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Unionism has always been a ‘fragile concept’, English literature expert argues

03 Jun 2021 2 minute read
The flags of Wales, Scotland, England and the UK. Picture by Joowwww.

Unionism has always been a “fragile concept”, an expert in English literature has argued.

Alex Niven, a lecturer in English literature at Newcastle University, suggested that the union has always been “underpinned by confused, overly broad notions of Englishness”.

The author of New Model Island, said since its formation “there was often the pretence of an equal partnership”, and that England’s “fellow nations” were only awarded “partial gains”.

He also said that the UK is “probably doomed” and that not many people have a clear idea of “what should replace the dying dream of unionism”.

In a column for The Guardian, he said: “Many think the UK in its current form is probably doomed, and that the break up of the union is inevitable.

“But outside the various nationalist causes, few people seem to have a clear idea about what should replace the dying dream of unionism.

“With a pro-independence majority installed in the Holyrood parliament, it seems almost certain that Scotland will achieve independence in the near-ish future.

“Meanwhile, spurred on by Brexit and the destabilising impact of Covid-19, Northern Ireland’s place in the union looks increasingly precarious — with a majority of its citizens expecting Irish reunification in the next 25 years.

“Even in Wales, where opposition to the UK is modest by comparison, calls for independence are growing louder by the year.


He added: “In stark contrast, the unionist cause is beleaguered. While Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalist movements have gained in strength, underlined by the SNP’s decisive breakthrough in the May elections, the union has become a hazy, marginal idea that is rarely articulated with much confidence or sense of belief.

“Part of the problem is that British unionism has always been a fragile concept, underpinned by confused, overly broad notions of Englishness.

“The series of conquests and treaties that paved the way for the formation of the UK were almost all led by England (even if, as with the 1707 Act of Union that joined Scotland with England and Wales, there was often the pretence of an equal partnership).

“Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of an ‘Anglo-British’ state benefited English interests enormously, while more partial gains were awarded to its fellow nations.”

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Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
2 years ago

Having lived in London for many years I would say that most people living there don’t know the difference between England, Britain and the United Kingdom. If that is the case with many English people those from other countries are even less likely to understand. I found the common view in London to be that anywhere outside the M25 is the sticks and the back of beyond. When many hear my Welsh accent at best they find it an endless source of amusement or feel the need to pass insulting comments which they think are funny. They either don’t know… Read more »

Richard Edwards
Richard Edwards
2 years ago

The need is for England to chose where it wants to go and how it will recognise differing regional, local and city aspirations.

England needs to understand the regional & historic pride of places such as Yorkshire; the city pride of places such as liverpool with emerging powehouses of Greater Manchester & Birmingham etc….as well as the cultural distinctiveness of the likes of Cornwall and Northumbria.

It’s constant wish for centralisation espoused by the major parties has caused much of the wish for various models of local home rule that are appearing.

j humphrys
j humphrys
2 years ago

One thing, I feel great shame at the “British” Empire’s role in China. The burning of the summer palace and the Han Lin academy etc, yet we are roped in for the mea culpa’s
or would be if there were any regret.Time to dissolve the “UK”, and return the loot.

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
2 years ago
Reply to  j humphrys

Not just China.

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
2 years ago

I read Mr Niven’s full article and it struck me that he has some good points but even then he cannot help writing from an Anglo-centric viewpoint. Just about inevitable for an Englishman but he also mistakes patriotism and nationalism, politics and culture. I suppose that too is to be expected when he also admits that the English have only a vague idea and tenuous grip on what Englishness means. He barely touches on the exploitative nature of the English establishment and seems less than aware of “wealth extraction” though, again, that might be expected. It is good to see… Read more »

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