Unlike Frenchness, Britishness never suppressed earlier identities. Will a Scots parliament come to its aid?by John Lloyd / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Our own dear union
In the department of useless but fascinating projects, that of judging whether the Soviet Union could have evolved into a democracy ranks high. The endeavour might, nevertheless, shed some light on our own dear union.
“If the United Kingdom continues to unravel,” the late Raphael Samuel wrote in his Island Stories (1998), “the word Britain may become as obsolete as ‘Soviet’ in post-1989 Russia.” It is a forecast to heed, as the Scots prepare to vote for a new parliament on 6th May. Indeed, it was assumed by almost all democrats-Soviet and foreign alike-that the Soviet Union simply had too little ability to develop a civic society; it had been too oppressive of the multitude of identities which made it up to be able to evolve into a democracy.
The more enthusiastic nationalists and devolvers said much the same about Britain-especially in the 1980s, when the left in Scotland coalesced around radical devolution, and saw the premiership of Margaret Thatcher as a tyrannical imposition. (The most extreme nationalists within Britain, Sinn Fein-IRA, have always believed in the strong version of the oppressive British state.) This rhetoric has been trimmed in the past year, even by some within Sinn Fein’s orbit; but now words are becoming deeds, and the election of assemblies all around will show us if separate centres of power will weaken the union, or strengthen it on a new basis.
The left had a vested interest in devolution, and in the weakening of the right’s version of unionism. In every one of its manifestations, the nationalisms of these islands has taken a left colouration-from the incoherent liberation-speak of Sinn Fein, through the Celtic socialism of Plaid Cymru, to the Scandinavian-style social democracy of the Scottish nationalists. Even those on the left in the English majority community who had-one would have thought-an interest in stressing the union, were too paralysed by political correctness to talk about it, until now.
What the left has come up with so far has been shallow. Rebranding Britain and Cool Britannia were not bad ideas, but they assumed too much: that we all agreed that pageantry and tradition could be junked, and a new, multicultural and modern identity rapidly put in place. It will need more than that; of the main politicians, only Gordon Brown has so far tried to explore what a new unionism could look like.