The End isn’t nigh





Back in 2008 Arthur Aughey wrote of “Endism” as a radical version of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, the appeal of which is its suggestion that ‘the good is already fulfilled just in virtue of the fact that it is in the process of being fulfilled’ (J McCarney Hegel on History). In this radically transformative understanding, expectation becomes fact.

In that respect, the short article identified ‘Endism’ as an essential component of ‘nationalist thinking’. This essay expands significantly on that article, developing and defining the idea of ‘Endism’ and what we are to make of it today.

In the film Blade Runner, in the interrogation scene, Dr Eldon Tyrell asks Harrison Ford’s Deckard:

‘I want to see a negative before I provide you with a positive’.

At the outset of This Union, it has been noted that the ‘negative’ on the Union has promoted a fashionable and influential narrative. The first task is therefore to examine the fashionable argument that proposes that history is moving towards the dissolution of the Union into its component parts – drawing attention to the fact that Northern Ireland cannot and should not be viewed in isolation.

The justification for doing so is that any political argument involves a set of postulates – suggestions or assumed existence, of fact or truth of (something) as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or belief.

Often, while Unionists have very good arguments on particulars, they sometimes fail to challenge the postulates of their opponent, or even to be clear about their own. They are often trapped in a debate where the organising assumptions are already biased against them.

This factor can often lead to either public frustration (why can’t our politicians get their point across?) or to hostility (the media is against us). Moreover, it can foster the sort of defeatism – it is impossible to explain Unionism – which simply vacates the territory and concedes the definitional ground to opponents.

Negative narrative of the Union – constitutional endism

This negative narrative of the Union can be called constitutional endism. It anticipates the – inevitable – end of the UK. Equally, the endism is the underlying idea of the EU’s (supra-nationalist) ‘Ever Closer Union’ – the end of the nation State from another perspective.

Endism is a narrative autonomous of actual events, though not one divorced from general events against which wished-for outcomes are expressed. In other words, it can point to political developments as evidence of its claims, but these claims stand in relation to a political agenda.

This is a narrative that increasingly dwells in a media (and now academic) culture which likes to dwell on the negative, and often singular opinion (a mere Tweet will do) and revels in the rhetoric of crisis.

Two previous posts have identified two examples of how this endism continues to manifest itself in Irish nationalistic/republican economic and political rhetoric.

It is easily possible to enumerate the features which inform this endist narrative: constitutional change, devolution, the growing influence of Scottish and Welsh nationalist voices, ‘English votes on English laws’, the emergence of different centres of political gravity throughout the UK, the challenge of Brexit, and so on.

That expectations of dissolution should be raised is not unexpected. Indeed it has been common recently for some commentators to talk already of a politics after Britain, where the end is already assumed to be here – and not just in the minds of those who would define themselves as nationalist.

One historian, Keith Robbins, reflecting on this new fashion a decade ago, observed that some writers ‘appear to believe that “after Britain” is already with us or, if not, the break-up is advanced and will accelerate…Such authors as feel the urge turn to writing elegies or, alternatively, liberation anthems.’

Much of the self-confidence of nationalism recently, especially in Scotland, has flowed from such fashionable assumptions. It is these assumptions which This Union challenges. But in order to do so we need to understand how the elements of the case stand in relation to one another, and are mutually reinforcing and/or self-confirming.

Endism can be traced to that inventive melodist of the UK’s break-up, Tom Nairn. The purpose of Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain, published forty years ago, was not to describe but to hasten the end of the Union.

Twenty-five years later, Nairn published After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland and was confident enough to chart (once again) the Union’s:

transition from the management of decline into the management of disintegration, leading eventually to a suitable testament and funeral arrangements.”

History, Nairn argued, was on the side of the end of the Union. In other words, to argue that we are already ‘after Britain’ implies that the fate of the Union has been decided at the bar of history.

Over the course of recent decades there have been voices ever more loudly conveying an insistent mood that the Union is in terminal decline and that at a subterranean level politics has changed and changed utterly.

There is a substantial literature, popular and academic, in which endism is given voice.

The themes are consistent.

When was Britain? What is Britain? Why is Britain? Some scholars have asked the fundamental question: what is the UK for in the 21st century? At first glance this is a functional question. But at its heart is the matter of legitimacy.

For nationalists, of course, the answer is that the UK serves no purpose.

What is the UK for?

For Unionists, those matters which were once thought to be settled (if we at this time chose to ignore Northern Ireland as most scholars and politicians have done since 1921) – national identity, statehood and political legitimacy – are now uncomfortably questioned.

The end of the Union has become the new millennial sujet du jour. It remains the subtext of much of the media and academic commentary on Scotland, Wales, now even England and, of course, Northern Ireland.

Take just one of these texts, the well-received academic study by McLean and McMillan: State of the Union. It can be read as a template of the genre.

This book argues that unionism ‘always suffered from deep intellectual incoherence’, an incoherence only ‘masked by its usefulness to politicians and its popular appeal’. Both, the narrative went, had now expired. That raised the question: ‘can the union state survive without unionism’? Their answer was that it could lumber on ‘for at least a few decades more’ but that the writing was on the wall. The end was nigh.

McLean and McMillan made the distinction between primordial unionism – Union as an end in itself – and instrumental unionism – Union as a means to an end, such as welfare, prosperity and security.

Primordial unionism they proclaimed dead – with the one exception of Northern Ireland which was (of course) imaginatively irrelevant. Apart from odd moments – perhaps the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, for example – pride in being British was yesterday’s thing.

Instrumental unionism has only contractual objectives to satisfy, meaning the Union is good only if it has good consequences. It is a sort of bargain, a business-like estimate of individual and collective welfare. The negative narrative proposes that even those instrumental assets have now diminished and no longer deliver the returns they once did.

If states do not have friends but only interests then this applies equally to the territorial parts of the multi-national state of the UK. The end is likely. Why is this? Apparently, because it has become increasingly difficult to sell the Union to a sceptical, post-devolutionary, ‘non-primordial’ citizenry.

The narrative McLean and McMillan outline is the steady decline of the UK’s political capital to such an extent that its break-up becomes instrumentally attractive to the Scots, Welsh and English (in this narrative, Northern Ireland is always dispensable).

Hence the conclusion that a Union state without unionism, fatally, is living on borrowed time.

State of the Union is reasonably representative of the negative narrative and the story of the end it recounts is a familiar one to anyone paying attention to the constitutional debate in the UK over the past 25 years or so. There is a clear plot line that interprets the past, selects what is relevant in the present, and predicts the (inevitable) future. It is a neat package.

What are the core elements of which endism is composed?

Endist logic

From an historical perspective; there is a reading of Britain as a ‘project’; there is an assumption of national authenticity at odds with the artificiality of the UK; and then there is the key theme of the endist story, the inevitably disintegrative effect on the Union of the politics of national identity.

In short; if the Union had a beginning then it will also have an end.

Like the Owl of Minerva’s spreading wings, which we find in Hegel, endism proposes that this truth is clear to us now because we are already in the dusk of the Union – or after Britain.

This is the plot of Norman Davies’s celebrated bestseller The Isles: A History or, as he put it, ‘the rise and fall of Britishness’. What came into existence only recently – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – will pass away, like other states in the history of these islands.

For Davies, the break-up of the Union is ‘imminent’ and when the book was published (1999) he doubted that the UK would last to 2007, the three hundredth anniversary of the Anglo-Scottish Union.

Though it has an impressive intellectual pedigree, endism is ultimately a call to political action, an ideology. It embodies the ‘magic of nationalism’, which, according to Benedict Anderson, aims ‘to turn chance into destiny’. It spreads Minerva’s wings over a complex and ambiguous history, detecting at work a historical law of constitutional decadence. Those arguing for the inevitability of Irish unity, as addressed elsewhere on this site, use the same sort of ideological template.

Yet no historian, as David Cannadine argued, ‘should ever be rash enough to predict what is going to happen next, either in terms of the new directions historical research will take, or in terms of how future political events will unfold’.

Endism, therefore, is not the history of, but the ideology of, the end which cannot help but flirt with – and ultimately endorse – nationalist assumptions.

Thus, a related point – which complements the argument according to historical inevitability – holds that the exhaustion of the ‘primordial’ Union is a consequence of the collapse of the UK’s political project.

To take one example, Andrew Gamble adapted the influential notion developed by Linda Colley’s Britons (1992) of the forging of the UK in the 18th century against the ‘Other’ (mainly) France. His claim is that the Union ‘was always a political project’ of Empire.

In this familiar formulation, the end of Empire has ‘meant the disappearance of the project’ which defined the Union and being British: usually noted as ‘having lost its Empire, Britain has failed to find a role’.

If imperial Britain was the Union then another fatal conclusion follows. According to David Marquand, ‘Empire was not an optional extra for the British; it was their reason for being British as opposed to English, Scots or Welsh’.

What is left are the nations once again and the ‘bloodless, historyless, affectless’ Union which is ‘for’ nothing. In the words of Peter Preston’s (Scottish nationalist) liberation anthem:

The political project of Britain’, he argued, ‘originates in the late 18th and early 19th-century response of the elite to the loss of colonies in North America, the rise of Napoleonic France and the related domestic demands from subaltern classes for democratic reform’. The reason for Union is long gone and therefore ‘it is difficult, indeed impossible, to envision its effective deployment to mobilise the population.”

