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This week’s front page editor

Thomas Rowley

Thomas Rowley is editor of oDR.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Wild Catastrophism to Mild Moderation in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's place in the Union has been the most contested. In this extract from Breaking up Britain Arthur Aughey weighs up the outcomes of the peace process for devolution.

To speak of politics being ‘after a Union' is an invitation to anticipate emancipation from old identity-constraints. To argue that we are already ‘after Britain' suggests that the fate of Britishness has already been decided, if not yet at the polls, then at the bar of history.

If this projection of a political future from the logic of history has become influential recently in discussing both Scottish and English affairs it has always informed thinking about Northern Ireland, implicitly and explicitly. And the experience of Northern Ireland casts doubt on the logic of being already ‘after Britain'.

Dry Stone Wall of History

A more appropriate image for understanding historical change can be found in the work of the English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott uses the image of a feature of the rugged countryside, the ‘dry wall', to conjure up how historical events are related to each other. It is history of no premeditated design, but one in which events are related one to another by their particular interlocking shapes. The value of that particular image is that it evokes historical change in terms of historical continuity. But this continuity is not the continuity of permanent traits or fated behaviour but of contiguity, a contiguity that has space for events which appear to challenge much of what went before. The image of history as the dry stone wall of related events is a rather modest one because it is sceptical of two assertions: first, that there is in history some destiny to be fulfilled or some fate that awaits; second, that certain events or moments are of such revolutionary significance that all is changed and changed utterly. The lure of historical destiny and the justification by transcendent historical suffering informed the terror campaign of the Provisional IRA but traces were also to be found in constitutional nationalism as well, what Conor Cruise O'Brien once called Ireland's ‘ancestral voices' For unionists, this destiny was their apocalypse and like the Republicans they heard ancestral voices as a call to resist all restrictions of their civil and religious liberties.

Reshaping the dry stone wall of Irish history

Arthur Aughey (University of Ulster) reviews Irish Protestant Identities Edited by Mervyn Busteed, Frank Neal and Jonathan Tonge, Manchester University Press 2008 pp389 + xvii. In his careful response to the scholarly papers he concludes with a lesson for Gordon Brown that devolution, especially to Northern Ireland as it is now, has proundly altered what it means to be British - and that this can no longer be defined by the 'centre'. 

This book of twenty-five chapters is a selection of papers presented at a conference organised by the British Association for Irish Studies held at the University of Salford in September 2005. An additional commissioned chapter deals with the fortunes of the two major Unionist parties since the Belfast Agreement of 1998, in particular tracking the transition of the Democratic Unionists from opposition to the ‘Trimble-Adams Pact’ to miraculous support for a Robinson-McGuinness Executive. Appropriately, the book retains the diversity of the papers’ subject matter and, in keeping with recent academic convention, there is no attempt to identify either the ‘mind’ of Protestant Ireland or its ‘character’. It is not the singularity of tradition but the plurality of experience which the editors try to convey and they do so successfully. One of the merits of the book is that it deals with Protestantism in southern as well as Northern Ireland and also considers the impact of Protestant migration to North America and Great Britain, along with the influence of the Orange Order in Scotland and England. It cannot provide a complete picture, of course, but it does provide a more subtle and honest one. This is to be welcomed since Protestantism in Ireland and specifically in Northern Ireland has often been the subject of crude stereotyping. Irish Protestant Identities, along with John Bew’s new study, The Glory of Being Britons (Irish Academic Press 2008), will be an indispensable source of reference for anyone interested in the history, politics and cultures of Irish Protestantism.  

A Message in a Bottle from West Britain

Arthur Aughey reviews A Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture and Technology on Britain’s Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930 by Christopher Harvie.

(Oxford 2008, 319pp +xii)

G M Trevelyan once described social history as ‘history with the politics left out’. Christopher Harvie’s A Floating Commonwealth could be described as British history with England left out. Or to put that more accurately, British history with London left out, for Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester get their proper due in this story of the industrial, commercial but above all, intellectual, intercourse across the Irish Sea and its Atlantic connections through the North and St George’s Channels. In the ecumenical spirit in which Harvie writes, where the British Isles has become (p31) ‘These Islands’ (which would probably mean, as Terence Brown observed, that when Harvie is in Tuebingen he should properly call them ‘Those Islands’) the possessive ‘Irish’ should become, I suppose, ‘Our’. His extra-metropolitan focus does a great service and helps us to see the country as others, outside London, saw it. This sensitivity to the historical texture, vibrancy, energy, creativity and significance of the provincial world is Harvie’s great contribution to historical study.

Endism - A flawed vision of the future

Arthur Aughey: (University of Ulster): When I finished the manuscript of my book Nationalism, Devolution and the United Kingdom State (Pluto 2001) I did so with what I thought was not only a literary flourish but also a political warning. 

The literary flourish was intended to engage with Tom Nairn’s polemic against ‘UKania’ in After Britain (Granta 2000) where he had employed the Kakanian metaphor of Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities. Nairn argued that just as the fond hope of Austro-Marxists that they could save the integrity of the Habsburg Empire from nationalist challenge came to nothing so too Labour's constitutional activism merely replayed the old Austrian saying - 'es muss etwas geschehen' (something must be done). However, the fatalistic end was implied in that action - 'es ist passiert' (it just happened). And what will just happen, is already happening, is the dissolution of the United Kingdom. It was like the old Austrian lament of 1916 we find in Strong (History of European Ideas 1984, p. 305): 

Imagined Nation: England After Britain


Arthur Aughey
reviews Imagined Nation: England After Britain by Mark Perryman.

(Perryman, Lawrence & Wishart, April 2008, 248pp)

This book, inspired by Billy Bragg’s The Progressive Patriot, is another contribution to the contemporary Condition of England Question. The editor has assembled a good company of contributors, some familiar, some celebrated, and some less well-known, whose essays, individually and collectively, are worthy of serious reflection. This review will concentrate mainly on the collective spirit albeit with reference to individual authors. Those who have been following the debate will be familiar with not only the arguments but with the tone. Nor will they be surprised that the energy comes from those on the left rather than the right.

First, there is the call for the English to re-imagine a strong national consciousness (to recover one would be too conservative). This left/liberal vision celebrates a civic, liberal, multi-ethnic, hybrid, mongrel, idea of Englishness (choose the appropriate label) but it is an idea that, in the past, it has struggled to reconcile with native populism. There has always been the suspicion, best expressed in the past by Paul Gilroy, of the ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’ beer-fuelled nativism lurking beneath the traditionally conceived civilities of Englishness. This is a suspicion which often makes the liberal-left vision more elitist and therapeutic in its approach to the nation than its conservative counterpart which, in its turn, is more ill at ease with England’s cultural diversity. The vision in Imagined Nation provides an alternative understanding of English patriotic sentiment: that putting out more flags of St George represents what may be called the ‘autonomy of populism’, an expression of patriotic attachment that falls outside the boundaries of party political debate. Its autonomy challenges the normal discourse of British politics and its populism presents an opportunity. Many of the contributors, Andy Newman and Stephen Brasher for example, try to identify the opportunity for the left.