The Character of the Union

Unity and Diversity

Introduction - There are no Inevitabilities

It is remarkable, given our recent experience of the uncertainty of political events, that there are confident predictions about the inevitability of the UK’s break up. For those confidently predicting, every occasion becomes a sign of fulfilment, even if the sceptic would respond – to paraphrase Mandy Rice Davies – ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ It is an interesting form of historical understanding. It can be described as ‘history as the crow flies backwards’ since, because they already know where history is going, its advocates can look back from the sunlight uplands and tell everyone else what is required of them to get there.  Now, inevitability joins company with declarations of catastrophe. Covid and Brexit are the most recent catastrophes (though not the only ones) identified as precursors of the UK’s end time. The message is unambiguous. Those who are pro-Union need to abandon the old identity, give up those beliefs which keep them in denial, finding salvation by ‘engaging’ (meaning ‘agreeing’) with those who have seen already the light. Of course, this has been said for nearly 45 years if we take Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain (1977) as its classic pronouncement. Originally, break up was to be a harbinger of socialism, now it is a journey towards an unknown destination of Europe (as Andrew Schonfield described it in 1973).  However, it is important not to dismiss but to take seriously such questioning of the Union. If the break-up of the UK is not inevitable its survival is not inevitable either.

1 - Definitional Matters

Some definitional work is required initially. One term to describe the UK – ‘unitary state’ – is no longer fashionable, or possible. Amongst academics, ‘unitary state’ (which was mainly a post-war, welfare state usage anyway) has been replaced generally by the term ‘union state’. This change is a revival more than an innovation. For example, Sir Ernest Barker (1942) used it to describe the UK’s distinctive ‘crossing’ and ‘bridging’, what he also called its ‘mixture of unity and diversity’. James Mitchell (2009) has gone so far as to call the UK ‘a state of unions’. Though his is an imaginative definition, it possibly gives too much emphasis to the parts (diversity) rather than to the whole (unity). In short, the terminology matters. One has to be careful not to expend important political capital in the defence of a ‘certain idea’ of the UK (unitary state/Westminster model) which no longer adequately describes political reality. After 1945, British politics tended to stress collective solidarity for a centrally managed welfare state and the institutional structures thought appropriate to secure it. It is that ‘certain idea of Britain’ which is no longer fit for purpose and it is the waning of that (contingent) model which has prompted much of the break-up thinking, not only amongst those who would wish to see it but also amongst those who fear it (for the classic statement of its character see Richard Rose’s 1982 masterpiece). Of course, any calling attention to those things which differentiate its parts always risks the UK’s capacity to see itself as a whole. That incapacity to see the UK as a whole is the perceptual backbone of the anti-Union narrative described above – that the ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’ differentiation of its national parts will destroy or has already destroyed the ‘forged’ or ‘inauthentic’ whole. It holds that the Union is a contradiction (to use an old Marxist-Leninist term) which must unravel. The contradiction is held to be this: On the one hand, the UK is on dangerous ground if identity is appropriated by its national parts (like Scotland). On the other hand, its multi-nationality is contradicted by exclusive allegiance to an overarching (British) identity.

Yet there is no reason to be pessimistic. It was the Irish historian George Boyce in The Irish Question and British Politics 1868-1986 (1988) who put the Union’s definitional question both elegantly and succinctly: was the UK ‘inhabited by a single nation, however much regional or even patriotic differences might distinguish its component parts’; or was it ‘one whose national distinctions made it essential that they should be given some constitutional recognition?’ Recent changes in terminology look more like a shift from Boyce’s first option to the second. The short hand for this constitutional change in the last two decades is, of course, devolution. As such, to capture the institutional and legal variations between the parts of the state and yet also to confirm the whole, ‘multinational state’ seems appropriate. Though Linda Colley (2014) preferred the term ‘state nation’, her definition fits well with ‘multinational’: ‘to acknowledge and protect the partial autonomy and separate rights and cultures of the various countries and regions that are contained within the state nation’ along with the corresponding requirement ‘to create and sustain and nurture a sense of belonging and allegiance with regard to the larger political community’ (the significance of Colley’s reference to ‘allegiance’ is discussed further below).

In sum, defining the Union did not and does not require local patriotism to be exchanged for an exclusively metropolitan identity. It did not and does not demand a state one and indivisible. It did not and does not aspire to be a single ethnic community. It has always been and remains a hybrid, what Elton (1992) once called a ‘nationality not a nation’ but a nationality embracing distinctive nations. What it did and does require is that local patriotism be re-imagined within a wider constitutional arrangement that provides for degrees of differentiation within a collective political solidarity. What framing flows from that understanding? At least five important observations can be made in unfolding a positive unionist narrative.

