Five principled points for Unionism





Sometimes we need to address the future by referencing some fundamentals.

In an article coinciding with the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, and reflecting on its place in the historical self-understanding of Unionists, Jane McGaughey observed that while it is remembered, primacy of The Covenant in the unionist ‘collective memory’ is dubious. Interestingly, McGaughey thought that this was due to its:

‘lack of stated adherence to Reformation Era Protestant principles of anti-Catholicism and literal biblical interpretation.’

That may seem a curious argument in our secular age. Her conclusion was unambiguous:

‘Sir Edward Carson once said that he would keep his covenant until his death; he was right. Since his death in 1935, the centrality of the Ulster Covenant to the unionist imagination has faded dramatically, replaced by images of battlefield heroics, religious fundamentalism, paramilitary warfare and the promise of peace. The Ulster Covenant now lies with Carson in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. His tomb is its ossuary’.

That was five years ago. Evidence is that is hasn’t been quite that forgotten. Though it would be true to say that the British Covenant (1914) largely mirroring the earlier Ulster Covenant, and signed by two million people, is rarely referenced.

It has to be said that confining Unionist imagination to ‘images of battlefield heroics, religious fundamentalism, paramilitary warfare’ is a curious diminishment – as if the imagination of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 (for example) was somehow any more than ‘images of battlefield heroics, religious fundamentalism, paramilitary warfare’.

To be clear, if the Irish nationalist should object and say: ‘Of course, as foundational statement, The Easter Rising was more than just this’ then the Unionist can reply: ‘Of course there is more to Unionism than images of battlefield heroics, religious fundamentalism and paramilitary warfare.’

That is why it is important on five years on to re-visit the Covenant as a clue to what that ‘more’ actually is.

Popular commemorations like the Covenant provoke two opposite states of mind. On the one hand, a sense of distance (things are different) and on the other, a sense of connection (things are familiar).

How can we understand this?

G K Chesterton wrote:

“We may find people wrong in what they thought, but we cannot find them wrong in what they thought they thought.”

Chesterton anticipated by half a century the Marxist historian EP Thompson’s remark about the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, the patronising manner in which later generations approach events they have little sympathy for or understanding of – especially if they are nationalist commentators.

To re-consider the significance of the Covenant as a statement of Unionism, how can we render unto history what belongs to history and unto the present what is relevant to us?

In other words, how can we distinguish what is living from what is dead – not to diminish the dead but to find inspiration for the living (which, in their very different ways, is what Chesterton and Thompson were seeking to do?).

The first thing that is dead is a way of historical thinking.

The history we find in the Covenant is a narrative of the ever onwards and upwards of liberal progress. This was Lord Macauley’s vision of political and cultural improvement which put the Siege of Derry at its centre. It is, in other words, an excellent example of the Whig Interpretation of History as Butterfield described it.

There is an irony here, of course.

For all that the Covenant assumes a liberal heritage it stands condemned by liberal historians as the source of all subsequent rancour and bloodshed in Ireland.

That liberal opinion should harbour resentment towards Ulster unionists is understandable if only because their own actions illustrated the limits of British liberal assumptions.

For example, that latter-day Whig, Roy Jenkins, confirmed a long-standing liberal/left opinion, when he dismissively put modern Ulster Unionists outside the parameters of the British political tradition altogether and feared ‘the barbaric standards of Northern Ireland spreading to the rest of us’.

That Unionists are patronisingly dismissed as reactionary and naturally conservative has a lot to do with the that enduring metropolitan liberal mentality.

The second (and related) death is the Covenant’s notion of Providence – not of the religious kind (which was implicit) but of the material kind (which was explicit).

The idea of ‘progress’ was part of a larger self-understanding where, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, faith and destiny rhymed. Only the very naive believed that God had arranged things specially so that the Union should survive and prosper.

Yet such providential naivety was one aspect of the belief that what today would be called the ‘values’ of the Union were divinely favoured.

The third is the identification of the Covenant with British Imperial mission.

That mission was rooted in moral seriousness and also in the faith that free trade promised a world beneficial for everyone. It was the projection of local Providential thinking to the world at large.

This heart-warming vision of imperialistic righteousness may have been an unreliable guide to what was actually done in the name of free trade and civilising mission. Providentially, it was assumed that God helped those who helped themselves, and in a dangerous world of competing Empires, the British were also required to do so.

The fourth passing is the Covenant’s pride in Ulster’s economic success; hubris which Gladstone had detected a generation earlier. Ulster was not a dismal backwater. It could claim to with some justice be at the heart of the British Empire.

Not only did its ships, ropes, engines help pump the commercial lifeblood of that Empire, and its shirts cover its backs; its intellectual life – for example, Forrest Reid, CS Lewis –  contributed as much to its character as the playing fields of Eton. That world too is dead and gone, its memory preserved in the ‘heritage sites’,  or in the case of intellectual life discouraged from the public space.

But what is ‘living’ in the Covenant?

How might the Covenant be re-read imaginatively to speak to the future of the UK and to Northern Ireland’s place within it?

Perhaps surprisingly, given the prominence identity is supposed to play in Northern Ireland politics, the word British was not used at all in the Covenant.

The Covenant was also concise – 189 words – and yet admirably managing to convey the complex relationships which continue to the sustain Union.

First, it begins with a statement of what political scientists today call the instrumental value of the Union: its importance for the material well-being of all citizens. If this looks like a contract which individuals might take out with a mobile phone company, that is not all the Covenant says.

Second, this instrumentalism is balanced by a statement of non-instrumental belonging in the United Kingdom: the ‘cherished position of equal citizenship’.

These two complementary relationships are set, thirdly, in the context of political allegiance: loyalty to the Crown. As Richard Rose once pithily put it, the idea of the Crown is as close as British politics comes to a theory of the ‘state’. Here is where the material entitlements and the political obligations of citizenship meet. This is a particularly strong aspect within to Northern Irish Unionism; allegiance that it is to the ‘nation’ rather than to ‘government’ – an inherent distrust of political establishment or elite (sometimes even our own).

This links, fourthly, to an appeal to values held in common: civil and religious liberties.

There is a contemporary reluctance to phrasing values so precisely today – but the appeal is unassuaged. Gordon Brown tried, and the British citizenship test tries its best. Much of what has been written about those values of national identity according to the political philosopher Lord Parekh – some notable exceptions apart – ‘remains disappointing.’

The Covenant (if he was not condescending about its merits) would be a useful place for a less disappointing start.

Fifth, the Covenant points to what economists call the equalisation of risk – expressed there as the unity of the Empire but proclaimed today as welfare solidarity across all parts of the UK. Indeed, this is arguably what ultimately sank arguments for Scottish independence in 2014.

There is a logic which informs a Unionist statement of political identity which is not alien to British politics (as some ignorant journalists claimed when the Conservative Party made its deal with the DUP, and still do; though liberals first).

There is an underlying five-point logic to principled Unionism and the future of the United Kingdom:

  1. The Union is a vital arrangement for our material welfare;
  2. That material welfare is secured by common citizenship rights and responsibilities, under the Rule of Law;
  3. Allegiance to the State of the Union is a necessary condition for rights and welfare;
  4. What we share as citizens are the values of civil liberty;
  5. And the solidarity of equal citizenship is the operative principle of ‘one nation’.

These five points have the capacity to inform a living tradition.

The logic does not presume that everyone and everywhere in the Union are the same. It is entirely possible that different nationalities, with different regional priorities, elect to stay in constitutional relation with one another and that this relationship constitutes an affinity giving meaning to the term British.

The five points are entirely attuned to today’s concerns and ensure healthy political discourse – being able to disagree is a fundamental liberty.

Or to put that in language, familiar now in Northern Ireland but of relevance elsewhere, especially in Scotland: multi-national affinities are sustained on the basis of consent.

Despite the talk of a ‘new’ Unionism, however these five principles are expressed to suit contemporary messaging, the United Kingdom will continue to evolve in respect to this Covenant.