There’s no escaping history in our party, and current debates of nationalism, unionism and secession should prompt Liberal Democrats to delve back into the Gladstonian past.
The Liberal Party split over the Union. Gladstone favoured Home Rule for Ireland, Liberal Unionists didn’t, and ultimately joined the Conservative Party. This cemented the Conservative Party as the party of the Union, and it is a position the Conservative Party still holds.
The purpose of this article is, however, to challenge the Conservative Party’s stranglehold over being British.
The existing Conservative argument goes that a Conservative Britain is a Britainthat stands proud and takes no nonsense from anyone on the other side of the Channel. In contrast, Liberal Democrats, as a pro-European party, don’t stick up for Britain, they sell out, and they give away our national identity. It is a superficially compelling argument. It is a Conservative argument for a Conservative vision for a unionist Britain. It is certainly not the only unionist vision.
The rise of nationalist Scotland and the success of Ireland within Europe and the Euro demonstrate the problem of Conservative Unionism. Ireland has demonstrated the effectiveness of independence from Britain within Europe. The SNP share a similar vision for Scotland. The EU offers full national identity with the chance for economic self-determination. The EU, as a group of independent nations, respects and values national identity. Cross the Channel to France to see how they combine a full commitment to Europe with retaining their French identity.
For the Irish and for many Scots, identity is achieved by being Irish and Scottish within Europe. The flaw of Conservative Unionism is about the Scots being British rather than being Scottish. Britain is the identity, they say, and the Union is run from Westminster. The Conservative government of the 1980s and 1990s opposed devolution.
In contrast, Liberal Democrats are practical unionists. We share much with Labour, whose record under Blair has been impressive. We have supported the cause of devolution for decades. We have played a constructive and important part in setting up the Scottish Parliament. The new Home Rule Commission set up by Willie Rennie and chaired by Sir Menzies Campbell will work through how the Scots can further shape their own future while sharing risks, security and international relations in an uncertain world.
Liberal Democrats believe in the Union with devolution just as we believe in the EU with subsidiarity. We see a world with global, European, national, regional and local problems, and we seek to build political structures where decisions are taken by the right people in the right place. We are unionists because we believe in Britain with our shared language, our shared history and our shared culture.
The debate on Scottish independence gives the Liberal Democrats a golden opportunity to set out a distinctive unionist vision for Great Britain. Unionist within Europe. Pro-European, totally committed to being at the heart of the EU, sticking up for Britain and better preserving and enhancing our Scottish, Welsh, Irish, English and British identity.
* William Hobhouse is on the board of Liberal Reform and is co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing.