Henry Hill: Boris Johnson might deserve criticism but he is not an English nationalist

Last week, Doug Beattie accused Boris Johnson of being an ‘English nationalist’.

Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 1:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 2:08 pm
Boris Johnson gives a thumbs up gesture after signing the EU-UK trade deal in Downing Street last December. Henry Hill writes: "The prime minister and his ministers are British nationalists, if they are any sort of nationalist at all" Photo: Leon Neal/PA

There are many charges that may be fairly laid against the prime minister, but this is not one of them.

Since 2016, it has unfortunately become something of a habit for Remainers to charge the government with ‘English nationalism’, and claim that Brexit is an ‘English nationalist’ project. Never mind that Wales voted Leave, along with a million Scots and most unionist-majority areas in Northern Ireland.

Never mind too that an actual English nationalist would be setting their sights on scrapping the Barnett Formula and cutting the block grant, not passing controversial legislation to increase the British state’s capacity to act in the devolved territories.

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No, Johnson and his ministers are British nationalists, if they are any sort of nationalist at all.

That is not to say that their unionism might not have taken on a particularly English shape. But that seems an almost inevitable consequence of devolution, which has in so many areas shrunk the scope of Parliament’s reach to England’s borders.

Obviously, this does not excuse Johnson’s shameless abandoning of his promises about an Irish Sea border. Nor Theresa May getting gulled into a maximalist interpretation of the UK’s obligations about the land border during the negotiations.

But if Beattie really wants to change attitudes in London, he should start by recognising how the same corrosive processes have been at work on this side of the water.

After all, it isn’t hard to make the case that in the unionism preached by many leaders today, all the talk about being ‘British’ masks a politics that is almost exclusively Northern Irish.

When was the last time an MP from here sat in a British government?

The EU referendum campaign marks the first time I can recall an Ulster party participating on equal terms in a genuinely national debate.

Likewise, the confidence and supply arrangement between the Tories and the Democratic Unionists was an unparalleled opportunity to put some Northern Irish politicians at the heart of national policy-making.

Unfortunately, the DUP declined to seize it, opting instead to take the cash and continue sitting in the farthest corner of the House of Commons, where Ulster’s MPs have languished with the rest of the ‘Others’ since the 1970s.

A once-in-a-generation shot at rebuilding enduring links with mainland unionism was missed.

In fairness to Beattie, it sounds as if he might get this. He said of Johnson that: “There’s no vote in Northern Ireland for him or his Conservative party so he doesn’t care, he’s hands off.”

That’s a reasonable complaint, but it comes with an obvious counter-point: what are you going to do about it?

If the long-term security of Northern Ireland’s position in the Union requires the parties of government to have an electoral stake here – and that is the implication of Beattie’s statement – then it follows that unionists on both sides of the sea must begin work to bring that about.

That was the logic of the Campaign for Equal Citizenship, which sought to fulfil the Carsonite vision of Northern Ireland as a full and equal part of the UK.

Unionists could do worse than to dust off its principles as they fight against the protocol and the gradual economic excision of the Province from the rest of the nation.

Given Labour’s shameful refusal to give Ulster residents an opportunity to vote for them, that means finding a way to return unionist MPs on the Tory whip.

I imagine this proposal will get a cold reception in many quarters, and given the battle over the protocol that’s quite understandable. But standing outside the main structures of British politics and shouting doesn’t work.

That strategy has been tested to destruction.

Even a small caucus of Tory MPs from Northern Ireland, on the other hand, would strengthen the hand of those fighting inside the party for a more robust policy, and a closer Union.

Henry Hill is news editor and home nations correspondent for the website ConservativeHome

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