‘Unionism’ never meant single approach across UK

Tory pragmatism champions regional and national autonomy underneath UK umbrella

Unionism, importantly, means different things depending on which of the United Kingdom’s four “home nations” you’re talking about, yet earlier this week there was a fascinating link-up between the Arlene Foster variety and that of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

On Monday afternoon, as we know, Foster scuppered Theresa May's Brexit deal by declaring that Northern Ireland "must leave" the European Union "on the same terms as the rest of the UK", refusing to accept any form of "regulatory divergence" separating it "economically or politically" from the rest of the UK.

This was echoed on Tuesday morning when Davidson issued a strikingly worded statement, demanding the UK government should not “countenance any deal that compromises the political, economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom”. And if that meant “regulatory alignment” was necessary to preserve a frictionless border in Ireland, then May “should conclude this must be on a UK-wide basis”.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon, the UK Brexit minister David Davis appeared to agree, although he danced on the head of a pin as to whether UK-wide “regulatory alignment” meant the same as “harmonisation” with the EU. It isn’t yet clear whether this was a new position, and nor is it clear if it’ll find favour within a fractious Conservative Party.


By the middle of the week, however, it looked as if more hardline Brexiteer Tories were in sympathy with the Democratic Unionist Party’s position, particularly as talks continued between Belfast and London. Yet this sudden unionist consensus between Northern Ireland and the mainland highlights some interesting contradictions.

Tory pragmatism

As any student of UK history will know, British “unionism” has never meant – as Foster and Davidson’s comments imply – a uniform approach across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact, its whole ethos has been based upon precisely the opposite, a typically Tory pragmatism that champions regional (and national) autonomy underneath the UK umbrella.

Although Ulster Unionists were initially hostile to the idea of Home Rule for Ireland, once it was implemented in the North, the party quite happily ran the highly devolved Stormont parliament for half a century. In Scotland and Wales, meanwhile, successive Conservative governments promoted what was called “administrative devolution”, modestly increasing autonomy short of the legislative devolution that existed in Northern Ireland.

That was in itself a contradiction, but it – and the legislative devolution for Wales and Scotland that followed in 1999 – hardly preserved the economic and political integrity of the UK, which both Arlene Foster and Ruth Davidson now consider a red line in the context of Brexit negotiations. It will come as news to most observers that Northern Ireland must take the same approach as the mainland in policy terms; where, for example, would that leave its laws on abortion and gay marriage?

Indeed, it’s even more curious when you consider relatively recent debates about corporation tax. Back in 2015, the UK government devolved control over this to the Northern Ireland Assembly, a direct result of lobbying by unionists to ensure it was not placed at a disadvantage given the lower rate in the Republic. The Northern Ireland Executive has committed to setting a rate of 12.5 per cent in April next year, assuming, of course, an executive exists.

UK ‘unravelled’

That would seem to constitute deliberate “alignment” between Belfast and Dublin, which the DUP has now deemed an unacceptable feature of May’s proposed deal. Writing in the Scotsman newspaper on Wednesday, meanwhile, Davidson argued that a “markedly separate deal” for Northern Ireland “could have unravelled the entire United Kingdom”.

One might conclude from that dramatic claim that Davidson is cautious when it comes to devolving further powers from London to Edinburgh. Not a bit of it, she has for the past few years argued for more autonomy, just the sort – one assumes – that won’t threaten the integrity of the union.

But if British unionism contains contradictions, so too does Scottish nationalism. Like Davidson, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon used Monday’s events to try to reinsert herself into the Brexit narrative, arguing that if the UK government accepted “special” arrangements were possible in Northern Ireland, then that ought to be the case in Scotland too. She has spent the past year arguing it should remain in the single market and customs union even if the rest of the UK departs.

As ever, significant contradictions lie underneath that superficially plausible line. In Ireland, of course, a distinct deal for Northern Ireland is necessary to avoid a hard border, while on the mainland a “differentiated” deal would most likely create one, assuming England (unlike Scotland) left the single market. The SNP cannot have it both ways: if a hard border is undesirable in Ireland (and it self-evidently is), then the same is true on the mainland.

The details, of course, will bore most voters and therefore what matters more are the optics. This week’s mess allows Ruth Davidson to claim she’s “standing up for Scotland” much more effectively than Nicola Sturgeon, while Arlene Foster gets to demonstrate that the post-election DUP-Tory agreement isn’t a mere formality. And if that involves both of them reinterpreting decades of pragmatic unionism, then so be it.

David Torrance is author of The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum, and Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life