Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Interview with Henry Hill, Editor of "Open Unionism"

Pearl of Tyburn:  Tonight I will be talking with Henry Hill, the editor of the British political blog, “Open Unionism”, who comes to us now from London, England, UK. Hello, Mr. Hill.

Henry Hill:  Hello there.

P.T.:  Please tell me how you first got involved with British politics.

H.H.:  I was political from my mid-teens and started out by following my father and being a Liberal Democrat - and quite a left-wing one at that. I gradually shifted to the right during my last years of school and joined the Conservative and Unionist Party on my first week at the University of Manchester in the autumn of 2008.

P.T.:  What were some of the reasons that caused you to shift from being a Liberal Democrat to being a Tory?

H.H.:  The first moment I felt my soul rebel against the Liberals was when I was walking home from school and a friend told me that the Liberal Democrats supported an income tax rate of fifty pence to the pound. The idea of literally taking half of every pound someone freely earned appalled me, and I guess that realization opened the floodgates. I can't remember every step on the road to Damascus, but I know that I cheered the Liberal Democrats in the 2005 general election and the Republicans in the 2008 US Presidential election, so it lies somewhere between those two points.

P.T.:  You draw a parallel between the British and American political parties. For the benefit of American and British readers alike, can you highlight some of the similarities and differences between the British Liberal Democrats/American Democrats and the British Tories/American Republicans?

H.H.:  I'm afraid I'm not very well-versed on the comparisons between the British and US party systems. I'm pretty certain that I would be a socially-liberal Republican, and I was offered an internship with the Romney campaign in 2012, but I know many members of the British Conservatives support the American Democrats, and amongst the parties left of us - including the Liberal Democrats - support for the Democrats is close to one hundred per cent. Britain is a much more politically cohesive, and much more authoritarian country than America.

P.T.:  What first inspired your interest, and later active support, of Unionism?

H.H.:  My mother was born and raised in Co. Roscommon in the Republic of Ireland, and I myself am a British-Irish dual-national. Ever since I found out that my mother's country used to be a part of my country, I've always had a fascination with that notion. As I became more politically aware, that fascination blossomed into an interest in, and then belief in, political Unionism.

P.T.:  A lot of people might think that being British-Irish is something of an uncomfortable paradox considering the troubled past between the two and that, if anything, you would be driven away from unionism because of it. What would you say to them in response?

H.H.:  I don't see why being raised a dual national would make me anti-unionist. I am aware of the 'Plastic Paddie' stereotype, whereby people with tenuous direct links to Ireland adopt a deeply Irish, often wearisomely Nationalist persona. But my upbringing was British - I was raised in Britain as a Briton, and never had my Irish heritage rubbed in my face. I suppose that growing up familiar with the multi-faceted and nuanced nature of Britain made fitting an Irish identity into that a lot easier than growing up with a solidly Irish identity and trying to fit the United Kingdom into that.

P.T.:  Considering your nuanced background and embrace of Unionism, do you believe in the benefit of a hypothetical union encompassing all of the British Isles, Ireland included?

H.H.:  Yes, I am personally what is frighteningly termed a 'Neo-Unionist' - I believe that the re-accession of the Twenty-Six Irish Counties to the Union would be a good thing for everyone involved. I don't think it's remotely likely, mind you, but I think that a broader acknowledgement of this as a theoretically desirable outcome for unionists would help unionism break out of the defensive 'hold the line' mentality which has held it back for so long.

P.T.:  As a contributor on “Open Unionism” myself, I have a great deal of respect for your abilities as editor of that site. You obviously have excellent organizational skills and seem to put a lot of time and effort into making it a success. Tell me a little bit about the origins of OU, and how you and your deputy, Paul Watterson, first took command.

H.H.:  I think you pay me too much of a kindness with your first point. OU is not a Herculean effort, and if it were, my deputy Paul would certainly have rightful claim to the lion's share of the credit, organizing as he does the day-to-day activities of our Facebook and Twitter profiles.

“Open Unionism” was founded as an explicitly and exclusively Northern Irish website, which was intended, as now, to offer a platform to a wide range of writers on the issues facing Unionism in that province. Paul and I took over OU when its original editor, Geoff McGimpsey, decided to hang up his hat. He advertised on the site for people to take over, and since I had started blogging in a personal capacity some months previously, I decided that I would throw my own hat into the ring rather than see the only pluralist pro-Union site disappear from the internet.

Geoff told me that Paul had expressed an interest too, and due to the greater demands on his time (I was then a student) we quickly decided to team up, with me taking the editorial role and him the deputy. I'd been keen to get Paul back involved with the pro-Union blogscape since he stopped writing “A Pint of Unionist Lite”, so I was very pleased with the outcome. We both made the decision to broaden the remit of OU instead of keeping it focused exclusively on Northern Ireland when we took over.

