Red telephone boxes

Will ‘British values’ keep us together?

Published: 12 October 2021

This blog originally appeared on The Constitution Society on 24 September 2021.

It has often been assumed that sub-state nationalisms, whether in Scotland, Wales, Quebec, Catalonia or the Basque Country, must be motivated by distinct values or attitudes about the great issues of public policy. Indeed, there is a whole school of writing in political theory based on the idea that nationalism is about defending distinct cultures.

Yet a new study from the unionist think tank Our Scottish Future shows that values are mostly very similar across the nations of Great Britain. This is not a new insight. Other studies have long shown that values are similar between Scotland and England and, indeed, have been converging across nations and regions in western Europe. The same is true between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

In my new book State and Nation in the United Kingdom: The Fractured Union, I argue that nation-states are based on the coincidence of the key elements of demos (who are the people), telos (what the state is for), ethos (values) and sovereignty. In a union, on the other hand, these may be contested and never resolved. Indeed, if a union is to work, they may best be left in abeyance, rather than digging down to find common foundations and agreement all the way back up. This is the secret of the European Union and has long been the British way. Constitutions in such a state are not about demonstrating fundamental agreement but about managing disagreements, for example about the final destination or telos. The Northern Ireland settlement is prime example of such a strategy, encouraging both unionists and nationalists to choose their own identity, giving these institutional expression and leaving the final status of the province open. On the other hand, when unionism seeks to impose its own meaning on all these elements, it becomes a nationalism in its own right and risks undermining the union.

The argument being made by Our Scottish Future is that, since we all share the same ethos, there is no place for Scottish nationalism. Opponents of Quebec nationalism like Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (father of the current Prime Minister of Canada), and Spanish opponents of Basque and Catalan nationalism, have made a similar case. The argument, however, is no longer whether we all share the values of democracy, freedom and social inclusion; unionists are right to say that we do. The problem is rather that these are universal values, which both nationalists and unionists would like to appropriate for themselves. Unionists recurrently claim them as British values, a theme rehearsed repeatedly over the last twenty years, as a riposte to the challenges both of multiculturalism and of devolution. Pierre Trudeau embedded them in a Charter of Rights as Canadian values and other European states have had debates about national values.

While appropriating universal values for themselves, unionists have tried to argue that nationalists of the smaller nations do espouse a different ethos, that they are inward looking and isolationist. Michael Gove defines unionism as being about liberty, institutions and the rule of law, and based on individuals, in contrast to ‘identity politics’ of the peripheral nationalisms. Nationalists make similar criticisms of unionists, especially in the light of Brexit.

As I have argued before, these rival claims to the same values are often more difficult to reconcile than those cases where nationalists in the smaller nations base their claims on different values. Where the minorities are demanding the right to practice their own culture, they can be given their own schools, their languages can be recognised and they may gain other forms of cultural autonomy. The claims of Welsh language activists were accommodated in this way. Another case altogether is where the smaller nations or regions are fundamentally illiberal or undemocratic; then higher levels of government might indeed claim a moral superiority and the right to over-ride them. It took a long time for the United States to rein in the southern states that practised systematic discrimination against the African American community but few liberals now criticise the federal government’s right to have done so.

Where majorities and minorities (or unionists and nationalists) share the same values, however, they are fighting for ownership of the same moral high ground. The stakes here are not about ethos. They are about demos, how we define the people for the purposes of democracy. They are about telos, which level is best fitted to achieve the aims. They are about sovereignty, or the location of ultimate authority. These are struggles to define the boundaries of the public space within which issues of policy are played out and contested.

We may all be committed to the idea of universal health coverage, free at the point of use. This does not mean that we need to share the same health service or even the same state. The arguments may, in fact, be more about which level is best placed to support it. Indeed, the only serious discussion on privatising the NHS was under arch-unionist Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Given the current state of public opinion across Great Britain, there is little immediate prospect of governments in any of the nations abolishing the NHS, whether within the Union or in the event of its break up. It is true that many nationalist voters in Northern Ireland are hesitant about Irish reunification, given the state of health services in the Republic but Our Scottish Future has given that one a wide berth.

The point takes on added meaning when we look at attitudes to Europe. Historically, the differences in attitudes to EU membership differed rather little across the United Kingdom, although there were significant differences between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. As unionists often point out, nearly a third of those Scots who voted to remain within the UK in the independence referendum of 2014 then voted to leave the European Union. This has now shifted, so that there is a closer association between Scottish independence and support for the EU. This is not about a sudden change in values but a calculation of the institutional setting within which they can best be realised. Indeed, Our Scottish Future’s own survey demonstrates this quite starkly. It reports that three quarters of those they describe as ‘nationalists’ had voted Remain in 2016, as against just under half of ‘unionists’. This is hardly evidence that nationalists are motivated by inward-looking and isolationist values but rather that they are looking for new forms of political order to secure the shared values.

Unionism and nationalism in the United Kingdom increasing resemble each other as nationalising projects seeking to appropriate the same values but locked in an existential argument over demos and telos. This is not, as some have argued, an example of Freud’s narcissism of small differences. There may be few differences in values and attitudes but the others are more profound. Unionists seem to be more and more frustrated at the apparent paradox that so many Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish people share the same values as England yet vote for nationalist parties. In fact, it is not a paradox at all and liberal unionism and liberal nationalism have more in common than they would like to admit. The threat to liberal democracy comes from another quarter, notably from the populist and xenophobic extreme right, wherever it crops up.

We might even say that the main threat to the union no longer comes from the nationalisms of the periphery but from the attempt by unionism to monopolise universal values and dress them with the nationalising language of Britishness. The Union succeeded when it relaxed assumptions about the need for a unitary demos or telos and relegated discussions about sovereignty to the academic seminar. Britishness was a polyvalent idea, which took different forms in different parts of the Union, not a single thing above all the others. Neither unionism nor nationalism is going to go away any time soon and they will have to learn to co-exist, largely sharing social and economic values but differing on the form of the state.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

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