2 - Fact of the Union

It is necessary to identify, at least as a starting point, the very fact of the Union. This, for unionists, can sometimes be the defect side of Colin Kidd’s (2008) idea of ‘banal unionism’. Because factuality is so pervasive as often to be rendered invisible, the very taken-for-granted-ness of the Union can make it difficult to explain or even to justify. Nationalists can claim that the Union is the basis of all problems (which, because it is a fact, is obviously true in part). Are not the limits of possibility which the Union imposes the reason why (any particular) devolved policy has been inadequate (justifying failures and explaining away local incompetence)? Because it is ‘constructed’ or ‘forged’ or an ‘artifice’ and therefore ‘imperfect’ (as all political associations are) it is easy to describe the existing UK’s many real flaws and to propose that it must be replaced by the ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘legitimate’ alternative of independent – and, of course, ideal – democratic statehood. Idealism is not always a strength and fact always a weakness. Idealism can be a limitation and an opportunity for unionists to render the nationalist alternative both implausible and unattractive. Despite the waning of ‘unthinking unionism’ and the decay of ‘banal unionism’, the continued existence of the UK is significant, even if some would either ignore it or seek to eliminate it. The fact of the Union is not, of course, a decisive justification for its existence (or for anything for that matter) but it does draw attention to a reality – historical, political and institutional. It has been against this fact that grand aspirations of break-up and invitations to independent self-determination have been dashed so far. The fact of the Union – and the very practical expectations and assumptions which consciously and unconsciously derive from it - constitute the instrumental value of the Union or what old-style Marxists would have called the ‘material base’ of the Union. This leads to the second and related point, instrumentalism.

3 - Instrumental Union

Instrumentalism involves a utilitarian, cost/benefit, economistic consideration of what the UK is ‘for’. This is an insufficient basis for the Union but it is not an insignificant starting point even if it cannot be the sustainable end point. From an exclusively instrumental point of view alone, the UK is of value only if it has good consequences. In this view, to be a British citizen is reduced to a set of contractual entitlements, expectations and opportunities, a business-like estimate of both individual and collective welfare. If states do not have friends but only interests then, according to mere instrumentalism, this applies to the calculations made by the ‘territories’ – national, regional and local – in relation to the Union. There is an obvious truth here which politicians of all parties and citizens of whatever political outlook can acknowledge. As Sir Bernard Crick (2008) once observed of the hard case of Northern Ireland, self-interest, or a utilitarian sensibility, ‘is not to be scorned or ignored’ and is only contemptible to those whose whole being is obsessed with national identity. Even in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke understood the state to be a contrivance for the satisfaction of human wants (if that’s not all he understood it to be). It is an understanding of politics in terms of contract, an understanding with a distinguished philosophical heritage. It is what the American political scientist Harold Lasswell once famously described as ‘who gets what, where, when and how’. That sort of contractual relationship is indeed evident in the UK and it involves distinctive claims for money and resources by its nations and regions and a bargaining about resources with, and within, the centre. (In Northern Ireland it is the ground upon which that increasing number no longer ideologically unionist or nationalist – in the party political sense, at least – need to be persuaded.) And yet contract and bargaining already assume that larger whole of the Union and they further assume principles of equity and social justice regulating such bargaining and its outcomes. These principles are based on something more than contract. Those principles of equity and social justice are not just additions to the territorial (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England) but are constitutive of the collective (welfare, social, generational and so on which are UK-wide). That is instrumentalism’s larger political UK context, a context of equal citizenship.

The nationalist message can be described as the politics of the ‘soaring dove’ – in sum, un-caged from the constraints of the Union, the nations will soar free into the blue skies of liberated social and economic renewal. Rather than a soaring dove, unionists visualise ‘Kant’s dove’ (from his Critique of Pure Reason): ‘The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space’. In other words, take away the supposed ‘constraints’ of the Union and the result will not be the blue skies of freedom but darker clouds of more onerous economic and social challenges. Being sceptical of the soaring dove and referring to Kant’s dove means one is likely to be labelled a devotee of ‘Project Fear’ – a ‘project’ (if such it was) which was a graphic tracking of the plummeting of nationalist doves. It is a difficulty compounded by the nature of political debate in the UK after the EU referendum (on both sides of the debate). 2014 and 2016 have probably made voters sceptical of all argument according to ‘expert’, instrumental, forecasting. Nevertheless, it is important to remind people that nationalism’s dove is more likely to be Kant’s dove and to remind people as well of the political and economic costs.

