Getting Precious about the Union – Frank McNally on a Brexit buzzword

An Irishman’s Diary

One of the great euphemisms introduced by the UK's Brexit crisis is "our precious Union", a phrase used frequently since 2016, and by Theresa May in particular.

You'd think it was older than that. But in this newspaper's 159-year-old archive, I can find only one pre-Brexit mention of "precious union". That was in 1890, in a report on the launch in London of the "Chemical Union", a blatant attempt to corner the market in certain goods. The Irish Times reference to that as "precious" was clearly sarcastic, perhaps because the products that would be costing more as a result included paper.

The precious union Theresa May has been talking about lately is of course the one between the UK's constituent countries. And no doubt she means the phrase sincerely, in the now usual sense of precious: something of high emotional value. But according to my OED, the word's primary meaning is "of great price, costly", which in the case of the UK's political union(s), is also apt, if unintentionally.

In his epic history of Britain and Ireland, The Isles (1999), Norman Davies pondered the mystery of why, although the unions between England and Scotland (1707) and later Great Britain and Ireland (1800) were officially mutual, between partners, this was not apparent from the countries' respective histories.

The Scots and Irish knew they had entered different eras as a result, for good or bad. But if the English ever knew, they soon forgot. For them, Davis writes, the contracts had been one-sided: “since the English blithely assume that to be merged into England is the height of felicity, they have been taught to believe in the seamless progress of their past”.

The consequences extended not just to writing history, he found, but to cataloguing it. In the leading British library archives, there was no such heading as “England – History – the Union with Scotland”.

Nor, under “Great Britain (UF England) – was there any sub-head for either Act of Union. You could find “Scotland – History – the Union” all right, and “Ireland – History – the Union”; not the other way round.

The signal was clear, concluded Davies (himself English). “Scotland may have united with England in 1707; and Ireland may have united with England and Scotland in 1800. But England has never united with anyone.”

Another side-effect, he wrote, was that “no English poet ever wrote an ode to celebrate the [1707] Union”.

The field was left clear for Scotland's national bard, Robbie Burns. And reflecting the popular mood in his country then, with particular reference to the mass bribery of local political leaders (many bankrupted by the collapse of the Darien scheme a few years earlier) that facilitated the act, he was damning: "But pith and power, till my last hour,/I'll mak this declaration:/'We're bought and sold for English gold'/Such a parcel of rogues in a nation."

The theme was repeated 90 years later, when the Act of Union between GB and Ireland passed with much greasing of palms. The Irish parliament was in any case unpopular with Catholics and Presbyterians, both excluded. And after the slaughters of 1798, there was broad Catholic support for the Union – especially in “rebel” Cork – which promised to bring emancipation and other reforms.

But again, the poets of England appear not to have been moved to verse. On the contrary, at least one English writer, a young Thomas de Quincy (later famous for his Confessions of an Opium Eater) expressed disgust at the Irish peers' sell-out of the parliament. In the visitors gallery for the last sitting, he marvelled at the "madness" that persuaded them "to part with their birthright, and to cashier themselves and their children for ever into mere titular lords".

Among the ironies of history is that the bitterest opponents of the merger were the Orange Order, now its staunch defenders. Long before Theresa May started calling the union “precious”, they had learned to think it so. And to judge from their main political representatives, the DUP, they are now far from convinced at England’s belatedly expressed appreciation.

But then that has coincided with the crisis brought on by an English-dominated attempt to extricate the UK from a union of more recent vintage. Alas for England and the DUP, a majority of ungrateful Scots and Irish don't want to be extricated, thereby threatening the whole enterprise. Not that, even in the Republic, anyone waxes poetic about the European Union either. But even so, as Brexiteers have found out the hard way, we seem to consider it precious.