Monday, April 21, 2008

Unionism and British nationalism

With St George’s Day almost upon us, there has been an outpouring of articles and blogs on England, its place within the United Kingdom and the ongoing development of English nationalism. Reading through these and their accompanying comments has been, at times, a depressing experience; it would appear that many English (like Celtic) nationalists see a dual British and English (Irish/Scottish/Welsh) identity as an impossibility and indeed, see British nationalism/Unionism as the greatest impediment to the full recognition of Englishness. I don’t think it is, but that’s a topic I'll try to return to on another day; what really got me thinking,reading the various articles, was that apparently interchangeable British nationalist/Unionist a Unionist, by logical extension, automatically also a British nationalist?

There are almost as many definitions of "nationalism" as there are nations, but in order to attempt to answer the above question, some working parameters of both nationalism and Unionism obviously need to be set up- this one from M Crawford Young of the UCLA International Institute is as good as any I’ve seen:
"Nationalism I would define as an ideology claiming that a given human population has a natural solidarity based on shared history and a common destiny. This collective identity as a historically constituted people crucially entails the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community. The idea of nationalism takes form historically in tandem with the doctrine of popular sovereignty: that the ultimate source of authority lies in the people, not the ruler or government. The foregoing definition of nationalism will be found in any classic text with minor variations."

Key there, I think is that "natural solidarity" which arises from a shared history and common destiny.

In my opinion, UK (as opposed to solely Ulster) Unionism arises from five main sources:


By definition the UK Unionist must be a multi- not a mono-culturalist, the basis of his nation has at least four different, core cultures. Many believe in the concept of Unionism because they wish this diversity to continue under a single nation-state’s "umbrella"

2. Social:

The UK is a secular, liberal and progressive democracy. There are UK Unionists (particularly in Northern Ireland and Scotland) who believe that those qualities are best safe-guarded by policies on such topics as abortion and gay-rights being determined by one sovereign parliament at Westminster.


If you want to be cynical you could ask why Brown, Straw, Hain and many others within the Labour party are now suddenly committed Unionists? Solely political reasons. Looking at the topic more positively; the United Kingdom as a collective is a recognised world political power with the advantages that position brings. Divided, that power in such arenas as the European Union and the United Nations would be greatly diminished. Those who would not consider themselves as "cultural" Unionists would tend to follow this line.


Presently applies more for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales than perhaps England (although the inconvenient fact that is sometimes forgotten is that all three countries have contributed by suppling the pool of labour and knowledge which has led to the UK’s position in the World economy today). UK Unionism believes that, in the absence of any credible alternative in terms of the financing of such things as health provision and education, economically the Union still makes sense. Many non-cultural, non-political, maybe even non-voting, unionists (with a small "u")see this argument as the prime motivation for the United Kingdom remaining a unitary state and economy.

5 British nationalism:

Finally, yes, there is an element which derives their Unionism mainly from their belief that the people of the UK have a “natural solidarity based on shared history and a common destiny”.

But it’s only an element.

A Unionist is someone who believes that the Union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should continue, nothing more nothing less, and as I’ve shown there are different reasons as to why that belief arises. The fact that Unionism is not a homogeneous political movement appears to be a concept that many Celtic, and in particular Irish, nationalists, find hard to grasp, but different people from different parts of the UK will have widely varying reasons for believing in a United Kingdom. That being the case, then the answer to the question I posed at the beginning, therefore, is that whilst a British nationalist must consequently also be a Unionist, a Unionist need not necessarily subscribe to the principles of British nationalism.


The Aberdonian said...


You could equally apply that to Canada and the United States who are culturally extremely close. How many famous Canadians do you know that you started off thinking as American?

Pamela Anderson, Lorne Green, Michael J Fox, Jim Carrey, Rick Moranis etc

They largely speak the same language, play the same sports (In Canada they play baseball instead of cricket and Gridiron football instead of Soccer or Rugby) etc. Even a Canadian courtroom is more American than British - no wigs, defendant sits with their attorney (not barrister) etc.

2 -

"secular, liberal and progressive democracy"

Lets take this apart.