Raising evidential and practical questions about the costs of nationalism poses difficult questions for any separatist strategy (which is why the ‘narrative’ or the ‘story’ of national grievance is central). In short, apart from the emotional satisfaction of national identity what real benefit or added value does independence deliver? As Crick noted as well in the Northern Ireland case, nationalists ‘may favour, in principle, the unity of Ireland, if that is the only question asked; but they sensibly want to know what is in the package for themselves and their families; how will it affect their day to day interests – welfare, unemployment, schools, health benefits, employment rights and so on’. To some extent those were the same or similar questions asked in Scotland (and they are questions which have re-emerged in Northern Ireland too). In 2014 Scots did not get persuasive answers to those questions. That is not to say that nationalists (not only in Scotland but also in Northern Ireland) cannot come up with good answers in the future. Calculations of economic self-interest and financial cost-benefit do change and the status quo may become much less attractive (perhaps post-Brexit or so it is claimed). The continuing sense of nationalism being en marche in Northern Ireland and Scotland comes from calculations that these instrumental terms of trade are changing in their favour (though the hard evidence for this optimism is lacking still).

4 - Union of Solidarity

Simple instrumentalism or contract, of course, can never be enough. The Union (to adopt another of Burke’s points) must be more than a mere partnership agreement ‘to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the partners’, a reflection appropriate to any state and not just to the UK. There needs as well to be a sense of non-instrumental belonging of the sort which the word patriotism used to capture. The term patriotism is rather out of favour today, at least in polite circles (though it is worth noting here that historically patriotism – especially to the constitution - was often seen by liberals and the left as an alternative to jingoism). The expression which has emerged to replace it has been solidarity, and it was a term prominently deployed during the Scottish referendum campaign of 2014. It is this multinational solidarity – in its historical longevity, in its historical distinctiveness and in its democratic entitlements – which (one may say) makes the Union. Doing justice to what is distinctive to and what is common in the UK has always been a delicate enterprise. In this case, the objective of central government, or Westminster, has been to secure common rights of citizenship within the shared territory of the UK, where expressions of national difference need not conflict with the achievement of multinational purpose. That is the real, practical meaning of solidarity which underpins debate about who gets what, where, when and how. What devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies has done is to change the institutional framework for negotiating the general and particular balance of interests (or contract) in the UK. It now involves a more open political debate about priorities in public expenditure, as well as the opportunities to do some things differently. Doing those things differently, it should be remembered, requires redistribution of revenue according to civic solidarity. As John Lloyd (2020) suggests of the Scottish nationalist counter-myth, they are ‘confident globalists, well able to fend for themselves in the world’s market place, requiring to be protected from no peoples other than the English’.

Devolved democratic institutions have provided new – but not exclusive – locations for the expression of citizenship: participation in elections, lobbying representatives and identification with new public symbolism. And this means that the political bargaining between devolved institutions and the centre has become more transparent. And it has also become more confrontational, modifying the psychological balance between the parts of the UK and thus thinking about the Union. Nevertheless, what the 2014 Scottish referendum also illustrated clearly is the following continuity: namely the interdependence of instrumentalism or contract and non-instrumentalism or solidarity. Kidd (2012) observed at the time that one of the strongest cards for unionists to play was to remind people that ‘the interlocking set of effective UK-wide bureaucracies – however dull and uninspiring a subject for campaign slogans – is not to be lightly jettisoned without overwhelming good cause’. That interdependence of contract and solidarity posed another difficult question for nationalists: ‘If you want unions – currency and social - why secede from the political Union which makes both of them not only possible but also effective?’ Again, nationalists did not and still do not have a good answer to that question – though it is not unimaginable that they will come up with one.

None of this may sound very high flown or very heroic and yet the argument may be put simply: solidarity - or non-instrumentalism – is what sustains the very real instrumental advantages of the UK. It is the patriotism of everyday life and, to put that crudely, the facts of life are pro-Union (something nationalists just don’t want to hear). One term of art in political science which helps capture the practical effect of non-instrumentalism is the devolution paradox. The paradox is that while citizens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can appreciate the capacity of devolved institutions to deliver policy diversity there is also a wish for common standards of public service throughout the UK. Citizens may favour difference in particular but also they expect common standards in general. It involves accepting (if not always admitting) an enduring allegiance to the Union, as well as an enduring sense of commonality across the UK.

