‘Know-your-place unionism’ threatening the future of the UK says former senior civil servant
A “know-your-place” unionism that treats Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as “possessions” is threatening the future of the UK, a former civil servant in the Cabinet Office has said.
Ciaran Martin, now a professor at the University of Oxford, said that adherents of “muscular unionism” – including the Prime Minister Boris Johnson – were now working towards a “single, British nationalist vision of the future” that only required “an English electoral majority to deliver it”.
Even though a kind of British nationalism, “muscular unionism is emphatically (though not exclusively) Anglocentric,” he said.
“Because it sees the UK as a unitary state, and because of the dominance of England within it, a simple majority in England is usually enough to win a UK-wide majority,” he said.
“This means the entire UK can – and should – be governed entirely on the basis of that majority. Fiscal transfers are a price worth paying to keep the territory of the UK intact and avoid the national humiliation of its break up.”
Writing in Political Insight, he said that the opposition to a legal path to Scottish independence meant that this form of British nationalism was a “quintessential ‘know-your-place’ unionist position”. Brexit and the “extraordinary constitutional land-grab” of the Internal Market Act were other examples, he said.
“That it risks, over time, changing the nature of the Union from one based on consent to one upheld by law, appears not to trouble the muscular unionist,” he said.
Ciaran Martin was previously Constitution Director at the Cabinet Office at the time of David Cameron’s government, and helped to agree the framework for the Scottish independence referendum.
The danger to the UK in muscular unionism was that while it aimed for “squashing separatist sentiment and restoring a strongly British identity throughout the UK” it also “appears not to be very popular”.
“Devolution continues to enjoy strong support in Scotland. Whatever the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people is, it is not muscular unionism,” he said.
“In Wales, the Abolish the Assembly Party did not secure a single seat in May. Even in Northern Ireland, however unsettled unionism is over the Protocol, a significant constituency, notably Doug Beattie’s progressive and increasingly popular Ulster Unionist Party, sees real electoral peril in being seen to bring down Stormont.”
That would leave devolution-supporting Unionists outside England politically homeless, he said.
“At a time when British nationalism is standing firm against a second referendum choice for Scotland, they are reframing that choice, when it eventually comes, to a binary one between leaving the United Kingdom or staying in a highly centralised, very nationalistic, British state,” he said.
“If muscular unionism changes the basis of British government in the way it intends, where is the political home for those outside England who are comfortable with complex and multiple identities, and prefer a strong degree of national autonomy within a multinational state?”