Elliott Green compares some of the remarks made by Aidan O’Neill QC – counsel for the various MPs challenging the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament – with those of Boris Johnson, and explains what they highlight about British national identity.
In Wednesday’s hearing at the UK Supreme Court Aidan O’Neill QC gave a rousing and wide-ranging opening statement that encompassed the political context of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the location of the German Supreme Court, a quote from Rudyard Kipling and the etymological origins of the word ‘pontificate,’ among other subjects. He defended the ruling of the inner house of Scotland’s court of session against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, ending with the call to arms that ‘this is what truth speaking to power sounds like.’
Regardless of the legal merits of O’Neill’s speech, his words had an arguably deeper and more profound meaning than merely to argue for the recall of Parliament, which was to remind the Court – and indeed the entire country – of the existence and importance of British civic national identity over and above a conception of ethnic or racial national identity. The origins of this debate lies decades ago in the writings of Hans Kohn and other theorists of nationalism who systematized these two very different conceptions of the nation. In short, the civic nationalist believes that everyone who adheres to and values the institutions and civic value of the nation belongs to the nation, regardless of their ethnic origins, while the ethnic nationalist cares not about values and institutions but instead only about descent.
As a Scot, O’Neill comes from a part of the UK with a strong civic nationalist tradition in the form of the Scottish National Party, so it is perhaps not surprising that he would emphasize the civic bonds of nationhood. But his choice of words were also highly original and perhaps deliberately chosen in contrast to those of the Prime Minister. At one point O’Neill discussed the deliberate siting of the Supreme Court in the heart of Westminster, far from the centre of English law in the form of the Inns of Court and Royal Courts of Justice, but instead close to the Parliament, Whitehall, and Westminster Abbey. O’Neill argued that the proximity of these ‘four pillars of the state’ are highly symbolic in the way they provide the iconography of the ‘unity’ and ‘stability’ of the state. Here the state – or nation – is constituted by its core institutions, not the ethnic origin of its people or peoples.
Another key aspect of civic nationalism which O’Neill repeatedly emphasized was the idea of unity in diversity. Ethnic nationalists tend to emphasize the uniform and narrow ethnic origins of the nation; in contrast, civic nationalists point towards the diversity that exists within the civic nation. O’Neill discussed the numerous Scots who were ‘political unionists while being cultural nationalists’ like Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. In other words, it was possible to be a devoted member of the four constituent parts of the UK while still believing in a British nation, a country which, O’Neill noted, could be arguably dated back to the point where James I united the crowns of Scotland and England and ‘abolished England and created a new country, Great Britain’.
Indeed, O’Neill repeatedly invocated the diversity of the UK, noting that ‘we live in a union-state, not a state of uniformity.’ Quoting a key line from Macbeth – ‘alas poor country! Almost afraid to know itself’ – he remarked that the line still applies today in the UK (like so much of Shakespeare, as others have noted). A country knows itself, O’Neill claimed, ‘when it recognizes its history, when it acknowledges its diversity, and when it knows what its constitution is.’ A more succinct conception of a civic nation would be difficult to find.
It is interesting to compare O’Neill’s learned language to that of Boris Johnson, whose supposed erudition via his undergraduate classics degree has endeared him to so many people. Of course, Johnson’s educational background has not been very evident as late, most prominently in his recent reference to the Incredible Hulk in an attempt to show his toughness with EU negotiations. But the more important contrast is O’Neill’s language of inclusiveness towards diversity within the nation versus Johnson’s history of denigrating and offensive language towards racial, ethnic and religious minorities, while also failing to criticise racist remarks as such from Donald Trump and others in a timely fashion.
Johnson’s turn to the right in order to capture the votes of Brexit party supporters has clearly involved invoking ethnic nationalist tropes, both as regards ethnic minorities but also as regards his attitude towards the UK’s Celtic periphery. The increasingly English nature of Johnson’s Conservative party is testament to its narrow focus on winning votes in England and lack of concern over the Good Friday Agreement and the potential of another independence referendum in Scotland, among other non-English concerns. It may be that Johnson claims to be a ‘One-Nation Tory’ but the ‘nation’ he refers to may be an narrowly English and ethnic one rather than a civic, British entity.
It may well be that the government wins its case and the Supreme Court fails to declare prorogation unlawful. But regardless of what happens in court, O’Neill’s call for the court to ‘stand up for unity in diversity, stand up for Parliament, [and] stand up for democracy’ will not be easily forgotten as a call for the support and preservation of a British civic national identity.
Elliott Green is Associate Professor of Development Studies in the Department of International Development at the LSE.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: Pixabay (Public Domain).