The different meanings of ‘Unionist’

English Dictionaries
English Dictionaries by John Keogh, on Flickr.

Less than ten years ago, the Collins English Dictionary listed only the following senses of the word ‘Unionist’ (with a capital letter):

  • (before 1920) a supporter of the union of all Ireland and Great Britain
  • (since 1920) a supporter of union between Britain and Northern Ireland
  • a supporter of the US federal Union, esp during the Civil War

It listed two further senses in lower-case:

  • a supporter or advocate of unionism or union
  • a member of a trade union

It’s therefore clear that if Jim Murphy could travel ten years back in time, his claim not be a Unionist (“I’ve never been a Unionist – it’s not my political tradition. As a family of Irish Catholic immigrants, we’re not Unionists. I grew up in a family of trade unionists but not political unionists.”) would have been unremarkable and trivially true.

However, at some point during the past ten years, this word has been redefined, at least in Scotland. When did this happen?

I personally used it for the first time in a blog post on 1st May 2007: “Today is the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England (with Wales) and Scotland. If it’s such a great thing as the unionist parties proclaim, surely they should be out there celebrating it.”

Here are the first uses for three of the main pro-independence blogs:

  • Bella Caledonia: 14th October 2008 (“At the last Scottish elections arch unionist dinosaurs like John Reid and George Foulkes were rolled out …”)
  • 9th March 2010 (“a Unionist reaction to the ‘National Conversation’ launched by the new SNP government …”)
  • Wings over Scotland: 7th April 2011 (“… the three Unionist parties …”)

This wasn’t very conclusive. I then got the idea to Google for a narrow search term (“three unionist parties”), employing the option to look only at the results between two dates.

In 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, all the results were clearly Irish (e.g., “In an upstairs room the United Unionist Alliance was having a meeting, and the leaders of the three Unionist Parties — the Official Unionist, the Vanguard Unionist, and the Protestant Unionist, and members of the loyal Orders were present”).

2007 returned three results. Two of them are wrongly dated, but one of them links to a comment made by Doug the Dug under an article in The Guardian on 15th April 2007: “All the main three unionist parties can do is argue about who can divvy up the Westminster block grant the best. The SNP have a vision for the future and offer an alternative to the dead hand of the Union and a restoration of pride in Scotland. ”

Of course, if anybody has a lot of time on their hands, it might be interesting to look at the word “Unionist” rather than “three Unionist parties” during 2006 and 2007 to establish when exactly this usage became common.

However, it seems to be almost unknown before 2007, and it doesn’t seem to have been widely used for another couple of years. Of course, 2007 was the year when the SNP became the largest party in Holyrood for the first time, and it was the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, so it would have been a natural starting point for assigning a new meaning to the word “Unionist”.

The publicly available text corpora, such as Google’s Ngram Viewer, unfortunately don’t cover the last few years well, so we’ll have to wait a few years before we can firmly document the emergence of the new sense of “Unionist”. However, my gut feeling is that it became the default meaning of the word in Scotland during the independence referendum.

If Jim Murphy hasn’t sussed the recent change in semantics, one might suspect that he didn’t pay all that much attention to the referendum, apart from his own travelling crate show. Otherwise, he should have realised that his mental dictionary is out of date.

5 thoughts on “The different meanings of ‘Unionist’”

  1. A very pertinent post and one I´ve previously thought about too. One aspect that this article does bring up is how did people think in, say, the 1940s & 1950s?

    I mention this because the dominant political party in Scotland was the Unionist Party, allied to the Conservatives. were the voters termed unionists or conservatives etc (with or without Capital “U” or “C”). That said, as I can ascertain, the Unionist Party strongly defended Scotland´s equality as a co-equal of the union.

    Therefore the term Unionism/Unionist does have some history in Scotland, but perhaps not so overtly consciously. This is especially interesting since it seems, according to reports, as the Unionist Party of Scotland declined their membership tended towards the SNP, the Conservatives and Labour depending on which was perceived as being in the best interests of Scotland.

    1. It’s true I didn’t mention this, but it’s very clear for looking at older texts that ‘Unionist’ clearly used to mean ‘Conservative’ in Scotland for a while. The question is when this usage died out, and when the new (anti-Scottish-independence) meaning came in.

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