Is Britain a nation? If you’re trying to maintain the United Kingdom — or destroy it for that matter — this is surely a very important question. It may seem obvious at first, of course the United Kingdom is a nation. Yet Unionists too often seem reluctant to address the question.
Devolutionaries, often non-separatist nationalists, are keen to talk about Britain as if it were merely an arrangement between states — like some kind of federal ‘United Kingdoms’ plural, rather than a singular polity made up of constituent parts. Full blown nationalists tend to reject the idea of British nationhood out of hand as it invites the awkward prospect of nationality as an overlapping and complex phenomenon that doesn’t magically confer a special legitimacy on their preferred group.
Even the government often seems reluctant to use the word ‘British’, favouring instead the sterile and technical ‘UK’ or the confederal language of the ‘four nations’. The politician’s instinct to focus exclusively on meeting wavering swing voters where they are is understandable. But to reduce the Union to a question of balance sheets — let alone to describe the UK as ‘a means, not an end’ — is to blunder into a nationalist trap.
Britain needs to be talked about and seen as a legitimate political and cultural — that is to say, national — community for the United Kingdom to work. It is only if ‘the British’ are a legitimate decision-making body that we can justify being governed as such.
Of course, many devocrats are not shy about wanting to replace British governance with intra-Home Nations horse-trading, or ‘shared rule’. But even as they plot the dismantling of British institutions, such people continue to base their case on the continued existence of something calling itself the ‘British taxpayer’, prepared to stump up for fiscal transfers across the UK.
If Britishness disappears, political consent for the ‘pooling and sharing’ of money will follow soon after.