P.T.:  I think the two of you make a very fine team, and your decision to broaden the scope of OU had quite a bit of foresight. With the Scottish Independence Referendum looming, the Union stands at a critical junction and is in need of a strong online presence. At this point, what is your prediction for the outcome of said Referendum? 

H. H.:  Although anything could happen, I think on present evidence the pro-union side will win the Referendum in 2014. The status quo tends to have an advantage going into any plebiscite, and with the Yes campaign polling so direly at the moment, I think they'd need a dramatic shake-up to really change the race.

P.T.:  If the No campaign wins this round, do you think the threat posed by the Scottish separatists will truly be gone?

H.H.:  No, probably not, at least not straight away. The damage defeat will do to the long-term interests of separatism really boils down to a few crucial and related issues.

First, how emphatic is the margin of victory. A close defeat could actually energize, rather than demoralize, the separatist cause as their activists see a once-impossible dream actually brought within reach. A really solid win for the Union, on the other hand, would leave the nationalists facing profound questions about where they go from here.

Second, and related to that, is what happens to the separatist movement - and the SNP in particular - in the event of Scotland rejecting their raison d'etre. Presumably the SNP will still want to be a force in Scottish politics, but how does it negotiate a political landscape where the constitutional question is neutralized, at least for a time? There are several possible points of fracture, first between the separatist die-hards and those who want to adjust their priorities to non-constitutional politics, and then within the second camp between those in the SNP who viewed independence as the root to a left-wing, even socialist country and those who are essentially Tories. Without the supreme constitutional issue to bind them together, how long will they be able to function in one party?

The third big issue comes down to how the unionists comport themselves, during the election and afterwards. If they try to fight the Referendum by offering Scots endless inducements, be it economic prizes or promises of 'more powers', then they waste all the effort Better Together put into getting a two-question referendum and undermine the capacity of Scots to emphatically endorse the Union. We need to make it clear that a No vote is not a vote for 'more powers', or a vote for a particular constitutional arrangement - it is a vote for Britain. If we don't then Nationalists can claim, as they did after the successful unionist campaigns in 1979, that Scots voted for a false prospectus and bring the constitution straight back to the table after some or other alleged devolutionary shortcoming.

It also matters how unionists use a referendum victory. It was said of Hannibal that he knew 'how to win a battle, but not how to use one', and the same applies here - even the most thumping of wins is meaningless if it is not exploited properly. Since 1998 unionists have known only one way of 'fighting' against separatism, and that was appeasement. There are many today, the federalists and so on, who can't envision a circumstance where the solution is not the continued diminution of the United Kingdom and the throwing of more bones to the nationalists. If that's the sort of unionism that governs the pro-union response to a No win, 2014 might not do us much good at all.

P.T.:  I have spoken with some Unionists who believe that a No win would put the Yes advocates into the same position as the Quebecois nationalists in Canada, their bark seeming to be much worse than their bite at this point. This is a pleasant thought, of course, but I wonder if it is perhaps also a dose of wishful thinking. What would you say?

H.H.:  The PQ are an interesting comparison, because they combine the SNP's constitutional potency with the deep linguo-cultural nationalism you see in Wales. As for losing their capacity to do harm? That depends. I regularly read the pro-federation Canadian newspaper the “National Post”, and they chronicle fairly well the continued efforts of the PQ to 'de-Canadianise' Quebec. They are currently bringing in a truly frightening new cultural control bill, and continually restrict the freedoms of Anglophone and Allophone Quebecers in their attempt to regain New France.

So yes, look to the PQ for an example of what might become of the separatists if their totemic issue is put on the back-burner. Expect to see a shift in focus towards 'de-Britishing' Scotland, undermining common institutions and any sense of common citizenship whilst striving to make the rest of the UK feel like a foreign place. Expect also much more effort to bad-mouth the English and other Britons in an attempt to sour pro-union feeling south of the border, much as the PQ work to build up resentment in the rest of Canada with their constant insistence on special treatment for their province.

Once again, it is worth remembering that the arch-devolutionaries, with their continued assaults on the United Kingdom's common institutions and those areas of government where the British are governed as the British, are aiding and abetting this process. We should not become so focused on maintaining the symbols of the UK - the passport, the flag, the mere existence of it - that we allow it to be hollowed out, diminished from a country to a sort of contract or alliance.

P.T.:  Speaking of national symbols, if Scotland broke away from The UK in 2014, what would become of the Union Jack since The Cross of St. Andrew is integral to the design?

H.H.:  I might be in the minority here, but I don't believe the remainder of The United Kingdom should change its flag should Scotland gain its independence. This is because I believe that the elements of the Union Jack must be the common property of every British subject. If one cross belongs to the English, one to the Scots, and one to the Irish, then, to bring up an old argument, what part belongs to the Welsh?

