It is always a mistake to define an idea in narrow, or dogmatic, terms and this is especially true in the case of Unionism. Doing so can lead to the failure of your idea to transmit to as large an audience as possible, which is very undesirable. However, there are certain points that need to be adhered to as general guidelines and without which an idea can lack integrity, which is a worse fault than being too narrow in your approach.
Unionists in the current political and constitutional conditions need to be extremely careful when deciding who, or what, to give their loyalty to. Several differing factors have combined to make it extremely difficult to ascertain the bona fides of many groups and individuals who call themselves 'Unionist'. By far the biggest originator of this problem was the introduction of legislative devolution into Scotland, Wales and the Province of Northern Ireland by Tony Blair's New Labour government in the late 1990's. It opened the door to so many charlatans and hoodwinkers to pose as Unionists when their real agenda was anything but Union-friendly. Whether out of a deliberate attempt at dissembling, or out of stupidity and/or miscalculation, pro-legislative devolutionists presented their ideas as actually a way of strengthening the Union against nationalism. They actually claimed that it would have the effect of permanently destroying nationalism (something that subsequent history has proved to be manifestly untrue, indeed the exact opposite has occurred and legislative devolution has enabled nationalism to rise to power and given it a platform to pursue independence).
Legislative devolution had the effect of enabling various anti-British elements (IE Celtic nationalists, the pro-devolutionary left, federalists, English nationalists and separatists, Cornish nationalists and separatists Et Al) to revivify their previously marginalized and unloved ideas and begin beating the drum again to stir up support. The most obvious case of this has been Scottish nationalism, and to a lesser, but still significant extent, Welsh and Irish nationalism. Before the advent of legislative devolution, Scottish and Welsh nationalism was more or less completely marginalized and seen by ninety-nine per cent of the UK population as an irrelevant joke, populated by extremist cranks and lunatics and gauche university student ideologues with no real-life experience behind them. They were considered as little better than the Monster Raving Loony Party and had little noticeable impact on the British political scene. After the introduction of legislative devolution, the rise of such people was volumetric and the SNP displaced Labour as the dominant power in Scotland (which Labour had been since the sixties). At the same time, and in response to the rise of Scottish nationalism and the perceived inequalities bred by legislative devolution between the constituent parts of the UK, English nationalism (which like its Scottish equivalent had previously been a marginalized irrelevance with virtually no electoral support) began to revive and go on the march. Several other anti-Unionist groups and ideas also began to revive and begin agitating for support, such as the concept of federalism, which has now taken a hold on all three major UK political parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the last two of which has it as an actual policy item in their manifesto and the first which is drifting towards the adoption of it as a policy.
All these extreme and virulently anti-Unionist forces released by the introduction of legislative devolution 20 years ago have contributed to create a situation where the authentic Union can, if he or she is unprepared, be easily bamboozled by these anti-Unionist factions into voting for something that will ultimately end up destroying the UK as a unitary state.
So, what is authentic Unionism? A loose framework is that a genuine Unionist must not give any kind of support to any element that seeks to either loosen the bonds that keep the UK as a unitary state, or anything that will end up destroying the UK completely. This is obvious to most people, but in the current political climate, with so many stealthy and underhand anti-Unionist groups abroad out to inveigle people into accepting their ideas, matters aren't so straightforward as even the most intelligent and wary person can become bamboozled by the glut of propaganda and misinformation that is thrown at them. Let's put some flesh on the basic framework of being an authentic Unionist.
Authentic Unionism, at least in the case of the UK, is an incorporating polity (hence 'incorporating Union') in which sovereignty wholly resides in a single national authority, in our case the House of Commons. That authority can devolve power to any sub-region within its borders, but retains full sovereignty and can abolish any devolved arrangements without the permission of, or consultation of any kind with, the devolved body simply by repealing the original acts of parliament that created them originally.
Federalism, on the other hand, has substantial differences from the above constitutional set up. Under this arrangement, the central authority, or federal government, SHARES sovereignty with the sub units (IE the states or provinces). The central authority has no ability to prevent nationalist separatists from using their legislature to break away from the federal government and become independent as they can use their shared sovereignty to initiate and achieve independence (as a unitary state can as it retains full sovereignty after devolution, as explained in the above paragraph). In the UK, we have an unwritten constitution, unlike say Germany or the United States, for example, and so there's nothing to stop separatists using their shared authority gained under a federated UK to pursue independence unlike in other countries with a federal political system, say the USA for instance, where strict laws forbid the states or provinces from interfering in constitutional matters under any circumstances whatsoever. The constitution is one hundred per cent solely in the remit of the central authority.