This argument is not history; this is an argument about changing the political terms of trade. The message is that it is up to Unionists to justify the state rather than nationalists who want to delegitimise it (for history has already done that job).

For Edmund Burke the state was more than:

a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the partners.”

That, of course, is how endism does understand the Union: the UK is a bit like a poorly performing mobile phone company that no longer delivers the service its customers require. It is time for the nations to get out of their contract.

Failed project?

In the negative narrative, the UK is a failed project: no longer delivering the benefits; lacking civil authority; and a partnership in the process of liquidation. The reason for this is the closely related assumption that the Union is artificial whereas its component nationalities are ‘authentic’.

Famously in Britons, Linda Colley argued that the Union was:

‘an invented nation superimposed, if only for a while, onto much older alignments and loyalties’.

In this respect, the endist view is that the re-emergence of Scottish, Welsh and even English nationalism in recent years is not only because of the declining legitimacy of the Union but because of the growing recognition that it is invented and artificial. Ergo, the Union is forged and not natural.

Colley was not advocating the break-up of the UK, and she has been critical of nationalist interpretations of her book. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how her thesis did become functional to endism.

Of course, national identity is the ideological core of endism. The Union is redundant because political life is now elsewhere, because national identity is now elsewhere.

In short, according to Alex Salmond: “The 18th-century Union is past its sell-by date.”

If there was a film made of the politics of endism it would be: ‘Four Nations and a British Funeral’.

The negative narrative of the Union would not be so pervasive if it did not appear to explain much of what is going on. There is possibly a human need to understand the world in terms of things ‘rising’ and things ‘falling’. Hence, necessarily, the SNP is rising, Sinn Fein is rising, English national identity is rising and so on. The Union is falling.

When one considers the negative narrative as ideology – which it is – then, as the historian J.G.A. Pocock argued, it promotes a simple message that ‘modification must mean liquidation’. All change – devolution in particular – just brings the end nearer.

Pocock criticised this narrative for its impoverished understanding of British history, mainly because its intention is not historical at all. It is intended to convince people that it is impossible to sustain a multi-national Union and that ’break up’ is inevitable.

Those who believe in the inevitable break-up of the Union will continue to argue that history moves in their favour. Who knows? Everything endists predict may, or may not, come to pass. They are predictions, arguments, claims – they are definitely not certainties.

Unionists will have to live with nationalists’ certainties, or unshakeable beliefs, in advancing their case. No change there. Irredentist certainty is a feature of nationalism. But that does not mean that Unionists must accept nationalists’ conclusions.

Colley puts all this in perspective as an historian:

“As a historian, I do not believe that major developments and events in the future can be preordained, or are somehow inevitable. The past matters. But, in regard to countries and peoples, the past contains the seeds of many possible futures.”

The Northern Ireland connection

There is, of course, an Irish template to the endist thesis – one which Unionists know all too well.

For Irish nationalists (and as a case in mutual affirmation, shared and supported by many other nationalist movements) there is only one direction in history – towards Irish unity. It has always been history as the crow flies: that is, it is a vision of destiny above the thickets, contours and realities of politics.

If Irish history were a novel this would be the equivalent of the plot line: ‘with a leap and a bound they were free’. It is as inevitable as ‘they all live happily ever after’.

In 1971, for example, John Hume argued that most unionists concede ‘the inevitability of a united country’. There was ‘little point in evading any further the inevitability on which all are agreed.’

Hume’s view of unionism assumed that its opposition to Irish unity was ‘primarily psychological’. As a politics of maintaining ‘division’ in Ireland, it was really the product of ill-founded fears.

In other words, it is irrational. Unionism needs help: Unionists, anxiously clinging on to Britain for support, denies its real affinity with the rest of the island; Unionists believing the British ‘connection’ is necessary for their well-being, when all it denotes is their dependence. Either Unionists become enlightened enough to free themselves; or the British government should persuade them to act according to their real interests. Perverse unionist suspicions, self-doubts and prejudices should not stand in the way of the inevitable end.

Forty years after Hume’s endist declaration, Seamus Milne, then a Guardian journalist, wrote:

“that Irish reunification is inevitable is surely right. The crucial question on this side of the Irish sea is whether Britain will help that process or hinder it.”

Now he is the Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications. The current leader of the Labour Party and his closest allies subscribe to Irish endist logic.

Sensing the opportunities in Labour under Corbyn, much of the running in the propagation of the inevitability of ‘the end’ in Ireland has been made by Kevin Meagher, a former special adviser to Shaun Woodward (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 2007 to 2010).

