The term “Liberal Unionist” has long intrigued me. I have long felt that people use it to mean many different things and I came to the conclusion some time ago that, in modern parlance, it is a blatant contradiction in terms.
Firstly, it was established some months ago by a commenter on this blog – with reference, in fact, to the future or otherwise of the NI Conservatives – that “being a Unionist” is parallel with, say, “being Welsh”, not with, say, “being Conservative”. Where “being Conservative” is a political choice (albeit one which may well be rooted in upbringing), “being Unionist” is not something you can simply opt in or out of. You either are, or you’re not – Unionism is an identity, not a political or constitutional viewpoint.
It is for this reason that people speak openly about, for example, the “Unionist people” or “Unionist culture” – in the same way they might speak of “Welsh people” or “Welsh culture” (but not, for example, of “Conservative people” or “Conservative culture”). Yes, the extent to which you feel “Welsh” may vary depending on time, location or circumstance and likewise the extent to which you feel “Unionist”, but ultimately it is something you are born into; or, at least, something which, if you opt into it, is an overall culture (incorporating symbols, music, traditions and so on) rather than a political philosophy.
I have argued before on this blog that this “Unionist culture” derives from the requirement to maintain a Protestant ascendancy in Ireland (partly, at least, by maintaining a link of some sort to Great Britain), and is thus fundamentally anti-democratic in origin (rather, it is aristocratic and militaristic). In fairness, this seems more ludicrous in the 21st century than it did in the 17th, when such power wrangles and maintenance of minority interests at the top of society were common across Europe. Once this is understood everything becomes more easily grasped – from the establishment of Northern Ireland, to the mix or religious and national symbols within Unionism, to the failure to reach out to so-called “Catholic Unionists” (a term which grates precisely because it is so obviously contradictory, given the above), and so on.
Secondly, and resultantly, Unionism is essentially defensive, reactionary and communal. It seeks to defend the status quo without any consideration being given to whether this is, rationally, a good thing for the “Unionist community” or not – thus for example the eleven-plus patently isn’t advantageous for most children of the “Unionist community”, however defined, yet receives near universal Unionist support almost as a rite of passage (i.e. an inherent part of the culture). It is reactionary to events, based on a clear conviction that the present is as good as it is going to get and thus seeking to maintain the maxim “What we have, we hold” – witness Peter Robinson’s farcical and wildly exaggerated reaction to the idea Prison Symbols may be changed the same way Policing Symbols were. And it is communal – even the “moderate” Unionist Party’s Leader (and Oxbridge-educated) Mike Nesbitt’s speech is littered by terms such as “Unionist community”, “the Protestant side”, “the side I represent”, “our side of the fence” and so on (note also the interchange of the terms “Protestant” and “Unionist”). As a consequence of all of this, Unionism is also innately lacking in confidence – almost always, for example, hinting at the innate superiority of England and/or Great Britain (not least through basic terms such as “mainland”, but also in areas such as economic policy where the eternal need for a gross subvention is assumed anyone questioning it is mocked). This “defensive, reactionary and communal” aspect is seen not just in politics, but at cultural and street level too, and even in bureaucracy in older “establishment” organisations (such as Invest NI) – little may change, things are done the way they are done because they were always done that way, and the old school tie may matter.
Liberalism, on the other hand, is completely and utterly at odds with all of this. It is progressive, visionary and fundamentally anti-communal (believing rather in the individual’s own right of self-identification). It rejects tradition out of hand, seeking always a rational way of doing things; it assumes the future will be better than the past and actively seeks out visions of how this may be so; and in the case of this part of the world it rejoices in talk of a common “Northern Irishness” rather than of different “communities” or “peoples”, actively rejecting the notion of “special treatment”. It is more of a political philosophy than a culture, but by definition people who adhere to it cannot at the same time adhere to a culture to which it is fundamentally opposed!
“Liberal Unionist” may, of course, merely be another way of saying “moderate Unionist”. But even that does not work. Either you adhere to the Unionist culture, or you accept outcast status – doomed, no matter what your commitment to the concept of the United Kingdom, to be at best a bit-part player. Any Leaders of Unionism must be clearly Unionist – that entails not just support for the Union with Great Britain, but also defence of the status quo, attendance at Unionist events (e.g. Covenant celebrations), and membership of some sort of Protestant establishment. It is impossible, for example, to speak of “our side of the fence” on one hand and talk about “bringing down walls towards a Shared Future” on the other. The two are directly at odds – Unionists prioritise the former, and Liberals the latter.
While it is perfectly possible for someone who supports the Union with Great Britain to become a leading Liberal, it is not possible for a Liberal to become a leading Unionist – because that would require adherence to a culture which is fundamentally opposed to everything Liberalism is about. Furthermore, it is a nonsense for anyone serious about a “Shared Future” to talk at the same time of “sides of the fence” – by definition, “Shared Future” politics (I prefer the term “progressive politics” to indicate clearly that a Shared Future is something new and different, not just a minor modification of the situation pre-1969) requires thinking and feeling for all of Northern Ireland, and that requires a party with people from all of Northern Ireland. As a side point, it is also a nonsense to talk on one hand of incorporating “Unionist” into your party name, and on the other of making a serious play for “Catholic” votes – again, you cannot really be “Catholic” and “Unionist” (while you may of course be perfectly content to remain within the UK while attending mass every week).
A number of people active in Northern Ireland politics are described as “Liberal Unionists”. In 2013, they’ll need to decide which…