5 - Allegiant Union

It was argued above that Colley was correct when arguing that the Union required a sense of allegiance. Unfortunately the meaning is often confused, politically and academically. Politically, when charged by Gordon Brown with the task of delivering a ‘thinking unionism’, the former Justice Minister Michael Wills (2008) argued that British ‘identity’ should be distinguished from ‘other allegiances’ in the UK. A more accurate rendering would be that allegiance to the UK accommodates the identities of its different national and ethnic parts within that larger association of solidarity discussed above. It is an ‘artifice’, yes, but it remains one with real historical substance. Academically, Chris Rojek argued in Brit-myth: Who do the British think they are? (2007), ‘shared history makes it pointless to argue that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland consist of four autonomous elements’ if only because the ‘values of each nation in the union have been formed largely through their historical, economic, political and cultural relations with the other three’. Unfortunately, Rojek derived the wrong conclusion from that insight, claiming the Union is what is ‘left over after account has been taken of the enumerated, distinctive traits of the four nations’. For the Union is not ‘what is left over’. It is – so long as it continues – the association which sustains relations between the nations for good (as unionists believe) or ill (as nationalists believe). To adapt a phrase of Lord Hennessy, the Union is both the functional hidden wiring and the symbolic framework of these historical, economic, political and cultural relations.

Allegiance, one can say, requires the fulfilment of obligations but does not require subscription to any common purpose or what the critics of the Union usually call its ‘project’ (or lack of one). Margaret Canovan (1996) put it this way: the substance of Union is less the characteristics its citizens possess as individuals than the inheritance they commonly share. What allegiance captures is what she called the ‘shared ownership of something outside us’ and not (necessarily) the ‘similarities inside us.’ For all the celebration of the aspirant ‘civic’ form of contemporary nationalist thinking, it can be said that in the Union it has been there a long time already. Consequently, as the former Director of the Constitution Unit Robert Hazell suggested, confidence – not foolish optimism - should be one of the operative principles of the Union and by that he meant the UK rests on much broader and firmer foundations of allegiance than its critics assert.

6 - Values of Union

These reflections on the relationship between fact, instrumentality, solidarity and allegiance should provide a clearer perspective on the values of the Union. Gordon Brown as Prime Minister famously struggled to express those values persuasively. To his critics, Brown’s problem was that his British values appeared not to be exclusively British at all. And yet the same thing could be said of the values of any state. What are the values, for example, of the Republic of Ireland; or of Germany; or of Italy, which together add up to a distinctive collective identity? National identity, the historian Robert Colls (2011) proposed, is based on historical relationships, not on ‘national values’ and that these relationships, as well as our understanding of them, are always changing. In sum, if you want to make sense of British national identity, thought Colls, it is best to start with law, constitution and history and not with values. One can readily acknowledge today how the current public scepticism of politicians and political institutions can threaten that understanding.

Whatever one’s judgement of the trust in UK institutions, it is possible to argue that the values of the Union today remain very political ones – reconciling national difference and collective unity; harmonising national identity and collective allegiance; making space for national self-rule without undermining the necessity of shared rule; accepting the contractual nature of some relationships without undermining the collective solidarity upon which those contracts between nations and regions are based. Multinational democracy can be defined in those very terms. In sum, one can argue that the ‘values’ of the Union today are comprised of a principle and a practice. The principle is free association and the practice is multi-nationalism. The political shape of the Union at any time is negotiable and can change, as devolution has shown. The Union does not presume that everyone and everywhere are the same: there is a contractual character even in the UK’s very origins in Acts of Union. What sustains the UK is that practical expression of multi-nationalism: solidarity. Since people today can only be convinced by those constitutional arguments which they themselves are already prepared to accept, the practice of multi-nationalism – contract and solidarity - assumes the principle of consent.

As Lord Bew remarked (2009), consent was once the territorial principle that dared not speak its name, but that it has now become the acknowledged rule of constitutional legitimacy. Certainly, it distinguishes for example the permissive constitutionalism of the UK from the fettered constitutionalism of Spain. One big question is whether those institutional practices and relationships, which together constitute the UK’s constitution, remain sufficiently robust, sufficiently legitimate or sufficiently consensual to sustain the allegiance of all parts of the Union. It also has to be said that it is not a novel question, reminding one of Barker’s assessment in 1927 that the UK would fall apart into as many democracies as there were nationalities unless there was a popular will to secure the state. In constitutional terms today, that would be an invitation to all of us to ‘check out’ from residence in the mere political ‘space’ of the Union and to accept our independent futures (maybe hoping to secure solidarity through EU membership). That is precisely what nationalism invites – that we should all act out the four nations and a British funeral script and put our faith in Brussels not London. The alternative is the idea of the UK as a home in which a common political allegiance complements distinctive national identities.

