Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our emerging Fifth Nations...opportunity or threat?

Richard Rose, one of the academics involved in the Work Group in UK Politics, in Understanding the United Kingdom stated that:
"To understand the parts..." (of the government of United Kingdom), "...we must also understand the government of the whole. :Parliament..." (Westminster) " more than the sum of the representatives from diverse constituencies. It is, as it were, the fifth nation of the United Kingdom; it is the first loyalty of some and the last loyalty of others."
In Rose’s Fifth Nation* the United Kingdom, although a collection of differing regions, nations and peoples, was as a whole stronger than the sum total of those parts- a Union based on a common patriotic British citizenship with a united parliament at the centre.

The United Kingdom obviously still provides a measurable function (in terms of the provision of benefits and services for its citizens) but previously that functionality alone did not explain the sense of allegiance felt towards it by the majority of citizens in each of the 4 "nations"** which comprised the whole- the majority of citizens of the United Kingdom felt a clear sense of belonging to that Fifth Nation.

I mixed my tenses on purpose in that last sentence. Rose was writing prior to the devolution referendums of the late 90s- the resulting system of assymetrical governance has greatly shaken the foundations of the Fifth Nation. Devolution, at a functional level, has removed from the parliament of the Fifth Nation the responsibility for deciding on which basis some of those benefits and services should be supplied in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, albeit leaving the rather more inconvenient question of how to finance those changes with Westminster and ultimately the UK (as opposed to solely the N. Irish, Scottish and Welsh) taxpayer. But has the sense of allegiance to the Fifth Nation also being altered by devolution? Undoubtedly.

The partial withdrawal of N. Irish, Scottish and Welsh business from Westminster has had several far-reaching effects. Firstly, it has made the previous United Kingdom parliament in many aspects now an English one. Whilst MPs from the devolved areas still attend it remains a UK legislature and therefore not,(to the chagrin of the CEP) The English Parliament ("The" and capital "P"); nevertheless devolution has heralded a partial psychological withdrawal of N.Ireland, Scotland and Wales from the Fifth Nation. Even amongst pro-Union politicians in Scotland and Wales there is by necessity now a split allegiance and dual loyalty between what was the sole parliament of the previously unitary nation and their own assembly/parliament. That prior instinctive loyalty towards the Fifth Nation and, by extension, Westminster, amongst a large swathe of Unionism in Northern Ireland has always (in my opinion) been more of a conditional nature. Devolution has however accentuated that (in particular amongst the DUP and its electorate) move towards a more regionalist, almost detached form of Unionism- the dual and (in some cases triple) jobbing and the resulting dreadful attendance records of Northern Ireland’s MPs are surely conclusive proof of that deepening detachment.

Yet despite it all, sentiment for the Union where it really matters, i.e. amongst the actual population of the United Kingdom, remains pretty robust- opinion polls in Northern Ireland, the still healthy majorities at the ballot box obtained by pro-Union parties in Scotland and Wales and the lack (so far) of a mass English nationalist movement, all go to show there is still a belief in the worth of a multi-national United Kingdom. But how different parts see their own relationship with and why they value that Union now greatly varies from region to region. In other words there is no longer one Fifth Nation, but instead a whole collection of Fifth Nations interacting with the various regions, nations and most importantly peoples of the United Kingdom. Is that necessarily a threat to the cohesion and ultimate future of the Union? Not necessarily, but it is a fact that firstly needs to be understood and acknowledged right across the pro-Union board.

Whilst it's a fact that I, as a natural integrationist and anti-devolutionist, regret, it's a fact that I and the more traditionalist wing of Unionism can't deny- the Fifth Nation which existed pre-1998 has gone forever.
Having accepted the present situation, how then do we deal with the opportunity-threat of the multiple Fifth Nations?
How can we use their existance to our advantage?

Most importantly are we capable and flexible enough to not only consolidate, but also build on the continuing pro-Union sentiment of the majority of United Kingdom's population at a time of rapidly changing political and constitutional "certainties"?

*Thanks to Arthur Aughey who was the one pointing me in the direction of the Fifth Nation...

** At this stage I don't want a debate on what and what doesn't constitute a nation, if there's demand (;)), I'll open up an open thread on the subject.

*** Good follow-up post on the subject from Chekov.


Anonymous said...

Persuading Gordon Brown to abandon his Britishness project might be a good start. It's counter-productive.

Chekov said...

Interesting post O'Neill. I must confess I wasn't familiar with the notion of the fifth nation, or the work 'Understanding the United Kingdom' (which appears to be out of print).

O'Neill said...

Persuading Gordon Brown to abandon his Britishness project might be a good start


Seems to have gone very quiet recently though hasn't it? But yes, implanting a standard one size-fits-all *Britishness* isn't going to work.


I've put in the link to the original article (page 5) where I first read about it.

Urban_Underclass said...

Interesting post, I'd never thought about it, but it is strange that England has no equivalent to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Assemblies.

It would make Westminster an English Parliament I suppose. A federal solution with an English (and maybe even a Yorkshire) Assembly is the way to go I guess.


O'Neill said...


These guys will be delighted to have you on board...

Urban_Underclass said...

Well I checked it out. It's a little on the romantic, merry England side, but I suppose English nationalists would be like that. I felt a bit voyeuristic, but I bookmarked it anyway.
There is a real issue here, raised by your post.