Articles based on his book: A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About (2016) have appeared regularly in the press in the UK and Ireland. The argument – summarised in ‘Why reunified Ireland offers best outcome for North’s future’ (Irish Times Dec 28, 2016) – is familiar. This Union has published a review of this book.

For Meagher, successive generations of British politicians have longed to jettison Northern Ireland, but at critical points they lacked the will and the choreography to do so. Now things are changed. Changed utterly, in fact. The turn of the historical wheel presents new opportunities.

Here is his crude judgement of Northern Ireland:

In fact, beyond the unionist tribe, is anyone in British politics bothered about maintaining the link to Northern Ireland?”

Put simply, Unionists do not deserve the same protections and sympathy as other minorities in the UK – because they are not like ‘us’. We know what the end should be, now is the opportunity to force it.

The obvious endist objectives

The rhetorical core of Meagher’s endism in respect of a United Ireland corresponds to at least three ideological characteristics of endism elsewhere in the UK.

The first is about demoralisation. If you can convince your opponents that the game is up, and that there is no alternative but to accept your interpretation, then you are more than half way on the road to success.

Of course, the inevitability argument has been a consistent part of nationalist discourse and it is not new. Unionists in Ireland have lived with it for over 100 years; though contemporary politics in the era of social media can often mean the noise around ‘nationalist inevitability’ can seem louder than in the past.

The second has already been mentioned – cutting with the grain of that left-liberalism which never forgave Ulster Unionists for opposition to Irish Home Rule. (Roy Jenkins, for example, thought that unionists were outside the parameters of the British political tradition altogether and feared the barbaric standards of Northern Ireland spreading to the rest of us).

It was clear in the response to the recent Conservative Party-DUP ‘deal’ that some on the left see this as the opportunity to identify unionists with reaction in British politics. Unionists are best ‘persuaded’ out of the UK and into a united Ireland where they will, of course, see sense.

In Scotland the marginalisation of Conservatives (reactionary Tories) was essential to SNP strategy, more recently Labour too as the opportunity arose (Tory Blair), towards winning an independence referendum at some point – even if that strategy currently looks a little off the mark.

The third is an appeal to that local variation of left-liberal thinking, with its mixture of self-righteousness and collective guilt about Northern Ireland’s history. It is expressed by maintaining a supposed ‘equidistance’ between unionism and nationalism. Yet, insofar as the more strident nationalism pushes the boundaries of the acceptable – and the inevitable – collective guilt conscripts it to follow in its wake towards endist logic. This underlying theme can be expressed in a variety of ways.

In Scotland, the Scottish Labour Party seems to have awakened from the path towards independence by stealth, and the Conservatives with the leadership of Ruth Davidson has shaken of the reactionary shackles to successful challenge the notion of its own inevitable demise.

Irish republicans still expect a ‘tipping point’ for Irish unity by way of endist argument. Indeed, some in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and in political loyalism are already there. The thought that unionism has ‘tipped’ feeds rather dangerous nationalist speculation that unity is now but a border poll away.

Lord Bew remarked:

“The nationalist impulse has outlived the communist impulse. This is the clue to so much of 2016 where the Irish nationalist anthem A Nation Once Again is being sung as it were, in both Britain and America.”

He has put his finger on an important truth. Endism is not history – inevitable or otherwise. It is ideological ritual. And, in Meagher’s case, for example, it is bad politics.

In 1972 Dennis Kennedy wrote in The Irish Times that the ‘question on Irish unity might be not how or when, but why’. He was right then and the question is appropriate today.

Irish endism – like endism in the rest of the UK – is persuasive only to those who are persuaded already or are too lazy to think for themselves.

Following a decade of intense constitutional debate in the 1970s, Rose wrote that too many books and articles had been published explaining events that did not happen – what he had in mind was all those negative narratives about the break-up of the Union. In another period of constitutional uncertainty like our own it is wise to keep his caveat in mind.

It should give Unionists – usually predisposed to unwarranted pessimism – some optimism about, and practical wisdom for, the future.

Nationalists have come to believe that the future belongs to them – but they always have.

Perhaps we should heed General de Gaulle:

“The future lasts a long time.”

The future may well be a long time coming for nationalists. This is not 1918.

Moreover, the political philosopher Robert Berki makes the point that that:

“The roads to ruin can more or less be confidently indicated but the numerous paths to success must be discovered by each on each occasion.”

The roads to ruin for the Union have been well tramped in much of recent writings. The negative narrative – perhaps because of the gothic intellectual appeal of doom, or the romanticism of a love that is not to be – has proved an attractive one.

Attractive perhaps, but also shallow.

Nothing is inevitable.

The end is not nigh.