Are unionists the biggest threat to the Union?

There has been much debate in recent years (on this blog and elsewhere) on the validity of a second referendum on an independent Scotland. Defence of the Union has often been by reassertion of the unitary nation-state model. Michael Keating argues that this demonstrates a fundamental misconception of what union means, and that the nationalism implied by the nature of a union maintained by law, rather than the consent of its people, represents a threat to the continuing Union of the United Kingdom.

In its 2020 White Paper on the Internal Market, the British government described the United Kingdom as a ‘unitary state’. Although, for many at Westminster, this might sound rather banal, it betrays a serious misunderstanding of what is, and always has been, a plurinational union. Such misunderstandings are pulling the Union apart.

Four dimensions

In my book State and Nation in the United Kingdom, I spell out the difference between a unitary nation-state and a plurinational union by reference to four dimensions: demos; telos; ethos; and sovereignty.

Demos refers to the people and whether they are singular or plural. When prime ministers declare that ‘the British people’ voted for Brexit, they are invoking a unitary demos, but begging the question of what ‘the British people’ actually means. In fact, the peoples of ‘these islands’ have varied national identities, some identifying only as British and others not seeing themselves as British at all. It is not as simple as four separate identities because, within each of the component nations, there are complex forms of belonging and multiple forms of national identification. Some unionists are now arguing that Britishness is a common, overarching identity but that, underneath it, are the local varieties. Yet this does not work either. Britishness itself is experienced and defined very differently from one part of the United Kingdom to another. The fact that the United Kingdom does not even have an adjective for its citizens indicates the difficulty of fitting Northern Ireland in. Britishness is analogous to what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’. Any two members of the family may share a feature in common but there is no feature common to them all.

Telos refers to the story of the United Kingdom and to its purpose. There is an old ‘Whig’ narrative of steady historical progress towards liberty, democracy and unity but there are other histories in the different nations, constantly being contested. Debates about the past are part of the richness of a plurinational union; they are never resolved but constantly revised. Unionists have been spending a lot of effort recently in defining a purpose for the United Kingdom, whether it is about economic benefit, social solidarity or (a prominent one) the National Health Service. As the Earl of Roxburgh remarked during the debates on the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, ‘the motives will be Trade with most, Hanover with some, ease and security with others…aversion to civill discords, intolerable poverty…’.  Different groups continue to buy into the Union for different reasons and to reduce it to a defined purpose is merely to invite people to disagree. 

Ethos is about shared values. Survey evidence shows that, while politics and identities might be diverging across the United Kingdom, basic social and economic values are not. Yet unionists continue to try and appropriate these values for their cause, speaking of ‘British values’ when they are universal norms. The implication is that those many citizens in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland who do not consider themselves British are somehow not true to these values. To be even-handed, we should recognise it is not only unionists who appropriate universal values to their cause; so do nationalists. Yet, ironically, it is only in England that schools are under an obligation to teach ‘British values’.

Sovereignty is about where ultimate authority lies.  According to the ‘Westminster doctrine’, the UK Parliament possesses absolute sovereignty, recognising no limits to its competence. It also has supremacy, able to override all other institutions at any time. Yet the doctrine has long been contested by those who argue that it is, at best, something derived from the experience of the old English Parliament, wrongly attributed to the new Parliament of Great Britain created in 1707 and the United Kingdom emerging from the union with Ireland in 1801. The arguments were revisited in the first Miller case arising from Brexit, although they failed to impress the Supreme Court, which has become the guardian of the Westminster orthodoxy. Scholars and even some judges (in academic writings and non-binding judicial comments, rather than in the decisive parts of their judgments) have increasingly adopted a ‘post-sovereigntist’ perspective in the light of devolution, human rights law and (in its time) membership of the European Union. These join with the historical arguments to claim that sovereignty is divided and shared. In this perspective, devolution is a real constitutional change. In the Westminster perspective, devolution merely ‘lends’ power, which can be take back at any time, so that, as Enoch Powell once said, power devolved is power retained.

A union of consent or a union of law?

The term ‘union’ also implies that membership is voluntary and governed by consent, whether or not that goes as far as a right to secession (which it does not in the United States, as confirmed by its Supreme Court in Texas v White). This is the nub of the current argument about the legitimacy of a second Scottish independence referendum. So far, the UK government has refused permission on the grounds that now is not the time but, as it has not indicated that there is a ‘right time’ this risks becoming a permanent ban. So does the argument that even a consultative referendum should not be allowed. As Ciaran Martin has argued, this risks turning the UK from a union of consent to a union purely of law. The idea of consent is now scattered widely across the statute book, from the Sewel Convention (under which Westminster will not normally legislate on devolved matters without the agreement of the relevant devolved legislatures) to various mechanisms governing statutory instruments. Each iteration appears weaker than the previous ones, so that it starts to look little more than a requirement for consultation.

What is a union: a European comparison

To understand what a union is, we might usefully compare it with the European Union. There have been arguments about whether it requires a single European people or demos, but most analysts accept that it must work with multiple demoi. There are arguments about its telos or aims, whether market-liberal or social, federal or intergovernmental, the need for common external policy and so on. It is these very arguments themselves that sustain the union, rather than reaching agreement all the way down to the foundations. Values are embedded in the EU treaties and policies but there is no pretence that these are peculiarly European values. The question of whether it supersedes national sovereignty is argued but never quite resolved. Its demise is regularly predicted but the EU survives by continual accommodation and prudent advances.


Brexit represents an effort to reconstitute the United Kingdom as a fully sovereign state in its external relationships. It has been accompanied by a reassertion of the unitary nation-state model of a single demos, telos, ethos and sovereignty. In this way, unionism is ceasing to be a way of managing plural national realities and becomes a nationalism in itself. This is a fundamental misconception of what union means. Imposing a unitary (albeit devolved) conception of union turns unionism itself into a form of nationalism. The argument then puts unitary unionists and unitary nationalists on one side of the spectrum, with post-sovereigntists and plurinationalists (whether from the ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ camp) on the other. Unitary unionism thus becomes the enemy of union.  

About the author

Michael Keating is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen.