LETTER : Supranational identity of the Union

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From Mr Simon Partridge

Sir: Andrew Marr seems to view the possible break-up of the UK state with equanimity ("The real wreckers of the Union", 23 May). However, it is highly debatable whether such a move would merely "lessen London's influence on the world stage and cause a bit of disruption in both countries".

For those, like Mr Marr, who think it is desirable or easy to put an end to the Union, it is worth recalling that the relationship between England and Scotland has been in existence for nearly 300 years and between England and Wales for a good deal longer. Among other things, this has led to what Hugh Kearney has called, in his outstanding history of the British Isles, "the Britannia melting pot". For better or worse, the peoples and cultures of these islands are now inextricably interwoven. Indeed, recent demographic research has suggested that there are probably more people of Irish extraction now living in Britain than there are in Ireland.

Mr Marr mentions Linda Colley's remarkable book Britons. But Ms Colley makes very clear that Britishness is not simply a legal title to citizenship, it is a genuine supranational sense of identity, forged through common experiences and interests - akin, if you like, to being a Scandinavian. As Ms Colley also makes clear, this overarching identity did not require the annulment of national or more local loyalties. Indeed, it is an irony that should not be lost on advocates of Scots or Welsh separatism that Welsh and Scots Gaelic have survived much better within the British state than Irish has outside it.

It is undoubtedly true that 16 years of Tory hegemony have weakened the sense of common purpose within the Union, but I suggest that this is because the Thatcherite neo-liberal project, due to the vagaries of our voting system, could be conducted in the interests of a minority of votes drawn from southern England and, predominantly, the Home Counties, while the opposition was ineffectual and divided. The northern English have been no less alienated from this project than Wales or Scotland.

Should this self-serving political regime continue after the next election on the same geographical base, then we can indeed expect the break-up of the Union. However, I think we should be in no doubt that this would pose grave difficulties for all the national (and ex-British Empire ethnic) identities of these islands now living in each other's countries. For, after 300 and more years of intense inter-mixing, the search for pristine nationalities on which to construct three new states is likely to prove a very difficult, if not impossible, task.

Yours faithfully,


London, N2

25 May