Secular - the UK has two (once three) state churches. One is headed by the head of state and the other is "guarded" by the head of state and sends a letter and representative to its meetings every year.

Come to think of it, how many countries in the developed world have clerics sitting by right in their legislature? I see no bishops in the Cortes for example.

Whilst most British people do not go to church regularly, that can probably be said of much of North-West Europe and much of central Europe such as Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovenia where religion is nominal.

Liberal and progressive

Depends how you define it. The UK was way behind in Western European democracies vis a vis the death penalty. Most Western democracies before World War II had stopped executing people - even if they nominally retained the death penalty like Belgium.

Only France outstripped the UK with its last execution in 1977.

Britain is arguably more conservative in attitudes towards lets say recreational drug use, alcohol, gay rights, prostitution and other issues both in the recent past and present compared to many of our continental neighbours.


Of course compared to China and Russia and lots of other examples we are a democracy. However we are a strange democracy with a skewed voting system (the House of Commons is now the most undemocratic institution Scottish and Northern Irish voters cast ballots for) and it does not look like that is really going to change anytime soon.

Unless you think getting 43% of the vote deserves around 200 seat overall majority.

As for the Lords. Till about ten years ago most of its nominal composition was hereditry. The fact that something like that existed in a democracy till near the end of the twentieth century is to say dubious. Not to mention it was skewed towards one political party - the Tories. Again a lot of talk about reform but ----------

Then you have the appointees (many distinguished, others party toadies whose name has never been on ballot paper - on a party list one), the bishops and the judges in there as well.

"who believe that those qualities are best safe-guarded by policies on such topics as abortion and gay-rights being determined by one sovereign parliament at Westminster"

The Scottish Parliament to the best of my knowledge has not tried to curtail gay rights. I do not see how London is automatically wiser than Edinburgh somehow. Come to think of it, was it Scotland or the rest of the UK who abolished the clause first. Think it was Scotland.

As discussed many moons ago, homosexuality was not legalised in Scotland till 1980 (NI 1982), 13 years after England and Wales. If the Commons was so hip and happening would it not have legislated sooner in Scotland.

I remember you asking whether I think a Scottish Parliament would have abolished these laws sooner, to which I would say I do not know as I do not know the composition of such a body. For every David Steel you could have arch-unionist Nicky Fairbairn talking about how he was against "a man sticking his cock up another man's arsehole" as he said in a Commons debate once.

Concerning abortion, the present statutory basis legalised abortion in England and Wales and regulated it for Scotland. Before that law it was legal in Scotland to have an abortion under the Common Law.

3 -

Influence in the UN is questionable as we pretty much dance to the American's tune when it comes to foreign policy. You might as well give America an extra on the security council and get on with it. Remember not only Iraq but the weasel words emitting from the foreign office coming out over Uzbekistan and the Lebanon.

In the EU the UK can get outvoted in the council of ministers by a coalition of smaller countries.

4 -

First of all the UK is not a unitary state as such but a union state (copyright Gerry Hassan). Unitary state is like France or the Netherlands where the system is uniform - same education system, laws etc.

This has never existed in the UK and you will probably more likely provoke the end of the UK by trying to centralise it more than it has been in the past. There are of course problems in what you have advocated. Lets take water provision in the UK:-

Scotland and NI - state water companies
Wales - mutual company
England - private companies

Should Scotland, Wales and NI be privatised (causing maybe a lot of protests - remember the Water tax protests) or should there by a compulsory nationalisation of the English companies (expensive, will not go down well in the City)

There are of course advantages in pooling economically. It is a question however over whether the resources are efficently and fairly distributed.

It is generally considered for example that the UK economy is run for the benefit of the south-east of England. Remember what Eddie George said about unemployment in the North etc. I remember my German economics professor commenting on his remarks saying that any more of that talk would make Eddie George Alex Salmond's best friend.

Anyway I think maybe the skewing of the UK economy towards London (something I think you approve of) is best answered here in his own unique fashion:

O'Neill said...

I think we've gone over most of these points before...but, on this occasion, for the sake of the argument, let's assume you're right on the first four points.

That leaves only the fifth option, British nationalism as a valid justification for the existance of Unionism- do you really believe that to be the case?

Anyway I think maybe the skewing of the UK economy towards London (something I think you approve of)

Not really "approve of", this post sets out my opinion on London:

Anonymous said...

I am an Englishman, living overseas, and many of my friends are Scots and (Northern) Irish. Interestingly, just about all are unionists, and despite what celtic nationalists, and the lately the English brand, tell us, we are very very similar in culture.
When I was growing up I thought the things I did, said, ate and breathed were peculiar to mine own region of northern England, but I was wrong. It seems that all my Ulster and Scots friends lead very similar lives, but lets not tell the nats that eh? Let us let them believe we all watched different TV and played different games and took different cold medicines!!!
Even if the nationalists win, and divide us politically, we will forever share a mutual common history and heritage, and no amount of divisive bullshit will ever destroy that.

Thos who would destroy our country would do well to move abroad and see how much we have in common before decrying what we share.

Rule Brittania

The Aberdonian said...

I will answer the above points in a minute but first I have a wee treat! Yes we are going back to Austria-Hungary. One of the books to emerge immediately after the country's collapse was the "Good Soldier Svejk/Schejk" by Jaroslav Hasek. It was written in the context of World War I.

In the book there is a newspaper article reflecting Austria-Hungarian unionism and showing concern about some Czech soldiers being a bit pan-Slavic. Here are some extracts. Enjoy.

"The conduct of the war demands the co-operation of all classes of the population of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. If we are resolved to guarantee the security of the state, all the nationaliities must render each other mutual support, and is just in the spontaneous respect which one nationality feels for another that the guarantee of our future lies. The greatest sacrafices of our doughty warriors at the the fronts-----if behind the backs of our troops there were elements trying break up the state monolith and by their malevolent propaganda undermine its authority as an integral unit and sow discord in the community of the nationalities of our Empire. --- we cannot pass over in silence a handful of people who out of chauvenistic motives would like to destroy the unified efforts and struggle of all the nationalities of this Empire for the just punishment of those criminals who have attacked our Empire ---- with the object of robbing it of the whole heritage of its culture and civilisation. We cannot ignore those disgusting manifestations of the outbursts of a pathological mentality which has no other aim but to disrupt the unanimity reigning in the hearts of our peoples. ---- those individuals in the Czech regiments, who in disregard of glorious regimental traditions ---- the entire Czech nation, which is innocent, that has always stood firmly for the interests of the Empire. This is proved by a whole series of outstanding Czech military personalities, among whom we recall the glorious figures of Marshal Radetzky and other defenders of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.----have so splendidly represented the partnership of all the nationalities of this Monarchy ---for in war people of this kind will be taught by the bullet, the gallows, gaol and the baynot to obey and to subordinate their acts to the highest interests of our common fatherland."

The Aberdonian said...

Ok concerning 5 - if a country considers itself to be a country then it is a country. I remember Andrew Marr saying something like that in his 1992 tome "The Battle for Scotland"

To answer anonymous and yourself lets go to defunct states, Yugoslavia and the USSR. Now the perception is that these two states were actually entities of a bunch of ferrets fighting in a sack.

However for example ties still bind the old USSr and indeed the former Russian Empire (parts of Poland and the whole of Finland). A good example at simple stage is Kvass. What is Kvass I hear you ask. Well Kvass is a soft drink made from fermented rye bread and given different flavourings such as mint, ginger and other stuff. Some of it is good, some of it revolting.

Russian in origin it is drunk throughout the old Greater Russia - to give it a name due to the influence of the Russian Empire/USSR. They are essentially people bound together drinking Kvass. You do not get Kvass in Bulgaria, the old Yugoslavia, Czech Republic or Slovakia. The Kvass peoples are bound to Mother Russia by a soft drink.

As they are through common military exploits. The peoples (more or less) stood shoulder to shoulder to thump the Swedes, the Turks, Napolean's forces, the Kaiser and Hitler. However the common sacrafice has not held them together despite shedding blood together.

A good memorial to this is the Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia. It was built as a memorial of gratitude to the soldiers of the Russian Empire for liberating Bulgaria from 500 years of Turkish occupation. In it hangs giant plaques - one in Bulgarian, the other in English - saying thank you to the Finns, Moldovans, Russians, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians etc of the army of the Russian Empire who gave their lives to make Bulgaria free. Lump in throat time.

The ties are still strong and a source of conflict in particular in the Ukraine and Belarus. The Belarus government is pro-Russian and the countries are engaged to be reunified in a federation. Indeed it is so pro-Russian it squashes any symbols of the brief period of Belarussian independence after World War I and uses Soviet era symbols instead.

The Ukraine is controlled by the pro-Western forces at the moment. However take note of the recent anti-Nato protests a week or so ago. On the other hand Western Ukraine (formerly part of Austria-Hungary) is vermently anti-Russian. Much of Ukrainian TV is Russian imports.

A Latvian aquaintance of mine complained once of travelling to Estonia. Since most people speak Russian as well as the local lingo in both countries she tried to speak Russian to Estonians as it was the common language of both nations rather than trying to speak English or Estonian badly. She did not get a good reaction. Disgusting Estonian Chauvenists!

Old Yugoslavia is bound together by the burek. Burek is a filo pastry pie stuffed with cheese, meat, spinach, even pizza. This actually a legacy of a former country - the Turkish Empire which spead the dish from the Balkans to Algeria via the Levant and Armenia. Burek started off as being a favourite dish in Bosnia and Serbia due to their Turkish heritage. It became the staple breakfast ration (for conscipts anyway) in the JLA during the Tito period and spread as the country (now countries) adopted it as their main convenience food. Slovenia and Croatia (former A-H territories) for example did not have Burekeries till the 1970s as it had been traditionally seen as a Serb dish till then.

Concerning anonymous with "play diffent games", I am not sure what you mean. If you mean football that is the same throughout Europe and indeed much of the world. You have rugby I grant you - played it might be said in France and Italy as well as Eire. Cricket is not particuarly popular in Scotland except maybe my own patch and the south-east.

Concerning cold medicine, is that Stella the Belgian wife beater? Seriously most British beer is sold in the UK on a regional basis. Tennants for example is largely drunk in Scotland and part of northern England. You would be hard pushed to find it south of the Tees. One national brand that binds us together is Guiness - brewed in Dublin and ok Strongbow cider. Maybe Boddingtons at a push though Mel Sykes is not flogging it these days. Come to think of it much of the lagers flogged in British pubs are foriegn origin - Stella, Heineken, Carlsberg---

Austria-Hungary - yup them again - of course developed two world styles of beer - the Pilsner and the Vienna. Pilsner is course still going - pretty much all lagers are produced in its style.

The Vienna style has largely declined after the collapse of the Empire though it lives on in Sam Adams, Brooklyn, Dos Equis and Mondelo Negro. Its creator, the Dreher Corporation was the biggest brewer in the world before World War I with plants in Vienna, Budapest, Zatec (now Czech) and Trieste (now Italy) which demonstrates the economic and consumer unity of the country. The Dreher Empire broke up with the country.

Concerning broadcasting, I would agree. However I would point out that since broadcasting is not devolved and is unified (very little regional programming these days)of course everyone watches the same programmes. It might be said the same with the large American content on Canadian television (starring Canadians!!!).

O'Neill said...

You do put a fair bit of thought (and information) into your comments ...but I'll be honest, I still don't know if you agree with my premise or not- people are unionists for a whole host of reasons other than nationalism

The Dreher Empire broke up with the country.
I may be a bit weak on Czech literature or internal Belarussian politics, but I do know my beer!!
I'll have to contradict you!!
Dreher's still there- after the fall of communism the brewery got up and running again- now exported all over central/eastern Europe.

The Aberdonian said...

I would agree that Dreher as A BRAND still exists.

The corporation was broken up after the war. The brother running the Hungarian side of the operations went onto continue brewing under the Dreher name. Naturally due to communism this was of course nationalised after the war and is now in foreign hands post communist. Think it is SAB Miller.

The Vienna side of the operation (the company hub) left Dreher ownership in the early 1920's after the collapse of the size of the internal market of what had been A-H. It now brews as Schwechat and is part of the Austrian beer giant Brau-Union.

