The Ambivalent Union

In the week when Britain re-entered the EU’s Horizon scientific research programme the outlines of post-Brexit Britain emerged with a new report from the IPPR Think-Tank about attitudes to the Union and national identity. The report, published on Friday by the IPPR provides the first detailed analysis of the 2021 ‘State of the Union’ survey, led by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff.

For defenders and critics of the Union, it makes for some interesting reading.

Rather than expose deep divisions and rifts, the report rather shows a pervasive ambivalence. The introduction suggests “it not only revealed different attitudes within and between the UK’s constituent units towards the European Union but it also revealed the ambivalence of attitudes towards the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

Ailsa Henderson, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh who was co-author of the report, said the findings showed there was an “ambivalent Union” where fewer than half of voters in the four home nations view maintaining the UK in its current form as a priority.”

Three big issues stand out.

First ‘Muscular unionism’ – the sort of snarling we saw from Penny Mordaunt this week – is an approach to devolution that risks backfiring across the UK, according to report.

According to Richard Wyn Jones:

“A growing rhetorical commitment to the union, particularly one that is unreformed, is out of step with people across the four nations of the UK who are far more ambivalent about its future. Support in England for the union in its current form is relaxed, and there is low concern in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about others of them going their separate ways.

Taking a “muscular unionism” approach in the aftermath of both the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums has led to the UK national government excluding governments of devolved nations from key areas they expected to control after Brexit. This risks fuelling resentment and undermining the merely “ambivalent” support for the UK as a single state, the report says – resembling an attempt to govern on the basis of “to the victors the spoils”.

This is one of the reasons why Brexit continues to be a major driver for people to come to independence. The “muscular unionism” approach has been characterised by the brittle and contemptuous attitude under Boris Johnson and Alister Jack, but in truth both pre and post dates them.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and co-author of the report, said:

“Given the constant appeals to ‘Britishness’ in the rhetoric of the two main UK-wide political parties, it’s perhaps surprising how little research has been undertaken into the values and attitudes that, in reality, align with British national identity. This new analysis suggests the idea that there is a single understanding of Britishness, held and cherished across all four constituent territories of the UK, is a myth.”

“Instead there are multiple, territorially-differentiated versions of British identity that stand in a very uneasy – even contradictory – relationship with each other. This suggests in turn that attempts by recent UK governments to champion a single version of Britishness, to buttress what some have termed ‘the precious Union’, are not only doomed to failure but are likely to be self-defeating.”

‘Britain’ has been ‘liberated’ from Europe, but in doing so it has broken itself irrevocably, not just in an economic sense, but in a cultural and constitutional one too. Who knew that the break up of Britain would happen not out of passion but out of mass indifference, split apart not with a great cry but a casual shrug.

The second and perhaps most striking finding to emerge from the report is the existence of positive support for Irish unity in every part of the state except for Northern Ireland itself. This should be a wake-up call for those who – in rejoicing at the SNP’s apparent demise – believe that ‘everything will go back to normal now’. It won’t and can’t.

The third, and possibly the most insightful area of the report is what it tells us about English political identity which the authors summarise as “related to both Euroscepticism and devo-anxiety”.  As the authors have written previously: “Englishness may now be considered a politicised identity that is changing British politics.”

The report suggests deep unease and frustration at the current Union – but very little appetite for comparative change, or English devolution. But that ‘devo-anxiety’ leads to some amazing figures, not least that fully one third of the English electorate believes that no Scottish MP should ever sit in government.

That’s not very Uniony is it?

This rise in English political identity has ramifications, not least of all Brexit itself, but wider ones too, The Conservative party has done well precisely because it is perceived to be a party that stands up for England, but this makes it permanently unelectable north of the Border.

