Mussolini et all. Must say that it works well when addressing Unionists whose adherence to the message already shows total devotion.