The Liberal case for Union and Commonwealth


One of the challenges with being in a political party is that it will inevitably restrict your intellectual freedom of movement to some degree.

There’s nothing wrong with this: the trade-off between absolute individual autonomy and effective collective action is one we make all the time, and contrary to the caricature not something libertarians have a problem with – provided it’s voluntary, as party membership is.

But it’s nonetheless good to keep an eye on how it affects your thinking. For example, I’ve had it put to me that libertarian support for things like Margaret Thatcher defence of the Falklands, or continuing ‘British rule’ in Northern Ireland, are artefacts inherited from Tory thinking rather than being strong libertarian positions in their own right.

One doesn’t need to go far to find Ron Paul-style libertarians who venerate peace, for example, and Scotland actually has (or had) a pro-independence libertarian party.

But in fact, defence of both our Union and Overseas Territories – and outgrowths from them like the Commonwealth – is eminently possible on liberal, pro-human grounds. It is progressive opposition to either that is very often rooted in irrational, decidedly pre-modern ideas before being wrapped in fashionable language.

My case in point is this interview in the Belfast Telegraph by Anna Lo, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for the middle-of-every-road Alliance Party, in which she comes out in support of a ‘united Ireland’.

As she doesn’t hail from a traditional Irish nationalist background, I was curious to see what fresh arguments she might have found for such a position in the same week that one of Sinn Fein’s favourite economists conceded it would lead to “huge job cuts” in Ulster.

Alas, no. What I got instead was this: “Ireland is one island. I don’t think we should have a border to divide an island.” And it got worse:

“I would like to see Ireland united, and I think it is inevitable. I take a wider world view on the issue. I am against colonialism. I welcomed Hong Kong being returned to China in 1997. When both Germany and Vietnam were united, despite all the foreboding, the sky didn’t fall down.”

Those sentences, superficially at least, resemble an argument in the standard progressive mould. But when we actually stop to think about them we see that they much more closely resemble a sort of fashion statement.

Consider her international examples. I think the unification of Germany is a false analogue for Ireland, as East Germany did not represent the legitimate, divergent aspirations of even a chunk of its population. To my mind the relationship between Germany and German-yet-not Austria better mirrors that of Unionist and Nationalist Ireland – yet Anschluss is not a progressive cause.

Then we have Lo’s native Hong Kong, where long-standing liberal traditions – a legacy of its time as an autonomous part of the British Empire – are being undermined by Beijing. The city’s inhabitants regularly take to the streets to protest this, and the symbol of liberty they choose to march beneath is the British colonial flag.

As for the ‘unification’ of Vietnam, it was accompanied by the flight of almost 140,000 Vietnamese to the United States – you can bet there’d have been more if they could – and the addition of the ‘last chopper out of Saigon’ to the lexicon of human desperation.

Yet to Lo the handover of a liberal city to the world’s last great Communist empire, and the conquest of a country by its totalitarian neighbour, are things to celebrate.

Why? Because as with so much progressive thinking, ‘anti-colonialism’ seems very often to amount to an arbitrary, almost aesthetic sense of how things ought to be, irrespective of the human preferences involved.

So, you will often see geographical proximity cited as if it were a trump card: the Falklands are closer to Argentina; Gibraltar is closer to Spain; Northern Ireland borders the Republic; and so on. The wishes of those territories are treated as an irritant, an anomaly.

Or you might see references to the date (“…the modern world…”, “It’s 2016”, et al) advanced as if they were arguments. ‘Colonies’ don’t fit the progressive preconception for what the modern world ought to look like.

But step back and you realise that modern technology makes it more possible by the year for sympathetic territories to voluntarily associate, whether they be scattered across the world or, in the United Kingdom’s case, on two sides of a very small sea.

Indeed, what could be more modern than citizens of Hong Kong choosing for their inspiration London, so far in miles but so close in custom, rather than the geographically proximate but politically alien autocracy of Beijing?

The same holds true for the Commonwealth, or proposals for freedom of movement between the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Progressives oft deride this idea, but surely building such links between countries with centuries of common history than hugely disparate states which happen to neighbour each other, à la the EU?

By contrast it’s progressivism, so self-consciously ‘modern’, which provides a rhetorical shield to decidedly pre-modern ideas.

Hence Irish irredentism being graced with the label ‘united Ireland’, and not the ‘greater Ireland’ construction that Hungarian and Serbian revanchists have to endure, and its various claims upon Northern Ireland are often under-examined.

Why ‘ought’ Ireland to be unified? It being an island hasn’t been an imperative since the invention of boats – and most self-professed Irish nationalists don’t subscribe to this supposed imperative of coastlines anyway, if their support for Scottish independence is any indication.

Meanwhile the idea that some mystical ‘Irish nation’ has an absolute and unvarying ethno-cultural claim to a fixed allotment of territory is an old right-wing notion seldom professed by progressives – unless Lo has interesting views on the true and eternal borders of the German nation that she’s keeping quiet.

Modish progressives are led, by their opposition to the familiar, into bed with old and bad ideas indeed. It is so often the very British institutions they disdain – the Union, the Overseas Territories – which, despite their age, are the best vehicles for liberal modernity going, and that’s why we liberal Conservatives defend them.

Henry is the Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on Twitter: @HCH_Hill

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty