Managed by Ghouls

Tom Nairn

  • Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland, 1500-2000 by Colin Kidd
    Cambridge, 312 pp, £15.99, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 70680 3

Colin Kidd’s study of Scottish Unionism goes, as he himself insists, sternly against the prevailing ideological current, which is focused on the emergence of political nationalism in both Scotland and Wales. Kidd thinks his book will serve its purpose if it unsettles this debate, and brings about a revision of ‘the basic categories of political analysis’. These categories should acknowledge that the wish for some kind of union with England has a specific history, which started long before the formation of the Scottish National Party, or indeed the 1707 Treaty of Union itself. Kidd shows that various notions of union came and went – mainly but never exclusively ecclesiastical in nature. Nor has this ‘taxonomy of unionisms’, as he puts it, come to a halt in today’s more nationalist-inclined age. We still find unionists supporting forms of devolution or autonomy – which is not too surprising since, as Kidd points out, ‘administrative devolution to Edinburgh was a shibboleth of unionism throughout its history.’ On the other side, nationalists often seem over-anxious about maintaining links with England: independence, they insist, is a matter of equality, rather than mere difference. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this landscape often assumed a frankly racist form in the contrived ethnology of an underlying ‘Saxondom’, which perceived ‘Lowland Scotland and Northumbria as the true ethnic heartland of Great Britain, the home of the most purely Anglian stock within the island’, and dismissed its Celtic strains as alien or spurious.

Kidd doesn’t revert to such lunacy, but he insists the story is far more mixed up than most nationalist accounts now assume. Between 1707 and the mid-20th century what prevailed was ‘banal unionism’ – a useful conception that captures the practical, largely unquestioning nature of so many Scottish (and Welsh) attitudes. His introduction summarises these as an ‘inarticulate acceptance of Union as part of the barely noticed but enduring backdrop of British politics’. The backdrop was reinforced by common or joint Protestant beliefs, as Linda Colley argues in Britons, as well as by imperialism and British state warfare. Only when the former grew less salient and the latter came to be questioned and denounced, as was the case by the 1980s, could it be argued that ‘banal unionism was dead.’

I was raised in the banal-unionist environment Kidd describes so well. We were always made to feel that Scottishness mattered, and indeed shaped our family and immediate community in some way, but that there was a more important framework of Britishness that would take over at vital moments. The outward-looking dimension of Britishness was ‘banal’ mainly in the sense of seeming inevitable: it was a structure that defined the comfortable if more limited Gemeinschaft of the Scots – dialect, locality and so on. In contrast, the British – or even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – Gesellschaft stood for a wider reality, and appealed more to intellectuals, as well as to those inclined towards emigration, military or uniformed service, or politics. It showed the way to a wider world, the one the Scottish Enlightenment had so successfully involved itself with in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Without entailing ‘Anglicisation’ in a vulgar, imitative sense, this did involve strategies of adaptation, and the relegation or confinement of nativism to prescribed situations and encounters.

The assumption was that this wider reality was superior, and also that it was optional: the banality lay partly in its not being imposed by conquest. It seemed as inevitable as nature, if one wanted to get anywhere, or do anything important. But behind the banality lay something else, to which Kidd pays insufficient attention: one might call it English incompletion, or non-formality. In her classic account of modern nationalism, Liah Greenfeld described the English nation as ‘God’s First-born’ – the model for most subsequent nation-state formation. However, she failed to note this Model-T’s limitations: being first also meant that Anglo nationality could never be typical or exemplary. It was initially religious, and consolidated as such in the 17th-century wars of faith, by which time the English were already (and prematurely) ultra-expansive – borne outwards on a wave of overseas settlement, and then empire. At a deep level, their self-identity came to mean more than just ‘Englishness’ in a 20th-century or ‘ethnic’ sense. ‘Britishness’ in fact was an important feature of the resultant (and still prevalent) alibi-identity – not being like others, above that sort of thing etc.

In the archipelago itself, only the Irish resisted inclusion, for religious reasons of their own – and this provoked something like the response of a typical, later nation-state, employing force and aiming for assimilation. But the other peripheral populations were either apparently absorbed, like Wales, or in search of partnership, like the Scots, via one or other version of unionism, as Kidd shows. He makes a great deal of the willingness and variety evident in that quest, stressing the richness and originality of unionist tradition. Only in the 1970s would this harden into Thatcher’s and, later, Brown’s caricatures of Britishness. Kidd tends to ascribe these traits to Scottish reasonableness, a willingness to compromise that preceded the rise of the tougher political nationalism of today’s SNP. This may endear his book to defenders of Brownite or Cameronian union, but remains doubtful in a broader perspective.

Clannic, tribal or (later) national human societies have always been essentially (and not accidentally) ‘outward-looking’, and necessarily aware of others. Long before globalisation, cultural cross-fertilisation was the rule of human ‘species-being’, in Feuerbach and Marx’s sense. This history of ‘foreign relations’ was resumed recently in Kees van der Pijl’s Nomads, Empires, States: Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy.[*] One implication of Pijl’s analysis is that there was nothing exceptional about the outward-looking initiatives he describes. An outer-fringe population would be condemned to such resorts, faced with a much larger and wealthier neighbour, and dependent also to some degree on that neighbour’s own communal identity – or lack of it.

