The Near Abroad
The trouble with an Ulster Unionist berating Scottish nationalism, as John Bew has done in the New Statesman, is that it invites a rather obvious and unflattering comparison. Why, a reader might ask, should one favour a constitutional stance that is, to a greater or lesser extent, inherited — as such opinions usually are in dysfunctional Northern Ireland — over the healthily, even boringly, conventional product of observation, discussion and debate?
In fact, the notion that nationalism is an inherently illogical state of mind finds a good deal of purchase among Irish Unionists, since it pins the blame for the island’s recurrent political violence squarely on one side, handily sidestepping the fact that, at various times in history, Ireland’s experience could have provided a template for policies and mores better associated with Israel, Rhodesia or Alabama. And while that rationale is, mercifully, hardly relevant in Scotland’s case, as a logical extension Scottish nationalism too is viewed as being all about the believers. In Bew’s words, “the Irish and Scottish national stories have never moved in parallel. They resemble two clocks hung beside each other but set according to different time zones. This is largely because the nationalisms of Ireland and Scotland have been provincial phenomena. Unlike their European counterparts of the 19th or 20th century, they do not follow international patterns and they are determined by local circumstances rather than any transcendent historical forces.”
In this macho world of projected pathology, Hibernia and Caledonia are like two irrationally emotional students, martyrs to their womanly cycles, which, despite their sharing a flat together, have steadfastly refused to synchronise. They need to pull themselves together and, well — man up.
Central to this conceit is the dubious belief that nationalism is something that other people do. In the British sphere, there is merely patriotism, a cool, logical pride in the achievements of one’s country — so manifest that to doubt or belittle them at all is seen as something wholly perverse. As a German-speaker might say of the owners of those nationalist clocks, they just don’t tick right. How long that rather smug analysis stands up to objective scrutiny, however, is another matter, and, as we shall see, Bew’s partisanship in fact goes much further.
Take, for example, his above use of the adjective “provincial”. It is a fact that the word “province” is commonly applied to Northern Ireland, partly for historical reasons (it covers most of the province of Ulster), partly because few would suggest that it might ever make a viable country in its own right. Hence the question of which country it should belong to; hence the region’s problems. Scotland, on the other hand, is an historic nation covering the northern third of Great Britain, with 90% of the UK’s oil reserves and a quarter of Europe’s wind resources. A province it ain’t, either legally or de facto.
In Northern Ireland, of course, it is unfortunately taken as read that there are “Unionist” and “nationalist” historians, and Mr. Bew is no exception. How else, one might ask, can one account for his use of statistics? It is a commonplace to note that political polling has traditionally understated support for Republicans relative to actual elections in a pretty substantial way, but the entirely reasonable expectation that they might do so for questions concerning the border finds no place in the article. And while nowadays increasing numbers of Catholics may, in a constitutional rather than a party-political sense, be pragmatic Unionists, the idea that only 13% of them want immediate unity is laughable; Bew’s argument that Scotland is economically dependent on England tendentious to say the least. Finally, rather than compare Scotland with Ireland today — despite everything, still enjoying higher living standards and better welfare provision than us — he opts for the 1920s. An historian’s privilege, one might say.
The background to Bew’s piece is of course the likely effect of Scots independence on Northern Ireland, with the literary scholar Murray Pittock plausibly arguing that it might also bring Irish unity a step closer. It would certainly have a profoundly disconcerting and demotivating effect on Ulster Protestants, and, though it would hardly change their politics, it might well nip in the bud the incipient Catholic Unionism that Bew describes. Personally, I suspect that, like the back end of the Titanic, Northern Ireland would continue to bob about for a while yet, increasingly unstable and unseaworthy, before, probably in the 2030s, sinking under the twin burdens of demographic change and cartographical aesthetics.
Although Bew is happy to discuss the views of those in the South of Ireland about Irish unity, he neglects to mention their attitude towards the current independence referendum. Northern Ireland aside, such views are twofold. On the one hand, many Irish people reflexively applaud Scotland’s progress towards full self-determination. Despite serious and manifold economic challenges during the last century, they would never for one moment even think of giving up their independence. Similarly, despite those economic challenges, they continue to be better off than their UK counterparts, and in a few years may again be the envy of many other small European nations. The alternative, more selfish view is grounded in the understandable fear that Ireland’s ability to compete will suffer if Scotland gains control over corporation tax, since much of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon was due to the Republic’s success in attracting foreign direct investment.
In that regard, for its own part Scotland would do well to vote for an outcome that guarantees it that control.