The historian Colin Kidd observes that the Union was such a widely accepted and unchallenged fact of Scottish political life that a sort of “banal unionism” prevailed from at least the late 18th Century until the modern day.
He makes this remark in one of his predominant works on the subject, Union and Unionisms (Cambridge University Press, 2008), which covers political thought in Scotland from 1500-2000, and therefore concludes with the advent of devolution and the creation of the modern Scottish ‘parliament’.
Of course, a lot has happened since then. Come 2020, Scotland has endured thirteen years of devolved SNP ‘government’ and a gruelling referendum in which the very existence of the United Kingdom was called into question. The aggressive separatism of the SNP has harnessed a plethora of devolved powers to carve out a devo-fiefdom that has totally marginalised shared British institutions in Scotland; a process in which they have been aided and abetted by the complacently pro-devolution attitudes of successive Labour and Conservative governments. Most notoriously, the 2016 Scotland Act gave the Holyrood assembly a host of new powers and even granted it control over the franchise.
Despite having all the power and influence that comes with being the party of UK Government, the Conservatives are still stuck in the sort of lazy, unarticulated “banal unionist” mindset identified by Kidd. Nothing demonstrates this more than their recent decision to outsource their position on the Union to a private London consultancy firm. Unsurprisingly, it advised them to hand over even more powers to Holyrood in an attempt to “placate” the SNP; including new controls over finance and immigration as part of a broad “Four Nations, One Country” strategy.
This gets to the heart of the matter. The devolutionary ‘four nations’ conception of the United Kingdom reduces the Union to being merely a sort of mutually beneficial arrangement between four fundamentally separate and distinct nations, which are largely self-governing, and pool and share their resources only for a limited number of reserved matters like borders and defence.
This is not how the Union or the United Kingdom was understood prior to devolution; nor is it really recognisable as unionism. Indeed, it is this misguided federalism, embodied in the pro-devolution legislation of successive Labour and Conservative governments, that has been piecemeal carving up the United Kingdom for over two decades. Had this never happened, the SNP would still be an insignificant, obscure regional party.
It is vital therefore to clarify what the Union is; for it is only by doing so that we can establish unionist thought from first principles.
Firstly, the Union of 1707 which merged the parliaments of Scotland and England was – politically speaking – an incorporating Union (there were some limited provisions for separate institutions in the ecclesiastical and legal spheres). As an incorporating Union, it merged the parliaments of Scotland and England into one and established that Scottish and English constituencies should be represented equally and without distinction.
Secondly, it established Great Britain (and later the United Kingdom upon the addition of Ireland with the Union of 1801) as a unitary state in which the national British parliament held sovereign authority. Accordingly, any power which was delegated to sub-national bodies was understood as deriving from – and being subordinate to – the national parliament.
Thirdly, it established Britain as one of the first unified nation states in Europe. At the time of the Union of 1707, almost all modern European nations were still a patchwork of petty kingdoms, city states and vassal territories. It is on this basis that all Britons have shared over three centuries of national experience (good and bad), including industrialisation, the rise and fall of Empire, two world wars, universal suffrage and the development of a social democratic welfare state, to name a few.
Fourthly, it established Britain as a parliamentary democracy. The very Acts of Union were parliamentary unions (the Union of the Crowns can be traced back over a century earlier to 1603; while in other respects like the established churches and legal systems, union was not established). Our democracy was parliamentary and the democratic mandate for the Union has therefore been delivered for centuries on a parliamentary basis through the mechanisms of participation (representing a constituency within the British parliament, and accepting its authority) and abstention (seeking a mandate to reject the British parliament and its authority, as for example Sinn Fein have done unsuccessfully for many years).
From these four points, we can establish that the Union forged Britain as a unitary, sovereign and parliamentary nation. This is unionism; these are the first principles that it is founded upon. They offer a strong foundation from which to challenge the aggressive, divisive separatism of the SNP; as well as the devolutionary policies of the Conservative and Labour parties that have chipped away constantly at the Union for over two decades now. These principles also establish a firm parliamentary mandate for the Union which is delivered by the electorate at every General Election, and can therefore challenge the post-2012 idea that the Union is perpetually subject to the results of devolved elections and referenda; a constitutional, anti-Union fiction in which the SNP, Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all complicit.
One can be a left-wing unionist, and one can be right-wing unionist; there is plenty of scope for diversity of opinion within the fundamental unionist framework established above. But one cannot claim to represent unionism while ignoring these foundational principles and promoting the UK as nothing more than a loose, federal arrangement between Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
As we head into another devolved election next May, which the SNP will no doubt seek to hijack to push for another separation referendum; it is more vital now than ever that unionism returns to its first principles and promotes a coherent and unifying vision for a truly United Kingdom.