Perhaps more pertinently in an era when ethnic minorities are much more likely to identify as 'British only' than their white neighbours, what is there in the flag for those who aren't English, Scottish or Irish, but from some different part of the world altogether? I believe that although the design of our flag came from the union of three early-modern kingdoms, today it represents a union between seventy million modern people, and each of those people has an equal stake in every part of the flag.

P.T.:  Good points. I also feel that preserving the Union Jack might serve as a symbol of a British unity which once was and which continues to be deeply hoped for by many, even if it is not a current reality. Your thoughts on this?

H.H.:  If the UK were to break up, I can see the Union Jack fulfilling that role, but that could not be an official reason for retaining it, lest it be seen as a statement of irredentist intent by the Union remnant toward any new, democratically-chosen Scottish state.

P.T.:  Back to your original topic, how would you suggest making the best use of a potential unionist victory in the referendum and assuring that the mere existence of the Union does not become an empty shell devoid of real clout?

H.H.:  I would say the best use to make of any win in 2014 is to shift the terms of the debate away from "more powers". As I’ve said before, the underlying problem in the unionist response to devolution has been an apparent lack of faith in the legitimacy of 'Britain' as a source of governance - hence a constant willingness to hollow out The United Kingdom in the name of defending it.

2014 should be cast in such terms as to make a No vote an endorsement of the legitimacy of the concept of 'Britain', allowing any subsequent constitutional solution to contain a substantial role for the United parliament in Scottish affairs - far more substantial than the "foreign affairs, defense and welfare" backstop envisioned by the federalists.

The fight to secure a two-question ballot for the referendum was clearly fought with this eventuality in mind. However, certain people within the pro-Union camp are undermining all that effort by trying to claim that a No vote is a vote for 'more powers' and the 'next stage of devolution' - in effect removing the 'No' option from the ballot paper. This is not only ridiculous - the referendum is no more about the specific policies of the unionists than it is about Salmond's white paper - but it is poisoning the well of our own victory and offering the separatists a vital lifeline.

P.T.:  In the area of the Yes/No vote, I know quite a few people who are against independence, but who still see themselves as more Scottish than British. Do you think this referendum experience might give people a cause to reaffirm their joint identities?

H.H.:  I think that the decay in British identification is probably at the very heart of the current constitutional problems. Without it, nobody feels able to propose solutions rooted in 'Britain', nor defend existing institutions established on that basis. That is one of the reasons there are constant calls for 'more powers' and an unwillingness on the part of Unionists to defend Westminster and the proper role of 'London' in the governance of all parts of this United Kingdom. A re-emphasis on Britishness and a buttressing of British institutions is a must.

P.T.:  Personally, do you see yourself as being English first or British first?

H.H.:  Personally, I identify as British first - contrary to the present fashion for fragmentation. That I am English, at least part-English, is an empirical fact of geography, and I have no doubt that it informs who I am on countless subtle levels. But it's not the country I identify with. I do have some sympathy with England as proof that unions work - after all, as James I said to parliament in his first attempt at union, England was herself a union of the previous patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and all the stronger for it.

P.T.:  I think the argument about the Anglo-Saxon unification rings as true today as when it was first proposed. A similar argument can be made regarding the tribes in Scotland, and the rest of the British Isles.

Unfortunately, the "Celtic" vs. "Saxon", red dragon vs. white dragon nationalist mythology seems to have pervaded the popular imagination to an unhealthy extent, pitting England against the other nations. To what degree do you believe the Celtic Revival has affected the way people view the Union?

H.H.:  The red and white dragon stuff is just nonsense. But the Celtic myth is one of the defining factors in the 'England vs. the rest' dichotomy nationalists try to bring up. The difference, insofar as I can see it, is that at the core of Celtic nationalism there is a 'pure', 'original' culture, trammeled by invaders and settlers, to which modern nationalists can ascribe any number of virtues.

Certainly many Irish Nationalists pinned many rather absurd hopes on the notion of 'the Gael' and 'an Irish Ireland', a pure and virtuous civilization beaten down by the English. An element of that underpins much Scottish and Welsh Nationalism too. Not only does pouring money into Celtic languages serve as an excellent means of separating 'us' from 'them', but you also frequently get notions that the crimes of this country's past - particularly the Empire - are somehow particularly England's fault. Scotland, in this analysis, would have been a humble, progressive little kingdom of no trouble to anybody.

The truth is that Scots and even many Irishmen were enthusiastic participants in the Empire, which was always viewed as a 'British' project. But these Scots and Irish can be portrayed by Nationalists as not being 'true' to their nation - having instead been corrupted by England. Thus Scots and Irishmen who contradict the narrative, by being British, are thus in some sense 'English'.