The Czech side at Zatec (German: Saaz) was confiscated by the Czechoslovakian government under the "nostrification" decrees in 1919 which confiscated assets owned by citizens of the new post-1918 Austrian and Hungarian states.

The Italian side is a bit more of mystery. A brewery operating with the Dreher name operated in Trieste for many years until it was bought over by Heineken and the brewing of "Dreher lager" was transferred to Milan.

It may be noted that the Vienna-style lager invented by the Dreher Corporation and source of its fortune is not brewed in any of the above enterprises.

Please visit the SAB Millar, Heineken and Schwechat websites for details.

Hen Ferchetan said...

While not in any way putting the amount of research the aberdonian does into his posts, this is a question which has often amused me.

The British parties react angrily to claims that they are British Nationalists. The reason for this is that they feel "Nationalist" to be a dirty word. In Wales Labour love the word "nashies" or "nats" to describe Plaid. They see the word as Americans see "liberal" (i.e. scum).

I'd say that all Unionists are British Nationalists, since they believe that we all benefit by being British. That's not an insult, but it's amusing that many Britnat interpret it as one!

O'Neill said...

I'd say that all Unionists are British Nationalists, since they believe that we all benefit by being British.

It's not an insult, but it's also not right to say that everyone who believes in the continuance of the union (small "u") is therefore automatically a British nationalist.

If I work in the public sector and am completely apolitical, but fear I'd lose my job in an independent Scotland, NI, Wales then I want the union to continue and I'm a unionist, but not necessarily a British nationalist.

Hen Ferchetan said...

Why not? If you believe that your life is better under the union than it would be as seperate states then you believe in the British Nation - how does that not make you a BritNat? Isn't it the very definition of a Brit Nat that you believe that things are better as the UK and wish for it to stay that way?

O'Neill said...

No, not necessarily. It might just mean that you're more confident of the British state providing you with a pension than an independent Welsh one.

Hen Ferchetan said...

Um...isn't that the same thing? If you think an Uk state would give you a better pension than a Welsh state, doesn;t that mean you think wed be better off as the UK and want it to stay the UK?

O'Neill said...

No it isn't the same thing really.

It's looking out for your economic benefit versus a love for your nation simply because its your nation, irrespective of the economic consequences.

Hen Ferchetan said...

It's quite insulting to suggest that nationalism is all emotion and no rationale. I believe that I, and most Welsh people, would benefit economically by being ruled by Cardiff instead of London - does that mean I'm not a nationalist in your book then?

O'Neill said...

Do you love Wales simply because you believe its your nation, irrespective of the economic consequences?

If you do, then you're a nationalist.

Hen Ferchetan said...

I love Wales and I believe it will be better off economically outside of the UK-so what does that make me?

Are you honestly saying that if you were talking to a man who wanted an independence Wales simply because he believed that his life would be better in such a state you would tell him that he was not a nationalist?

kensei said...

Do you love Wales simply because you believe its your nation, irrespective of the economic consequences?

If you do, then you're a nationalist.

Stupefyingly arrogant. I'd suggest you'd love Britain and the Union regardless of the economic consequences. At a minimum it would take a lot to break that bond. But as you say, you believe a lot of other things that feed into that.

I believe a lot of things that feed into my Nationalism. I certainly believe we'd be, in the medium to long run, better off and I also a principled Republican. In any case, lots of benefits fall out of the common emotional attachment to a country, and the fact that there can be downsides should not lead to the suggestion that it is all negative.

You are taking conclusions and working backwards to get the result you want. Never a good way to approach anything.

O'Neill said...

Stupefyingly arrogant. I'd suggest you'd love Britain and the Union regardless of the economic consequences

Not so sure about the first assertion; regarding the second, yes.
I've never said that (following on from the definition I put in the original post) I'm not a British nationalist as well as being a Unionist.

What I was saying (and this is the point that everybody in this thread seems determined to ignore) is that it is possible to be a unionist (small "u", may not vote, may not give a fig about his national identity, the history of the UK or even what passport he travels on) and nota British nationalist.