It should have been a simple question, really. I mean, I’ve been writing about the Union and the constitutional struggle for years. For much of that time, I have argued that ‘Britishness’ is the essential cement that holds the Union together, and that its neglect and diminution at the root of the current instability. I’ve even talked about my sense of identity on video for my old employers at British Future.
I definitely consider myself British, like being so, and wish to continue being so. I would feel profoundly cut adrift if Britain – my country – came to an end in 2016. So when an American blogger interviewing unionists asked me to write up a few paragraphs on what it means to me to be British, and why the identity should be preserved, you would expect me to have some well-rehearsed and cogent response.
Instead, it consisted of an internal groan and a plea for time. A response which, I thought as I mulled the question over, was actually quite typical of today’s unionism.
Of course, you do get those who can whip up the emotional fires of British patriotism – in my experience Scottish Conservatives tend to be consistently better at it than most. But on the whole the defenders of the union today come across as a technocratic, pragmatic bunch. A vote for the Union is a vote to keep the pound in your pocket.
That’s fine, as it goes – despite any number of mistakes Better Together is still leading as we enter the home straight, and a win for No still looks the probable outcome in September. But the withering of Britishness is at the very heart of the threat to the Union, and it will not be safe until said withering is reversed. So what has caused it?
Most obviously, I think, we’re not really taught to be British anymore. In an article I wrote for the Commentator when I finished my Masters last spring, I contrasted the way the Irish are taught their history with the way the British do it. Despite a gradual move away from the traditional, Republican version of events, Irish children are still raised with a broad narrative sense of the history of their nation and their place within it.
This has its downsides – notions like the Irish Famine being a deliberate genocide, long defunct in academic circles, are still trotted out by ‘popular’ historians to meet public expectation, and efforts to reinforce ‘Irishness’ can stray into outright anti-Britishness on occasion – but it does leave Irish pupils with a clear sense of national context.
Since about the 1960s, this hasn’t been the case in Britain. Generations of progressive educators have abandoned the chronological study of this country’s history in favour of a modular ‘snapshot’ approach, pulling together a grab-bag of isolated historical events and periods and trying to teach a method-based, ‘source analysis’ approach to history. One result of this is that British pupils are not inculcated with the same sense of common ground, of their place in a larger entity with a long history, as their counterparts elsewhere.
There is also the fact that we’re a bit too self-aware to have a burning sense of national purpose these days. From the 1880s to the 1950s – not coincidentally the glory years of the Unionist political tradition in this country – the UK had in its own eyes a very clear purpose: to run the largest empire the world had ever seen, and in so doing bring the light of civilisation to the distant corners of the world.
That sort of view is hard to sustain today. Not only are we acutely aware of how one-sided and simplistic contemporary understanding of the Empire usually was, but in an age of increasingly universal societal standards (at least in the West) it’s hard to pick things out as distinctly belonging to anyone. Most of the democratic and governmental norms we Brits are so proud of are – due in no small part to our efforts to spread and defend them – now the common property of an increasing number of nations around the world. Not being fascists no longer makes us special, and the building blocks of what the unique British identity are thus less obvious than once they were.
Andrew Lilico further posits in the Telegraph that, in an increasingly pragmatic age and without a sense of national purpose to fuel them, we no longer find the political will to embark on the sort of huge projects that become defining national accomplishments and points of identification for future generations.
The idea that we were all working towards great project like the Empire did much to bring people from all over the UK together. The accomplishments of imperial engineers, generals and explorers were a sort of common currency, and with the end of the Imperial era we lost that. Attempts to find a replacement – Attlee’s social state, for example – have often been very popular but, being based on receiving something rather than building it, have never pulled people together in the same way.
Indeed, probably the best example of pulling people together with a common project in modern Britain is actually the SNP. Their bid for independence captures a portion of that sense of an historic, national purpose, a glorious destiny. They are tilting for a promised land that doesn’t yet exist, which enables them to emote about an imagined Scotland and leave Unionists with the unromantic, day-to-day realities of the present one.
Nationalists are also far less self-conscious in deploying the language of exceptionalism: we’re victims, we’re special, we’re just nicer, etc. Many of the true believers also sincerely believe that their preferred unit of human organisation is in some fashion objectively more legitimate than the alternatives. That life in an independent England or Scotland would not be much different to the present (and it probably wouldn’t) is almost irrelevant – in an age without causes, the ‘national struggle’ provides one, and energises its supporters as a consequence.
Winning the referendum on September 18 will not make the Union safe. It is vital that in the years that follow we not only build a new, stable constitution for this country but that we make a conscious effort to revive the identity at the heart of it. Otherwise we build our house without foundations, and gift those who would demolish it all the most potent tools.