The authors suggest that there is a deep disconnect revealed by their report. On the one hand you have the ascent of the Union to an almost mythical status, and the increasingly snarling presentation of comms and policy – and on the other you have the reality of Ambivalent Britain. As Ailsa Henderson writes:
“…. this ambivalence is entirely out of kilter with current government pronouncements about the precious union, with post-Brexit efforts to double down on a ‘take it, you can’t leave it’ state.  This tough love approach is part of why support for independence in Scotland now routinely touches 50%.  And yet the available public opinion suggests that the perceived alternative, efforts to appease Scotland, would only further annoy an English electorate that has a deeply ambivalent attitude to the union and an unambiguous dislike for Scottish spending and influence. The UK government is caught between a love bombing rock and a muscular unionist hard place, with seemingly zero sum choices over which electorate they seek to annoy/appease.”
In a sense none of this is very surprising. As the report lays out even among those who apparently support the continuation of the union in its current form –– much of that support is conditional rather than intrinsic.
British institutions have been hollowed out and sold off. Westminster has been exposed and ridiculed, the Monarchy has been irretrievably tarnished and Britain’s national assets have been sold-off. Devolution has left the English resentful but unwilling to reform in any meaningful way and we have the dismal prospectus of a Starmer government-in-waiting promising (weekly) ‘No change’.

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  1. 230910 says:

    “Instead [a single understanding of Britishness, held and cherished across all four constituent territories of the UK] there are multiple, territorially-differentiated versions of British identity that stand in a very uneasy – even contradictory – relationship with each other. This suggests in turn that attempts by recent UK governments to champion a single version of Britishness, to buttress what some have termed ‘the precious Union’, are not only doomed to failure but are likely to be self-defeating.”

    The Essex artist, Grayson Perry, drew a similar conclusion with respect to Englishness, during his recent nationwide art project, the results of which are part of the retrospective of his work that’s currently being shown at the Royal Scottish Academy. He also found that the multiple versions of English identity are differentiated according to social, cultural, and generational class differences as well as territorially.

    It’s heartening to know that maintaining the UK in its present form is low on the electorate’s list of priorities. Perhaps this will lead to the evolution of a more ambivalent union and, with it, a more ambivalent sense of Britishness that echoes the deconstruction of English identity into the plurality that Perry found.

  2. Hugh McShane says:

    Seems an accurate assessment of the state of play..

  3. Donald McGregor says:

    That same ambivalence could have been harvested to build a positive nation pushing for independence. We need politicians who believe and will not baulk every time the door opens. Can we all hurry up please?

  4. Niemand says:

    I am not sure why it would be thought there is a single understanding of Britishness, or Englishness or Scottishness, or whatever. It makes no sense in the first place in a land made up of ever-expanding multiple identities and major political shifts. It is hardcore nationalists (British, English, Scottish etc) who see the world like this as at best, it serves their cause to focus argument and at worst, drives an exclusionary narrative.

    What all this does not mean, is that there is no such thing as Scottishness or even Britishness but trying to unpick that is probably a mug’s game.

    1. 230910 says:

      You’re right, Niemand. It follows only that Britishness is plural rather than singular, a diversity rather than an identity. It’s not nothing, just not one thing. I reckon that, when you scratch the surface of any identity, you find a suppressed diversity.

      And yes, Donald; the evident ambivalence of the UK electorate towards maintaining the UK in its present form could just as well be exploited to foster separatism. Perhaps a similar study could be carried out into the ambivalence of the Scottish electorate towards separatism and how that ambivalence might be overcome in any future referendum.

  5. Richard Stanbrook says:

    Date: 11th September 2023.

    I’ll try to be brief. If the Conservative Party wins the next UK Election, within a year, Rishi Sunak will be ousted in favour of a far more extreme right-wing cadre. The consequences would be terrifying. Even more so if Donald Trump returns to The White House.

    It must never be overlooked that back in June 2016, Scotland voted by a significant majority to remain part of The European Union. I, for one, feel angry about being stripped of my EU Citizenship on the back of lies, damned lies and subterfuge.

    Althoug inh from south of the border, I feel utterly ashamed to have been born in England. To me, after prioritising public health and social care, the key goal is to have Scotland’s independence and EU Membership restored.

    Richard Stanbrook.
    Langholm, Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

    1. Alistair Robertson says:

      Tips hat.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    The report, as far as these summaries, my skims and quick searches went, is quite misleading. The political incoherence from which this ambivalence stems surely derives from the continuance of the (usually unacknowledged) British Empire, the active role of the royal prerogative, and the subservient client role the British Empire has increasingly played (with a few Europe-turning blips) to the USAmerican Empire since WW2.

    This incoherence so diseased British relations with European partners (where residual imperialism appears to be on the wane even in militarist, royalist, theocratic and strident-nationalist movements) that it precipitated Brexit before EU lawmakers could legislate the Empire out of existence (which they threatened to do on tax havens, and may achieve a consensus on imperial and slavery reparations).

