“When Britons remember their dead empire, they tend to concentrate, with pride or shame, on its impact on the former colonies. The consequences for their own country are mostly thought of as so much pompous bric-a-brac and nostalgic trivia: honours and baubles with imperial names, archaic ceremonies, statues of forgotten heroes, a smattering of exotic vocabulary, curry and distressingly proficient rival cricket teams. This way of thinking about empire is mistaken. In important ways Britain is still—even, perhaps, increasingly—trapped by its imperial past.”
Of all those trapped by Britain’s imperial past, the unionists are the most intractable. Their version of the ‘imperial past’ goes back to the 17th century – long before Britain even had most of its empire. And they have continued, through several centuries, to cling to the trivia of empire, in a steadily shrinking corner of that empire, even while most of Britain has tried to move on. Occasional re-eruptions of old-fashioned imperialism, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are viewed as evidence that the beleaguered unionists were right all along, and that the rest of the UK is coming around to their way of thinking. However, since every eruption of imperialism is usually followed by yet another bout of self-doubt and retrenchment, unionism should not be under any illusions about the current festival of war-mongering, with its attendant propaganda campaign including parades, flag-waving, stirring tales of derring-do in Helmand, the solemn funeral processions, and all of the other bits slipped into the BBC reports and the MoD press-releases. When it ends – and it will – Britain will turn against such adventurism as it has on numerous occasions in the past half-century. And then, as before, unionism will find itself high and dry, the last redoubt of the flag-wavers.
"The fallout of empire may include the fraying of the union (because the lost colonial opportunities bound Scotland in). Beneath all this is the peculiar British combination of bragging and bewilderment, an air of expectations great but unmet and of unrealised specialness. It is hard to think of another country so keen to magnify its accomplishments (everything must be “the best in the world”), yet also to wallow in its failings; so deluded and yet so morbidly disappointed. Every recent prime minister has struggled to overcome this sense of thwartedness and decline, and to come up with a notion of Britishness to replace the defunct imperial version. Mr Blair tried “Cool Britannia”. It flopped. The gloom may be almost as acute now as it was in the late 1950s or 1970s.”When Britain finally faces up to its mediocrity on the world stage the impact on unionism may be traumatic. Unlike the British of Britain, the British of Ireland have yet to come to terms with the failings of Britain as a country and as an empire. For the unionists, Britain can have no failings, because the unionist position is based to a great extent on their feelings of reflected superiority – vis-à-vis everyone, but most acutely vis-à-vis Ireland. If Britain has failings, then maybe – just maybe – the basis of their whole belief system may be wrong.
Unionism already has a difficult job justifying ‘the union’ on grounds of economic advantage or efficiency. If their second-hand imperial illusions are also removed from the mix, there is very little left to shelter behind. Their political position would become very exposed indeed. If, at the same time, the demographic balance is turning against them, the south is recovering from its current recession, and the long festival of centenaries is arousing passions, unionism may be reduced to a narrowly sectarian movement – which is what many believe it to really be at heart.