Wednesday, 5 September 2012

My British Identity

Watching the Paralympics this week made me think about all the column inches I have seen written about the Olympics helping the image of being British in Scotland.

I've read a lot about us all getting behind team GB and their achievements somehow affecting the way Scots feel about their nationality.  Maybe it has, but if it has I think something more fundamental has been happening than getting enthused about the Olympics and the Paralympics.

You see, I believe many of us have a sort of two pronged nationality - we are both British and Scottish at the same time - they are not mutually exclusive.  Britain is a very old country and has grown organically that way.  It is quirky and ancient.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland - the United Kingdom to give it its Sunday best title - is a country of nations and regions.  That is just the way it is - but it is a nation state and one that makes plenty of sense.

After the remarkable victory of the SNP in 2011 I was beginning to think that maybe - just maybe - the SNP might be on the right side of history and maybe there was an appetite for independence.

I began to hear the arguments repeated loudly over and over again: 'The Union has had its day', 'Independence will solve our problems', 'The union is broken and dysfunctional', 'Scotland is just like the last colony and the Secretary of State is like a Governor General', 'We must stand up and look after our own affairs', 'Where is the positive case for the Union?'

I thought - ok, these people have a cause, and it has gone on for a lifetime! Every argument has been refined, every line trialed and every objection answered.  The National question has not pre-occupied the other side, and the other side, although probably bigger, is a more disparate group.  The case for the union will come - instinct tells me there is plenty to say here.

But, for a while, I thought maybe the case for the union would stumble and would never become clear?

But, this summer it has begun to come and it has begun to deepen and it has begun to spread out.  The case for Independence on the other hand has begun to look a little threadbare, a little predictable in comparison perhaps.

For me the Olympic opening ceremony began to express some of it.  Someone tweeting about it (not a Scot and not hooked in to our National question) noted just how much there was to being British.  We captured that sense of a quirky, eccentric spirit and a sense of humour.  We captured a sense of invention and ideas - in science, in technology and in engineering.  We captured an off the wall, open, dare I say it - liberal - spirit that helps fuel our diverse arts and music.  We captured our political progress - and this is a hard one - but we have always been able to progress on a journey improving and making better what needs to improve - adult suffrage, the fight against slavery, religious emancipation, a dignified retreat from empire, rights for women, the welfare state, the journey away from racial discrimination and to a multi-cultural society - one we are probably still tackling.  The list can go on.  But what a marvellous, open, liberal, progressive, inventive people we are.

And no - we are not a dysfunctional Tory conspiracy, we are not some regressive Westminster power block somehow alien to Scotland and holding her back.  We are so much more than that.

And nor is Scotland a colony or something grafted onto a foreign and alien body.

Many nationalists regard Scotland as a separate entity to England and Wales.  They regard the UK as a union of separate parts.  It is almost as if they are separate pieces stuck together like a couple of Lego bricks - related but separate.

Scotland is absolutely part and parcel of Britain and Britain is part and parcel of Scotland.

That inventiveness has so much to thank Scotland for.  Scots engineering is widely respected and that feeds into British engineering.  Scots financial governance has a high reputation and that contributes to the success of the City (and I'm talking about high standards of banking and accountancy here, not the casino banking that has contributed so much to our troubles).

Scotland and all the constituent parts of the UK have their traditions intermingled like waters from different streams converging together into a great river.  And that is something you can't simply separate.

Gordon Brown talked about some of this recently.  He argued that “Scottish ideas of justice and community” combined with “traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism” to create not only “common political rights” but also “common social and economic rights”.

I believe quite a view nationalists are romantics at heart.  They have a patriotic vision of what Scotland is and of what a separate Scotland can be - sometimes a little Ruritarian perhaps.  But we are an essential part of Britain and I want to argue that Britain is a nation state.

One language, one integrated economy, one island (almost).  And while there are cultural differences they are not large enough to amount to being a separate country.  Indeed much of our culture is a fully shared culture - and again an intermingled one.

Danny Boyle showed that to be a very modern and dynamic country - not something where we are always looking into the past.

I believe Scotland is a marvellous place, a great nation and a distinctive part of the United Kingdom.  But so much of who we are is as British people, not just Scottish people.  And its not so easy or particularly desirable to separate that out.

For Britain is a nation state - a nation of nations and regions - its quirky that way!


  1. "But what a marvellous, open, liberal, progressive, inventive people we are." If only that was true. Sadly you seem to have bought into Danny Boyle's fanciful and wishful interpretation of history, rather than the more unpleasant reality.

    The truth is that we are far from a liberal society. That progress has been made, and remains ongoing, is inescapable. But your near Utopian take on our present, and even our recent past, is not one I recognise. Society is broadly conservative and, despite what you might think, does indeed "look into the past" as far as the basis for national and collective identity is concerned.