    I remember being accused of anti-Americanism in my Scottish high school, a land where several of my classmates expressed hopes to emigrate to, and which today seems to provide the bulk of the most popular entertainment in the UK. Meanwhile, aside from allies forced on us by our USAmerican masters, our other official allies are the horrendous regimes whose autocratic rulers are best chums with our Royals, whose kids our elite institutions train without any apparent fear they will pick up democratic ideas here. For example:

    When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, United States Representative, calls for her country to apologise for its crimes in Central and South America, what response can we expect from British authorities whose client Empire was faithfully if often covertly complicit in its master’s atrocities? Many of the wrongdoings of the British Empire, far more draconian in secrecy than its comparatively blasé boss, we discovered when studying politics, but they were not widely known by a relatively insular and apathetic British public. As scandals break and desperate reactionaries fight dishonest rearguard actions in a losing front of culture war, such cosy detachment has a higher cost to maintain, and any social unit could fracture along several lines. I’m not sure what insights might be expected from such a bland-looking report, but perhaps blandness is the aim.

  7. florian albert says:

    Mike Small would have done better to treat the Union of 1707 – Scotland, England and Wales – and that of 1801 – bringing Ireland into the Union -separately.
    The former proved very successful, the latter never had the necessary political legitimacy.
    The fact that only Northern Ireland supports the partition of Ireland is hardly surprizing. Whether Wales and Scotland do so is of little consequence. Importantly, when the (Dublin) Irish Times conducted a poll on partition a year ago, only 4% of Six Counties’ unionists said they would vote to end partition. 95% said they would vote to remain in the UK and continue partition.

    With regard to the 1707 Union, many on the progressive left in Scotland have convinced themselves that that the British state has ‘failed.’ Such individuals would have been better spending their time creating the outline of a viable Scottish state which voters would support.

    1. 230912 says:

      The union of 1800, which incorporated the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain into a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, had just as much legitimacy as that of 1707, which incorporated the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England and Wales into a United Kingdom of Great Britain. Both were parallel acts of their respective sovereign parliaments, each of which set of parallel acts was recognised by the international community at the time.

      The only salient difference is that the Irish nationalists succeeded in (at least partially) overturning those acts in 1921 (leaving six counties in the northeast of the island as part of the UK) while the Scottish nationalists have so far failed to overturn the 1707 acts.

      Wouldn’t the prospect of a partition between a unionist majority South[ern Up]lands and an anti-unionist majority Scottish Free State be something to conjure with? But, of course, according to the dominant nationalist narrative, the Southlands ‘belong’ to Edinburgh rather than to London, whereas, according to those of us of an independent mind who live here, the Southlands ‘belong’ to themselves.

      1. Wul says:

        “….whereas, according to those of us of an independent mind who live here, the Southlands ‘belong’ to themselves….”

        Where do people in the Southlands send their income tax returns? Their VAT? The tax on the electricity they use? Who issues their passports? Who decides who can immigrate there and seek asylum there? Who decides which other European countries the Southlanders can trade freely with?

        1. Wul says:

          Do the people making those decisions and collecting taxes have the interests of the Southlanders close to their heart?

        2. 230912 says:

          Well, it’s not Dumfries or Newton St Boswells, more’s the pity. And I’m not sure that the people making those decisions [on taxation and spending, energy generation and distribution, citizenship, migration, trade, etc.] in either Edinburgh or London do have the interests of we Southlanders close to their heart.

          1. John says:

            Last time I heard about ‘The Southlands’ it was in Lord of the Rings!
            Who are you – Gandolf?

          2. 230912 says:

            Indeed! The future Kingdom of Dumgal-Bord, which will become the most prominent kingdom of men in the British Isles, but whose plains are currently being watched over by the Sturgeon Elves.

            But little do the Elves know that Anndrais and his Orcs are secretly building a series of tunnels throughout the Southern Uplands, which will enable his forces to travel in secret underground to disrupt the Elves’ oversight and shatter the Rings of Power.

            (For many, many years, I had a beard that would have rivalled Gandalf’s; though, since the late ’70s, I’ve styled myself sartorially more on Billy Gibbons.)

