The Emotional Case for The Union is Just as Important as the Economic Case

The Brexit imbroglio has encouraged separatists in Northern Ireland and Scotland to intensify their attacks on the Union, as fundamental constitutional issues have become the focus of UK politics.

A little ironically, their short-term goals have coincided increasingly with the short-term goals of the most adamant remain-voting liberals, who were dismayed and disorientated by the referendum result, and are instinctively suspicious of any assertion of national sovereignty. Scottish and Irish nationalists believe they can dilute London’s influence by pursuing a closer relationship with Brussels for these regions, and therefore boosting their own visions of nationhood, while their liberal allies see the EU project as a means of containing all forms of nationalism.

For unionists, the resurgent campaigns for an all-Ireland republic and an independent Scotland present challenges as we seek to preserve the integrity of the United Kingdom, but they also offer opportunities to hone the arguments for Union. The tone of much of the nationalists’ rhetoric, in the wake of Brexit, shows that they understand the motivations of unionism poorly and underestimate the emotional power of the allegiances it draws upon.

In Northern Ireland, separatists have concentrated on promoting ‘special status’ or, latterly,  a Brexit ‘backstop’, that ties the province more closely to the EU (and the Republic of Ireland), than the rest of the UK.

The proponents of this solution have recently focussed on the apparent economic advantages of avoiding disruption to trade across the land-border on the island of Ireland, as opposed to the expected uncertainty if there were ‘no deal’ between Britain and Brussels. They assert that unionist parties do not protect Northern Ireland’s ‘best interests’, and are therefore out of step with voters, if they fail to recognise this case.

Setting aside the tendentious assumptions on which this analysis rests, it also sees the Union as exclusively or primarily an economic transaction. In other words, when unionists are asked to weigh the constitutional question against the best interests of people in Northern Ireland, they will do so, or at least should do so, only by judging the impact on GDP or average income.

That’s quite a reversal from the old republican slur that loyalists were loyal to the “half-crown rather than the crown,” with the attendant implication that the cause of a united Ireland mattered more than money.

Of course, the arguments for an all-Ireland republic or an independent Scotland are still flimsy and unconvincing in comparison to the economic case for maintaining a strong, undivided United Kingdom. Yet, equally, the British people get much more out of the Union than financial security. The political and cultural commitments that unionism entails are at least as important as any economic calculation that its supporters might make.

That’s a point that has been easy to overlook, in an age when devolution has created tensions between regional governments and Westminster, and a professed unionist party used its clout in the House of Commons, mainly as a way to bring extra money into Northern Ireland’s public sector. Even during the Scottish independence referendum, when the survival of our nation-state was literally at stake, the ‘no’ campaign was criticised for failing to make the emotional case for Union more volubly.

Clearly, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales are bound together by social, cultural and historical links, as well as economic ties. As Arthur Aughey pointed out in his The State of the Union paper for Policy Exchange (2018), although the United Kingdom can “look like an oddity,” it is based on a “remarkably enduring constitutional arrangement.” This country is cohesive, robust and successful, despite the modern undercurrent of self-doubt that nationalists wish to exploit.

The UK is both a nation state and a family of nations, though now we encompass a myriad of additional identities, as people have settled here from across the former empire and beyond. We have our internal rivalries, sporting and otherwise, but we share far more than divides us. At times, these common affiliations are harder to articulate than the visceral emotions tied to romantic ideas about Irishness, Scottish, Welshness and Englishness.

Expressions of the Britishness that binds us together are usually understated and undemonstrative. We sometimes define our identity with reference to values like pragmatism, the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘getting on with it’. Yet, while they don’t lend themselves to tearful balladry, our affiliations to the royal family, the British army and the great institutions of state are no less deeply felt than passions aroused by small-country nationalism.

It might seem obvious to say so, but even with the uncertainty around Brexit, unionists have a major advantage over nationalists, because the constitutional arrangements they wish to preserve are already in place. Unionism values the benefits of maintaining the UK more highly than the theoretical assets of independence or an all-Ireland state. And these benefits include prosperity certainly, but also less tangible but equally important goods like stability, freedom and a sense of belonging.

The challenge for unionists is to articulate the advantages of the Union by focussing not only on the economic case, or the needs of the devolved regions, but also on the merits of thinking about, and participating fully in, the political, cultural and social life of the nation. The argument for maintaining the UK is robust and it draws on values that are shared far more widely than is commonly acknowledged. It’s up to unionists to start articulating the characteristics of Britishness that we hold in common, but too often remain unspoken.

Owen Polley is a writer and commentator contributing to The Times, The Article, Reaction Life, Capx and the News Letter. He tweets as @3000Versts