Banging on about Britishness

One might have expected that Gordon Brown’s promotion of British identity would have found a ready audience among Irish unionists. However, his careful exclusion of Northern Ireland from the debate may have put paid to that.

In today’s Irish Times, Dennis Kennedy of the Cadogan Group criticises Brown’s discussion document The Governance of Britain, and argues for an alternative that would generalise the post-peace process Northern Irish model:

Behind the radical changes implemented in Northern Ireland might seem to lie a realisation that the the United Kingdom is not a nation state, and that there is no national identity that can be labelled British. The UK should be seen, rather, as partly a historical accident, and partly a convenient political arrangement within which people of varying identities can live together and organise their affairs in a manner which is beneficial to all. People live in it because they were born in it, because political or economic pressures forced them to migrate to it, or just because it suits them. It is pointless to agonise over Britishness – it is sufficient that those who live in the state recognise its legitimacy, respect its laws and join in the political processes of its governance. Or were the changes in Northern Ireland just part of the appeasement of terrorism, and further evidence of London’s distancing itself? (Irish Times – subs required)

The flaw in this argument the assumption that national identity can be separated from the pragmatic sense of economic interest and democratic legitimacy that Kennedy recommends.

Kennedy’s own account of Irish history is at odds with this assumption. He blames the delay in achieving Catholic emancipation for the failure of the Act of Union of 1800. In other words, the failure of democratic legitimacy led to the failure of nation-building.

In a less extreme form, there are clear economic and political issues underlying the rise of English, Scottish, and Welsh nationalism.

Kennedy is right to conclude that ‘the future of the UK will depend more on efficient governance for all, than on banging on about Britishness.’

However, Brown’s reliance on rhetoric is precisely because of his unwillingness to address the concrete political and economic factors that are undermining the union.

The West Lothian Question is one aspect of this. Brown’s London-centred economic strategy is another.   

Update: There’s an interesting discussion of the Kennedy piece over at the Cedar Lounge Revolution.

Update: Jon Bright has also picked up the article at OurKingdom.







2 responses to “Banging on about Britishness”

  1. DougtheDug avatar

    “One might have expected that Gordon Brown’s promotion of British identity would have found a ready audience among Irish unionists. However, his careful exclusion of Northern Ireland from the debate may have put paid to that.”
    You must ask yourself why he is promoting, “Britishness”, and who is his target audience.
    The reasons are solely to do with Scotland’s relationship with England, and how this affects his postion as a Scot in Westminster. Northern Ireland and its population are not a consideration.
    “Britishness”, is promoted for three reasons:
    1. In England, to lessen the fact that his Scottishness might be a vote loser. The message is, “Hey, we’re all British. Scotland, Yorkshire, Dorset, what’s the difference?”. It’s interesting that an English Prime Minister would never have to assert the fact that he or she was actually British. That would be taken as a given. The Labour party gets no votes from NI so NI doesn’t count here.
    2. In England, to try and deflect attention from the already mentioned West Lothian Question, where, for example, as Prime Minister he can legislate on Education, the Law, the Police Service, the NHS and planning across England but none of the changes affect his own constituents in Scotland. His message is, “Forget it, we’re all British”. The West Lothian Question is a problem for English voters only. The WLQ is not a topic of discussion in NI so there is no need to focus any attention on NI.
    3. In Scotland, to try and put a damper on Scottish Nationalist support. The message here is, “Be British, not Scottish, support the Union.” If the SNP keeps winning then Scotland will leave the Union long before NI does. If NI leaves Gordon runs a smaller country. If Scotland leaves, it takes Gordon’s constituency with it and any, “British”, legitimacy which attaches to his nationality in English politics.
    In the context of Gordon’s current, “Britishness”, drive, the main targets are the electorate in England and Scotland, NI is as sideshow and probably best left out in case it causes problems with the main campaign.

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    I’d say that analyis is pretty much spot on, although it’s not necessarily true that the West Lothian Question is a non-issue in Northern Ireland.
    David Trimble was very vocal in defence of his right to vote on English laws when he was an MP, and the Tories were not as keen on stopping him as they were on stopping Scottish Lavour MPs.

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