From the Irish World of 30 January 2004:
IT’S NOT every day the Conservative Party is accused of undermining the United Kingdom. That is what happened last week, however, in the run-up to this week’s decisive vote on university tuition fees at Westminster.
The Tories last week demanded that Scottish Labour MPs stay out of the vote on tuition fees, because they will only apply to universities in England and Wales. In reply, the leader of the House of Commons, Peter Hain, accused them of ‘English nationalism’ that ‘risks undermining the unity of Britain.’
Strange as it may seem, there were good reasons for that accusation. The most consistent solution to the difficulties the Tories raise would be the creation of an English Assembly to match the Scottish and Welsh versions. This would be anathema to most MPs, Labour and Tory, for two related reasons, which have little to do with the interests of the English or Scottish people. Firstly, it would mean an obvious loss of their own power and prestige. Secondly, there might indeed be a resurgence of English nationalism that would sweep away the UK parliament altogether.
This kind of institutional interest in the preservation of Britishness is not restricted to Westminster. When people in Scotland wanted a separate, Scottish version of the Six O’Clock News it was blocked by the then Director General John Birt, because of its constitutional implications.
This desire on the part of official Britain to preserve its own position, has obvious implications for Ireland. Indeed, in a recent speech, Gerry Adams blamed it for thecurrent difficult state of the peace process.
“It is important to appreciate that the British government is a unionist government,” he said. “Not unionist of the Irish variety but British unionism.” “In a state like this which is entirely unionist in its ethos, symbolism and management, any effort to modernise is bound to be very challenging indeed.”
Any development which weakens ‘British unionism’ would be very much in Irish interests. The emergence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism is positive. The emergence of English nationalism would actually be even better.
The Irish in Britain intuitively recognised this during the last World Cup. It is safe to say that many of the people who flew the English Cross of St George alongside the Irish Tricolour on their car bonnets would not have put the Union Flag in the same position. The Scottish National Party have gone a gone a step further, actively calling for the English to celebrate St George’s Day.
By contrast, British unionism is deeply ambivalent about open expressions of English identity. In this, the English within Britain are in this same position as the Russians within the old Soviet Union, the Serbs in Yugoslavia and the Germans in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In each case, the state was made up of one dominant ethnic group and a number of smaller nationalities. The government encouraged the dominant group to soft-pedal its own nationalism in order to better absorb the others. In the latter three cases, this strategy collapsed when the dominant group revolted against it. In the process, smaller nationalities were able to recover their independence in a way they never otherwise would have. Lithuania, for example, would have found it much harder to leave the USSR if the Russians hadn’t decided to do the same thing.
Could something similar ever happen in Britain? Surveys already show that most people in this country regard themselves primarily as English, Scottish or Welsh, rather than British. The main exception is nonwhite ethnic minorities, which is part of the reason why multi-culturalism is important to New Labour’s modernised version of Britishness.
This strategy has caused some confusion for the far-right version of Britishness espoused by the BNP, and it seems to have passed loyalism by completely. Under David Trimble, the Ulster Unionists have tried to row along with this vision of British identity, but the DUP have a very different record, about which they really ought to be challenged in the wake of recent racist attacks in Belfast. If they fail to change, they could risk opening a faultline between Irish and British unionism.
British unionism itself may face crucial challenges in the year ahead. At the moment, English nationalism lacks any institutional expression, a situation that is likely to continue as long as Labour dominates in both England and Scotland. The future of the British state may well be bound up with the future of the Labour Party.