Summary - Union as an Elective Affinity?

Is it possible to summarise the arguments into a concise identification of the character of the Union? Can one capture the principle of consent and the practice of multi-nationalism in a simple form of words? Is there some way of stating succinctly the relationship between instrumental interest and collective solidarity, a constitutional relationship which affirms, and does not deny, the identities of Scottish, English, Welsh, and Irish/Northern Irish? Is there an expression which captures the current complex of self-rule and shared rule?

Here is one suggestion. Perhaps the Union can be summed up pithily as an elective affinity. Elective affinity means that the component nationalities of the UK (continue to) elect to stay together as parts of the UK and this choice declares (still) a collective affinity which gives (persistent) meaning to the term ‘British’. For now, that choice implies an attendant affinity with the larger life of the Union, not just politically but in its broadest sense (the wish to sustain that multinational political ‘conversation’). The words in brackets imply that the Union’s elective affinity is always a work in progress, which is the truth of arguments according to historical contingency and the truth of arguments according to the waxing and waning of national identity. People’s choices may change and affinities may wither. No one knows the future.

And if one were looking for a prosaic though appealing manner in which to make the case then one might refer to this passage in McLean, Gallagher and Lodge (2013): ‘Belonging and sharing march together. We are more willing to pool resources with those with whom we have a common bond of identity and citizenship; but sharing risks and resources is one of the ways of creating that common bond’. And they conclude that those who want to emphasise the value of the Union or to give it effect can point to sharing risks and pooling resources as a measure of its reality. That sort of unionism may be prosaic, but it may be where we are in the rhetorical game of politics.

What it requires is a continuing ‘conversation’ in which citizens wish to participate - an imaginative debate about the Union’s history, politics, culture and society. The evidence is, for the moment, that they still do though its scope should be extended. There is no guarantee that people will always wish to continue the conversation but the fact of the Union – instrumentally, non-instrumentally and politically – remains more deeply rooted. I’m always reminded of Joseph Roth’s point that the fall of a multi-national state is likely to happen not because of the arguments of nationalists but because of the ironical lack of faith by those who should have supported and defended it. The fall-out from Brexit has added to the cynicism and ironical lack of faith in the UK though it hasn’t been unique in history (think of intellectuals in the 1930s and Orwell’s judgement of them in the 1940s). This the rhetorical battle for the Union that needs to be fought.

United Kingdom

United Diversity


Barker, Ernest (1942) Britain and the British People Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bew, Paul (2009) in Matthew D’Ancona (ed) Being British: The Search for the Values That Bind the Nation London: Mainstream Publishing.

Boyce, George (1988) The Irish Question and British Politics 1868-1986 Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Canovan, Margaret (1996) Nationhood and Political Theory Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Colley, Linda (2014) Acts of Union and Disunion: What has held the UK together – and what is dividing it? London: Profile Books.

Colls, Robert (2011) ‘The lion and the eunuch: national identity and the British genius’, Political Quarterly, 82: 4, pp 574-95.

Crick, Bernard (2008) ‘The Four Nations: Interrelations’, The Political Quarterly, 79: 1, 71-79.

Elton, G. R. (1992) The English Oxford: Blackwell.

Hazell, Robert (1999) ‘Reinventing the constitution: can the state survive?’ Public Law, Spring, 84-103.

Kidd, Colin (2008) Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland, 1500-2000, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kidd, Colin (2012) The case for union Public Policy Research 19: 1.

Lloyd, John (2020) Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence London: Polity Press.

McLean, Iain, Gallagher Jim and Lodge, Guy (2013) Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Mitchell, James (2009) Devolution in the UK, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Nairn, Tom (1977) The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism, London: NLB.

Wills, Michael (2008) ‘The politics of identity’, paper presented to the IPPR

Rojek, Chris (2007) Brit-myth: Who do the British think they are? London: Reaktion Books.

Rose, Richard (1982) Understanding the United Kingdom: The Territorial Dimension in Government, London: Macmillan.

Schonfield, Andrew (1973) Europe: Journey to an Unknown Destination, London: Penguin Books.

Professor Arthur Aughey

Arthur Aughey is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University and former Leverhulme Senior Fellow.

He has published widely on British, Irish and Conservative politics and recently written a novel set in the southern Austrian borderlands of Carinthia.



Intuit Mailchimp logo
Facebook icon
Twitter icon
Instagram icon
Email icon

© 2020-2024 Uniting UK