The future of the United Kingdom is endangered as much by unionists as it is by nationalists because of a misconception of the 314-year-old Union itself, according to a new book* by this author.
It explores the complex history of union in these islands and the many varieties of unionism and the meanings given to the union. There is, it argues, not just one union or one unionism. There is an extended discussion of sovereignty and how it has become an obstacle to accommodation in plurinational states. The Brexit project is based on returning sovereignty to a unitary nation-state and a sovereign Parliament and people.
Yet the UK has never been that kind of state. On the contrary, it resembles the European Union as a project that is continually being negotiated. One chapter shows how the UK devolution project was dependent on the overarching European framework so that Brexit has stimulated powerful centrifugal forces.
The book also contains extended discussions of the concepts of social and economic union and the degree to which these still hold in the UK, with key points such as:
- Traditional unionism was not a single thing but took different forms across the nations of the UK. Being British was never the same thing at an Orange parade in Northern Ireland and a Conservative garden party in the Home Counties.
- The United Kingdom did not require a single people, a single purpose and a single understanding of the constitution. Rather, it accommodated different understandings of its nature.
- In this, it resembles the European Union, which is why EU membership and British devolution complemented each other. Both were a matter of continual negotiation.
- The new unionism, in seeking a single understanding of Britishness, has become a nationalism in itself, competing with those of the constituent nations.
- The Britishness agenda claims that the higher values, like democracy and fair play, are ‘British values’, although they are shared by Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalists and by the EU.
- The UK was an economic and social union in the post-war era. Since then, territorial cohesion has been neglected as disparities among the nations and regions have grown. Social citizenship has been undermined by talk of ‘strivers and skivers’. The National Health Service, held up as a symbol of Britishness, is organized differently across the UK.
- The doctrine of the absolute sovereignty and supremacy of Westminster represents a misconceived understanding of the UK. A broader epistemic interpretation of the constitution is possible.
- Many voices are arguing that federalism is the answer to the UK’s constitutional dilemma. Yet federalism is meaningless unless the supremacy of Westminster is curtailed, and something is done about England. Proposals for federalism have neglected these vital matters.
- The time is not ripe for a written constitution. Some constitutions exist to express the unity of the nation. Others serve to accommodate different understandings of identity and sovereignty; this is the case in the United Kingdom.
- A Citizens’ Assembly or Constitutional Convention have been suggested as the way to forge a new constitution. That could only work if it were to recognize the very different constitutional aspirations across the Union and to accommodate both unionism and nationalism.
- Brexit has been followed by moves to reconstitute the UK (or at least Great Britain) as a unitary state, halting the trend of twenty years towards a new kind of asymmetrical quasi-federal union nested within a larger union.
- If unionism has lost the argument, this does not mean that the nationalisms have won. Scottish independence and Irish reunification face formidable practical difficulties, not least around borders. An independent Scotland would retain numerous connections with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Brexit has shown that unions are not easily taken apart.
* State and Nation in the United Kingdom: The Fractured Union, Michael Keating, Oxford University Press 2021; Forthcoming: e-book on Opportunities and Risks of Scottish Independence via Centre on Constitutional Reform.