    You are of course right that many nationalists are romantics at heart. It is also true that many people of all political persuasions and of none are romantics. Yourself included it seems!

    But your point about Scottish and British identities not being mutually incompatible is well made. I agree with it - but that for me is not the real issue at stake. I care little for concepts of national identity and the artificial constructs that these create. The real question is this: which constitutional arrangement can best deliver the most positive future for Scotland and Scots? That question cannot be answered by appealing to nationalist sentiment - whether the "romantic" nationalism you seem to equate with the SNP or the equally rose-tinted perspective of those who see everything through the narrow prism of "British identity".

  2. Like you Gavin ah sat an watched the Olympics Openin Ceremony, an like you ah enjoyed it, it wis a great show, skillfully produced, wi fine touches o humour an grand spectacle. But it wis jist that, a great show, an noo that it's done, it's done. It'll no change the world, an it'll no change the country, let's hae some perspective.

    Ah think a lot o fowk, aw ower Britain, could see somethin in it that related tae their view o Britain, an we could see, as ye say, plenty tae be proud o in oor past, but the comin referendum's no aboot oor past, it's aboot oor future.

    Ye ken me, ah feel Scottish, awfy Scottish. But ah'll no deny feelin British either. Ah dae, an ah'm gled ah wis born in Britain raither than ony ither pairt o the world. Ah feel Scottish an British.

    But if it's possible tae feel Scottish an British jist noo, an want tae be governed fae London, then it's also possible tae feel Scottish an British in the future, an want tae be governed fae Edinburgh. This is aw aboot buildin an effective, responsive, an representative democracy fer oor future. It's aboot mair than a show, however weel-staged...

  3. Thanks for your kind words and thought provoking observations Andrew.

    I think Britain is - in historical terms and in an international context - a relatively liberal society. The current political battle lines allow us to forget this. And this liberalism goes beyond the political tribes and is something inherent.

    There is a conservativism in society too - sall c - and a reading of Scottish history would suggest that that is strng amongst we Scots too (not to be mixed up with also being more left wing as a rule than our southern neighbours)

    I'm doing the British identity bit because I think it is important that we give that some thought to balance things in these times. I am not as a rule a romatic or a nationalist of any hue. In fact I believe that while Britain is the nation state - for politics to work as much as possible needs to be decentralised from the centre and at the same time there is a place for a certain sharing of sovereignty with supra national bodies - no avoiding that in this global age. But that's another post!!

    As for the national question I have for some time thought that it can be stripped right back to two issues - that of identity and that of what delivers the most effective (including most just) and most prosperous society. Which in part agrees with your last para.

    But love it or loathe it identity is important and I feel the prevailing tone of our debate for the last couple of years has been a minority view and has not fully or particularly accurately explored our sense of identity as Scots and Britons.

  4. Thank you for your comments Sophia - courteous and well argued as ever.

    I think much should be devolved to Scotland but the UK should remain the centre and there is an important role for Europe.

    Paddy Ashdown has always explained this vision v effectively. But I need a clear head to explain that one (not necessarily loads of words) and its another post for another day.

  5. BTW - it wisnae Danny Boyle's show I write in praise of - he just captured the essence of Britishness quite well - and in a modern way.

  6. Hi Gavin, thanks for taking the trouble to respond! Identity is, after all, a complex issue and I'm not going to contest the obvious fact that your sense of Britishness is a part of who you are as an individual.

    I agree that Scottish society is also conservative (with a small c) - I did, after all, live through the terrible Section 28 debacle that sadly demonstrated how far we, at that time, had still to come. As you know I'm not a political tribalist and my insistence that we are not a liberal society does not stem from "current political battle lines" but my observations of societal perceptions and attitudes.

    I wouldn't normally accuse you of romanticism but your view of British political progress certainly is. Adult suffrage, accepted. The fight against slavery? To my mind it remains unwon and is ongoing. Religious emancipation? Bit of a shame though if you're a muslim and society views you with more than a whiff of suspicion. A dignified retreat from empire? really i suppose in some ex-colonies, perhaps, but don't tell my Ugandan friend that. Rights for women? True, progress has and is being made but this is another struggle that is far from over. The welfare state? Yes, the one that our coalition buddies are determined to dismantle. The journey away from racial discrimination and to a multi-cultural society...well, at least you admit to that being a work in progress.

    Personally, I think constitutional questions are political issues and should be dealt with on their political merits. Unfortunately, and inevitably, on the matter of Scotland's future it's very difficult to strip away the emotive attachments people feel to either unionist or nationalist thinking, and the debate is all the poorer for it.

    As for identity, I am a human being. Admittedly, I occasionally consider myself a European, a liberal, maybe even a progressive Christian. Identity is indeed very personal but it is also intricate and complicated - exploring varying interpretations of British and Scottish identity in relation to the independence referendum is not a pre-requisite to empowering the electorate and is very much a secondary issue to the bigger questions.