England, on the other hand, has no such core myth. There is no 'true' English race or culture with romantic imagery passed down from ancient times. Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans - the English are a cocktail of their conquerors, absorbing them and evolving their sense of identity to incorporate new things. Our 'colonization moment' probably occurred after the Battle of Hastings, yet English Nationalism does not hark back to a mythologized version of an almost Scandinavian England.

That is one reason why English Nationalism has been so admirably slow in awakening and is so hard to define. England has no lie to fall back on. When asked to describe Englishness, you can only reach for a set of virtues attached to some geography - which is the same as can be said for Britain. The lack of that perceived 'true England' is why the English had so little trouble becoming British, and have more difficulty blaming 'Britain' on their problems than the nationalists in the Celtic nations.

P.T.:  I am actually rather surprised English Nationalists haven't been quicker to fall back on their Anglo-Saxon past. J.R.R. Tolkien was close to embracing such a stance when he practically dedicated his life to recreating an Anglo-Saxon mythology. Why do you think there has been such nationalistic fervor for the Celts but hardly any towards a mythologized, Scandinavian England?

H.H.:  There's just no sentimental attachment to Anglo-Saxon motifs and imagery, or at least not enough and not the right sort to make it a fuel for English Nationalism. And frankly, that's to English Nationalism's - and England's - credit. The Anglo-Saxon era is a very remote time inhabited by very different people - they are not 'really us', any more than the Highlanders or Gaelic Irish are real versions of modern Scots or Irish people.

P.T.:  It’s an interesting analysis. I am personally a great lover of both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures and languages, having studied their mythology and legends and learned elements of Gaelic, Welsh, and Old English for my music studies. While I think all these things have their place in world heritage and should be preserved as such, I do see your point about them being manipulated to create a divisive front.

In relation to this, how would you assess the damage done to the British national reputation by such lavishly produced but woefully misleading films emphasizing oppressed Celtic vs. oppressive Saxon or rebellious Americans vs. tyrannical Brits such as Braveheart, The Patriot, Rob Roy, and The Last of the Mohicans?

H.H.:  Braveheart certainly had a lamentable impact, but I've read that its influence may be generationally confined - support for independence is highest amongst the so-called 'Braveheart Generation' of the Nineties, with younger people markedly less enthusiastic. I'm not familiar with the American examples, and I think their influence on the UK situation is marginal. 

P.T.:  Moving along, where do you see yourself going from here with regards to your personal involvement with political Unionism?

H.H.:  Personally? Well, I'll obviously keep on top of OU. I hope that I will work for six months at British Future, a think tank which explores questions of national identity and immigration, which should deepen my understanding of the issues involved. After that, who knows? I would like to work in politics in journalism, and in either field I intend to remain a committed defender of the Union.

P.T.:  Aside from politics, do you have any other interests and hobbies of note?

H.H.:  Well, I'm an avid war-gamer - not so much tabletop stuff, but there are certain online strategy games which I enjoy. They provide an endless source of puzzles to solve in addition to letting me flex my creative muscles by doing writing work for them. I do enjoy writing fiction, and although I've not yet taken a stab at a single story, writing up other people's exploits is always enjoyable. I also play tactical card games.

Beyond that...well, I'm not sure if it counts as a hobby, but I do enjoy cooking. I'm not one to break out recipe books on an evening off or throw dinner parties, but I do enjoy experimenting when cooking for myself. I'm an enthusiastic carnivore, so its meat and pasta, mainly. It's never particularly sophisticated, but it is fun and normally fairly tasty.

Stepping away from my inner geek, I'm also a keen walker and swimmer and a dabbler in racket sports. I have recently started playing badminton, which I thoroughly enjoy for its emphasis on speed and precision, and have played tennis for years.

P.T.:  I also know from past conversations that you are quite well-traveled. Can you tell us a little bit about which places you’ve enjoyed visiting the most?

H.H.: I have traveled a fair bit. I wish I had the lifestyle to claim travelling was a hobby of mine, but I take every opportunity to travel when they present themselves. Perhaps it is some secret inner libertarian, but I tend to find I most enjoy travelling to places with fewer rules: The USA, Malawi, and Romania were all enjoyable trips, not least because they held out the forbidden prospect of smoking indoors. I'm not a habitual smoker, as it happens, but I'll cadge a cigarette with a roof over my head just for the satisfaction! I've also been to several places in Western Europe and on a school exchange to Beijing.

P.T.:  Hey, you have good taste; The USA rocks ;-)

Thanks so much for sharing your opinions, interests, and experiences, Mr. Hill. It’s been a pleasure interviewing you.

H.H.:  It was no trouble at all. Thank you.


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