It appears that two different union issues, each seemingly working in opposite directions, are causing Conservatives some real difficulties. On the one hand, general antipathy towards Europe, or more precisely certain European institutions, leads some Conservatives to a position of not wishing to be part of that union. At the same time, the union with Scotland has risen up the political agenda, with the SNP making substantial progress in their argument for Scottish independence. The Unionist response so far has been somewhere between mute and incoherent, partly because many arguments deployed against Scottish independence are surely valid for closer European integration.
Gregg Peers contribution (As the Euro crumbles and EU is it time to pull out Europe?) contends that Europe is undemocratic because other countries’ MEPs have a say on what happens in Britain. However, if we were to consider Scotland as a separate nation, then the Scots can and do argue that English MPs have a say in what happens in Scotland. If it so unacceptable at a European level then why is it any more acceptable at a United Kingdom level?
Peers goes on to point out “ludicrous” political decisions, as if British politicians were somehow uniquely immune to such stupidity. In any case, if Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were separate states (drawing a distinction between states and nations), would England seek to impose immigration limits from these states? (If the argument about immigration is about numbers, the point of origin is irrelevant. If the argument is about where people come from, then why privilege the Scots over the French?) When it comes to the law, the conventional view is that as an individual I have to comply with all laws, including the legislation that I don’t like, irrespective of how arcane and irrelevant they may be; I can’t just pick and mix my legislation. So if the law says that prisoners have the right to vote, then those subject to the law, which is everyone – including governments – should observe the law. Presumably, Unionists would soon demand action if Scotland decided that there were parts of UK legislation that it didn’t like and was going to ignore.
The difficulty for Unionists is that they see that Britain has been listened to on the world stage, this is true. Going forward, as Christian Walker observes, this is not so certain (See The Big Questions: How Does a Nation Decline, and Is the President of the United States ‘Declinist?’ and The Art of Balancing: China’s Rise in Realist Terms ). Furthermore, whilst Britain, along with France and Germany, may indeed be a “great power”, would England, shorn of the rest of the United Kingdom, be a great power? Any answer is purely conjecture, but my real point is that it is the union of four nations that crucially makes the whole more than the sum of the parts. Whether this logic could or should be extended to Europe in a global context is part of the ongoing debate, but Conservative/Unionist voices must have logical difficulties to claim for a British Union without being open to the same claims for a European Union. It is clear that those who urge for a British withdrawal from the EU on the grounds of national sovereignty cannot offer a coherent argument against an independent Scotlandon the same grounds.
Given the foregoing, it is interesting to consider why the Conservatives, in general, are so for a British Union and so against a European Union. The answer is in the party name: the conservation of a particular governing elite. The Conservatives are essentially an English party who have enjoyed governing the whole of the United Kingdom. However, they have been wrongfooted by nationalist calls, in Scotland in particular. The Conservatives don’t like the idea of losing power to Europe, nor do they relish losing power to govern Scotland. In attempting to maintain the existing structures, Conservatives risk standing still and being left behind. Their good fortune is that their main English rivals have their own ideological and presentational problems which are probably more profound. Nevertheless, a political party that simply does not want to even contemplate change in the relationship between the nations of the UK, even less do anything about it, and seeks to disengage, at least in part, from Europe, runs the risk of making itself irrelevant.
In conclusion, the two union issues lay bare some of the discontinuities of current Conservative thinking. The solution to one issue ignores the contradictions imposed by the other. The Conservative party is not fighting for electoral survival by any means, in England at least, but if it wants to be more than the English Party it needs to articulate a clear, attractive and realistic message about 21st century Britain.