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.
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.