Thursday, 11 March 2021

Is there a case for the union? 7: Not without change


After ruling out all the usual arguments, what is left for the unionists to deploy? If I wanted to make an argument for the continuation of the UK which might appeal to those currently inclined to support independence, on what would I try to base it? It’s not a pointless question, and it’s one to which some of the more thoughtful unionists, like David Melding AS, have given a great deal of consideration. The problem, though, which they seem to struggle to accept, is that they are fringe elements within their parties and within unionism in general, in recognising that the union must change if it is to survive. That’s simply not the way that the people actually in charge of the unionist parties and the UK as a whole see things. As Martin Kettle pointed out in this article in the Guardian this morning, people like Johnson see only one way of running the union, and that is the centre imposing its will on the rest. My own starting point would be to look at the deficiencies of the way the union operates today and at what could be done to make it work better:

·        Making a serious attempt at social solidarity is fundamental: not just vague waffle and spin about ‘levelling up’, but a serious attempt to spread wealth more evenly, starting from the basis that all citizens should benefit from a country’s economic success, rather than some having to beg for crumbs. It requires a recognition that massive inequality is incompatible with maintaining cohesion, and a recognition that the concentration of wealth in one small corner is damaging.

·        Developing a more inclusive way of regarding history and culture, one which recognises that the UK is not a homogeneous whole, but an agglomeration of parts with different histories and perspectives. There isn’t just one history of the UK and attempting to impose one to shore up the institution itself is counterproductive. Britain and England aren’t the same thing, and don’t even need to be seen as such to preserve the union.

·        Revitalising democracy, abolishing unelected lawmakers, and implementing an electoral system which enables different views and perspectives to be more accurately reflected. Gifting absolute power to a party which wins only a minority of the votes in just one of the parts of the union will always be resented by the other parts.

·        Strengthening devolution, making it more uniform across the three devolved administrations, and recognising the absolute right of those administrations to legislate in devolved areas with no interference from the centre, something which the Scottish Lib Dems amongst others have called for. It probably requires a written constitution because, under the existing constitution, any legislation to renounce the right to make laws in devolved areas can be repealed at whim.

·        Ensuring that the rule of law applies to all equally and that transgressions are dealt with, whoever commits them.

And, to add a primarily emotional rather than merely practical appeal:

·        Recognising and celebrating the inter-family links across these islands which have resulted from centuries of intermixing, and which often translate into a sense of commonality which transcends many of the more transactional arguments. As a result of internal migration within the UK, to say nothing of marriages and other relationships, there are large numbers of families in all parts of the UK which have relatives in others. That provides an emotional basis, even if it will never be enough in itself to overcome the practical failings.

There are two obvious things to note about the first five items on this list:

1.    They are not quick fixes. Trying to ‘sell’ the existing structures and processes instead of reforming them is like putting lipstick on the proverbial pig, yet that’s the unionists’ starting point. No matter how slick their campaign (and they’re having problems enough with that), they are still trying to sell a pig. A PR exercise just isn’t enough. It’s a point which Mark Drakeford at least understands – the union cannot and will not survive in its current form. The leap which he has yet to make, however, is to understand that the changes which he identifies as being necessary for the union to survive cannot and will not be delivered by either the English Conservative Party or the English Labour Party, because:

2.    The Anglo-British nationalists of both parties are ideologically and emotionally incapable of doing any of them. When you ‘know’, with absolute and unshakeable certainty, that “the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen”, it’s difficult to see why anything might need to change. Ever. Something which is the bestest and perfectest known to mankind throughout the whole of history doesn’t need to change. It’s an astonishing, exceptionalist claim (which I’ve heard in different forms from Labour politicians as well as Tories – the words could have tripped off the tongue of Gordon Brown as easily as that of Boris Johnson) based on outright jingoism unsupported by hard facts or analysis, but one which they genuinely seem to believe, and they are unable to understand why everyone doesn’t accept it as truth.

It’s not that it has become wholly impossible to persuade people that maintaining the unity of the UK is worthwhile, it is that most of those currently in power are so blinded by their own dogma and ideology that they are incapable of doing those things which would be required to achieve their aim. The UK is doomed, not primarily by those of us who seek to dismember it, but by the failure of comprehension of most of its own ‘supporters’, who are incapable of even understanding why structures developed centuries ago are no longer suitable today.

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