    2. John says:

      Florian Albert – if you think the last 50 years of political union have been fantastic for Scotland I would suggest you’ve been spending too much time studying Hungarian football history rather than observing contempory Scottish society.

      1. florian albert says:

        ‘Florian Albert – if you think the last 50 years of political union have been fantastic for Scotland’

        I do not and, of course, I did not say that.

        They have ,however, been materially good for many, probably a majority, of Scots. That is why, when offered the opportunity to exit this union in 2014, the voters declined to take it.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @florian albert, my part of Scotland was materially aided by the European Union (infrastructure, education, demilitarised reindustrialization) at a time when it was materially abandoned by the UK government (who bandied about ideas like scrapping railways north of the Glasgow–Edinburgh route, imposed the poll tax, slaved its foreign policy to USAmerican imperial aggression, built up its arms industry on the back of sales to some of the world’s most oppressive regimes etc). If the referendum had been a choice between two unions, UK/British Empire/USAmerican Empire and EU, we don’t know what the result in Scotland would have been, but there is at least statistical evidence that the EU might have won out.

          1. 230913 says:

            But has Scotland’s industrial decline over the past 50 years-plus been a consequence of the our wee political union here in British Isles or a consequence of the wider post-industrial revolution in the geopolitical ‘North’.

            But it’s true that the much bigger supranational union of European countries did help ameliorate the social effects of that decline in ways that the UK on its own can’t match.

  8. Duncan Sutherland says:

    English Britishness has always been different from Scottish Britishness, but, when push comes to shove, we realize that we came together because we belong together and would be worse off if we separated.

    The terms of union need constantly to be reviewed, of course, and a possibility of separation sharpens minds in that regard. Unfortunately or fortunately, we are living through a period when it has become apparent that the Scottish separatist parties are incapable of producing separation . . . or even of managing devolution satisfactorily.

    A small majority in favour of independence in a referendum, if another Independence referendum were ever to take place in Scotland, would possibly result in long drawn-out negotiations which would fatally expose the disadvantages of Scottish secession and would no doubt lead to an unsatisfactory settlement, which would conceivably fail to be approved in an ensuing UK-wide referendum.

    In Spain a scenario of this nature is not allowed by the constitution, as independence referendums are illegal there. Accordingly, there is some degree of speculation that political parties which advocate secession of any part of the territory of the Spanish state may come to be banned from putting forward candidates in elections. The British union establishment is not unaware of this.

    1. 230914 says:

      Yep, and white Britishness is different from black Britishness, Cumbrian Britishness is different from Brummy Britishness is different from Home Counties Britishness, adolescent Britishness is different from senescent Britishness, and so on. Britishness isn’t an identity; it’s a plurality.

      Like any state, the UK needs to evolve. The problem is that the current British constitution is ‘double-layered’ (as constitution historians call it); it was hastily cobbled together between 1705 and 1707 from the existing English constitution with a treaty of union (which was itself a hasty measure, devised to confront a series of different short-term problems that each party to the treaty separately had), despite the fact that despite the fact that the Act of Union, which was passed jointly by both the English and the Scottish parliaments, was supposedly constitutive of a new British state, and both sides in the current dispute between the two parliaments consider that Act of Union to be sacrosanct, either all or nothing. What the UK needs is a new constitution that recognises and facilitates a plural Britain, what someone somewhere called ‘a state of unions’ rather than a unitary, fully incorporated state.

      The partial devolution of power within the UK has brought into focus the incoherence at the heart of the British constitution. The current UK is an odd ensemble of communities whose underpinning principle of unity is a succession of ad hoc acts of union (and disunion) that have taken place in public life between the sixteenth century and the present. The spectre of separation presents a pressing need for constitutional reframing.

      1. Hugh McShane says:

        Telling that Irish- Britishness is omitted from 6-digits lists- the tactic of equivalency between Scotand,the nation, and English regionalism is nudge- unit Gordon Brown-style, to Westminster still not letting go- friendly neighbours? not since Walsingham’s days+ long before!

        1. 230915 says:

          Indeed, I wonder whether the old 19th century model of the UK as a union of four ‘nations’ is the most useful one nowadays. Maybe a model of the UK as a union of more immediate/less abstract communities, as an alternative to the nationalist model, would be better for democracy in our more pluralist society.

  9. Alistair Robertson says:

    Excellent piece. Cheers.

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