Keeping the above in mind, when looking at the current crop of 'Unionist' politicians in the UK alarm bells begin to ring. None of the current 'mainstream' political parties have an authentic Unionist constitutional policy (there are a couple of smaller, more obscure parties that do). The 'Conservative and Unionist Party ' (a misnomer if ever there was one as it is neither remotely conservative or Unionist) under the over-praised and over-promoted Ruth Davidson is pro-legislative devolution and drifting towards federalism. Both Labour and the LibDems are committed to full blown federalism. What a depressing picture for all authentic Unionists. The current choice is between legislative devolutionists who are gifting the nationalists independence (as is undeniably happening right now in Scotland) and federalism on the other hand under which the separatists couldn't be prevented from breaking away as they can in an incorporating union, as described in the paragraph above the one above that.
All authentic Unionists who want to maintain the UK Union must eschew the inherent pitfalls of federalism and embrace incorporating union as it is the only viable and practical way of doing so. Incorporating union can be tweaked to prevent it being an all-encompassing bloc that deprives the regions of the UK of their local character and democracy. Power over local matters can still to devolved to sub-national bodies, like councils (ADMINISTRATIVE DEVOLUTION) which keeps power localized and guarantees the Union as there is no national body (parliament or assembly) through which modern aggressive nationalism can pursue independence. Administrative devolution does NOT simply mean the re-imposition of the pre-1997 political status quo with all power being re-centralized at the House of Commons.
In my view the way forward for authentic Unionists is an incorporating Union that has been adapted to cure any democratic deficit (real or imagined) that existed previously and one hundred per cent guarantees the future of a unitary UK.
The major objection to legislative devolution is that it doesn't work. It's had twenty long years to be fine-tuned and it's still just a mess. The SNP in Scotland are using it as a vehicle to pursue independence, Plaid Cymru in Wales are increasingly becoming a bellicose and aggressively separatist party (which wasn't the case in the past when it pushed a cultural nationalist agenda like spreading the speaking of Welsh and re-instating the Eisteddfod) and Stormont in Ulster has been a complete mess with legislative devolution making the Province a politically unstable joke with shaky coalition governments coming and going every five minutes and terrorists in government (added to this, during the last twenty odd years of devolved government in Ulster, Stormont has broken down and the Province has been ruled directly from London for five of those years. Hardly inspires confidence does it)?
The intent behind legislative devolution was to create a layer of regional government below that of the national Parliament, the Commons. Its remit was purely to deal with regional, or local matters, that is, purely Scottish, Welsh or NI matters, not larger issues like the constitution. It was supposed to be 'autonomy within the UK' and was meant to counter nationalist sentiment.
This is simply not what's happened. As often happens in real life, theories don't always work as they're meant to in practice. The reality has been that legislative devolution has enabled the UK's nationalist parties to use their executives as vehicles for pursuing independence and the idea that the devolved bodies are just local executives is dead.
In Scotland, the SNP openly admit that they will just keep holding one referendum after another until they get the result they want (one senior SNP MSP publicly admitted as much) Increasingly the nationalists in the other parts of the UK are adopting an increasingly aggressively separatist approach, ignoring the point of devolution and pushing for independence.
To those Unionists who still believe that they can cure this problem by repealing all the devolution acts except the ones that set it up originally (IE keep the 1998 Scotland, the Northern Ireland and the Government of Wales Acts, but repeal all other devolution acts) so as to leave the executives to deal with only local matters it must be pointed out that the last twenty years have proved that devolution is a continual process of powers being transferred from the Commons to the devolved legislatures that will end in independence and that the nationalist parties have proved time and time again that they won't stay within their devolved remit. It's impossible to contain legislative devolution as purely just local executives dealing with only local matters and that leave the larger issues to the national Parliament. Modern aggressive separatist nationalism is a rampaging monster that can't be contained, and it's time to admit this is the reality.
It's time to admit to this failure of the legislative devolutionary model to work as originally intended and stop pretending all is well, or is capable of repair. The only practicable solution to the current constitutional chaos is to completely repeal legislative devolution in all parts of the UK and replace it with a better system that keeps power localized to the regions but guarantees the Union such as administrative devolution.
In synopsis, authentic Unionism is one that seeks to maintain a strong and unitary UK. This can only be achieved through a modernized form of incorporating Union that has been designed to answer current criticism from various sources of the 1707 model. The new model eliminates concerns of a democratic deficit due to the regions of the UK being ruled from far away, out of touch, unaccountable London by the replacement of legislative with administrative devolution which transfers power over local issues to councils and so keeps power localized and close to the people. Added to this, the Union is guaranteed as there is no 'national' parliament or assembly through which modern aggressive nationalism can pursue independence, as there is in the legislative variant of devolution. The authentic Unionist must avoid falling into the trap of believing that variations of Unionism, like federalism, are sound ways of maintaining the Union and must always strive to avoid legitimizing the current phalanx of fake Unionists, who have multiplied in number in recent years and have become very active in their efforts to pull people away from genuine Unionism, either through conscious, or subconscious acts
© Stephen Bailey 2017.