The conventional or ‘banal’ accord of earlier unionisms rested on acceptance of the wider framework, ‘within a more viable, stable and enduring union state’, as Kidd puts it. However, such reasonableness is exactly what has been placed in doubt by the decades following the 1960s. Not only has the empire disappeared as an outlet for so many Scots, but the United Kingdom itself has lost prestige, influence and economic importance. Long before the 2008 debacle it had ceased to be the ‘wider reality’ counted on by all earlier versions of unionism. That’s why it has had to be more passionately defended, and secured by an overplaying of foreign relations: the special relationship with the US was wrongly perceived as yet another grand framework that the British could count on and exploit. The Scots, the Welsh, and now even the Northern Irish Unionists came to smell rats busily at work, notably around Westminster. Banality was gone with the wind, and Union as an unnoticed backdrop soon went too. Interpreting the Union may well have become ‘a topic of immense richness and subtlety’, in Kidd’s words: cadavers lend themselves better to dissection and taxonomy. But even the admiring anatomist has to concede that, as an ideology, it has become ‘more overt, yet also shriller and less tolerant of ambiguity and complexity’.

The Labour Party above all has felt impelled to prop up the Union, as demonstrated by the works of the present prime minister. Brown’s 1975 Red Paper on Scotland demanded a Scottish socialist contribution to a suitably (i.e. radically) reformed United Kingdom. Since then, socialism has slid off the agenda – and unionism looks like joining it. Everything archaic about Britain’s old regime not only remains 34 years after the Red Paper: its scorn for democracy is now shared by that book’s editor. The entire new-British agenda once prominently advertised by Brown has been abandoned. Whatever the political fate of Kidd’s book, it seem unlikely that a tolerable ‘ism’ can be recomposed. The saviours of Union have turned into its executioners.

Kidd’s cumulative over-praise for unionism tends to obscure the costs of sustaining such a system. Scots may have liked it, and striven ingeniously to adapt to it; but they downplayed – or even colluded in – the grim costs of the show. That is, in the maintenance of an increasingly preposterous and anachronistic multinational state and monarchy. The persistence of 1688-style union has not been just to suit the Scots. Their support has merely been a convenience, helping to sustain a majority stalemate founded on archaism in both state and civil society, like the grotesque social-class rigidities evolved in England to compensate for the slowing down and paralysis of democratic nationality. As the intolerable structure has broken down since the Second World War, peripheral discontent has grown and taken nationalist form, though not yet to a degree sufficient finally to demolish it. This is partly because an odd, belated style of liberation movement has been countered by mounting panic among the intellos of the outer archipelago who seem determined to save the minority bacon. English democracy is of no account to these souls: all they can think about is the stability and continuity of Union-Britain, which has provided so many jobs for outwardly-mobile fringe intellectuals and politicians, and saved them from small-nation obscurity and powerlessness.

Kidd goes on to examine the interesting side of Scottish nationalism that has always tacitly, sometimes openly, supported the continuation of union. But he fails to acknowledge the bizarre contradiction to which this has led: sovereign independence for the Union’s parts has now become the only way of establishing a tolerable future association of states. Yet because of the peculiarities of the majority English identity I mentioned earlier, there seems at present very little chance of creating any new wider reality. It would have to take the form of a confederation, based on the devolved authorities now in place, which seem certain to remain and assert themselves. Federalism of Lincoln’s 19th-century brand is a non-starter in a society so overwhelmingly dominated by one single component, the English. And this component is still reluctant to accept relegation to ‘little England’, the more confining identity that it eluded before, during the prolonged rapids of colonial spread and diversification.

Hence independence has become the sole answer, and separation the only available route towards anything like a replacement for Kidd’s 57 varieties of unionism. That is, towards confederation. The ‘con’ modifies everything, by relocating sovereignty in the parts, not because ethnicity is sacrosanct, but because the universal has always been constructed through and out of the particular. Such variation is at bottom fate, however much it is elaborated by choice and culture. Kidd has reiterated the richness and flexibility of unionist traditions, and provides an important new context for understanding the archipelago story and guessing at its future. But some questions simply can’t be answered using the categories unionism has bequeathed. He says he wants to ‘unsettle’ existing categories of Scottish political thought; getting rid of most of them would be more to the point. The banal matter-of-factness of moribund Great Britishness continues to hinge on the absence of an English polity. English nationalism remains a funny kind of non-nationalism: the immovable notion of not being institutionally like other folk, and so not having to accept ordinariness and mere ethnicity. Unfortunately, Kidd’s study is all too likely to be conscripted into this mind-set: his over-emphasis on the splendours and variety of past unionism will be read as encouragement of a fossilised ancien régime outlook.

Union and Unionisms is the most important addition to the pro-union bookshelf since John Robertson’s A Union for Empire back in 1995, but it’s also the portrait of a splendid graveyard, managed by ghouls and zombies determined to keep the rusty old gates open as long as they can. In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan argued that ‘the population of Scotland will never get a better deal than the one the Union has afforded them for over three hundred years.’ Possibly, and Kidd’s description of the old deal is a very telling one. But one reason for his book’s existence is that the funeral is under way. The mourners will soon be on their way home, many of them grumbling tearfully, still unwilling to speak ill of the dead, but from this ground Minerva’s owl has flown, and no songs of longing will bring her back. Gordon Brown’s revenants can’t keep the elegies going for ever. Soon these ancient gates will creak shut for good.

[*] Pluto, 241 pp., £45, March 2008, 978 0 7453 2601 6.