Scottish v British – the false choice

The following is a copy of an article I wrote for the pro-independence arts group National Collective, which they published last week. Any comments welcome – either on the National Collective website or here.

Time and time again I find myself reflecting on the notion of Britishness against the backdrop of the Scottish independence referendum.

Not because I feel that Britishness and British identity is somehow relevant to the debate; in fact, I dwell on it precisely because the concept is irrelevant to the debate and yet many insist on crowbarring it into proceedings.

This is, after all, a debate about where power will lie and where decisions will be taken, and not a debate about what our identity is – something that referendums can  never have any substantial impact on.

I’ve argued in the past, for instance, that no aspect of Britishness, other than the passport, is under threat from independence, and indeed that Britishness could flourish post-independence.

Yet many people on the No side insist on repeating the mantra that independence would force a choice between being Scottish and British, and that being a part of the UK allows us to be both. Just recently, Alistair Darling, chair of the Better Together campaign, argued that:

“A great number of people are proud to be Scottish and proud to be British and they want to know why they have to choose between them. They don’t want to choose between them.

His party leader, Ed Miliband, has also got in on the act, last year saying:

“In Scotland, the narrow nationalists of the SNP pose a false choice. They ask: are you Scottish or British? I say you can be both.”

I genuinely do not understand this. Why would there be a forced choice post-independence between the two identities, but not just now within the UK?

And, more importantly, how precisely would this choice manifest itself? How, never mind why, would an independent Scottish Government enforce it? By doing surveys? By asking people to renounce passports? By evicting anyone who felt British from the new Scotland? Is that honestly what the No camp believe might happen? If so, they are in a terrifyingly deluded place.

Of course, it’s all hypothetical, because no such choice will be desirable, required or indeed faintly possible. That’s because identity is a personal, collective thing that has next to nothing to do with what country you’re a citizen of. After all, as Alistair Darling says, people feel Scottish and British just now – and if identity depended on where you held citizenship, then nobody would call themselves Scottish.

Let’s take the example of Darling’s fellow No traveller, my local MP Danny Alexander. In a recent defence of Britain’s interests in the European Union, he said:

I am a Highlander, a proud Scot, a patriotic Brit and a European. In a modern outward looking country these identities work together, and we are stronger because they do.

It’s great stuff, because I would say the same thing. I too am a Highlander, Scot, Brit and European, all to very much greater or lesser extents. Identity is a wonderful thing precisely because of its diversity and patchwork nature.

But let’s try to pigeonhole these types of identity, just for a moment, into three categories:

  1. Sub-state identities – that is, identities that are geographically smaller and narrower than the country of which we hold citizenship. In this category, I’d put labels like Invernessian, Highlander, Scot and others.
  2. State identity – this is the one identity we have through being a citizen of a country. In my case, obviously (and we’ll leave aside the UK/Britain pedantry for the moment), that is British.
  3. Supra-state identities – these are identities that we share with others beyond our national borders. I’d claim European, Esperantist (it’s more than a language – it’s a global identity), perhaps even human, white person, male, and Christian.

The point of that list is to show that whatever country you live in, whatever your state of citizenship is, you’ll always have identities that are above and below the level of that citizenship. None of those identities, if sincerely held, can be disputed or removed. Indeed, attempts to do so are often likely to strengthen them.

So why the false choice between Scottish and British after independence? The No camp are basically arguing that the following scenario is possible…

  • Sub-state – Highlander, Scottish
  • State – British
  • Supra-state – European

…but the following scenario is impossible:

  • Sub-state – Highlander
  • State – Scottish
  • Supra-state – British, European

Can someone please explain why?

6 thoughts on “Scottish v British – the false choice

  1. I happen to entirely agree with you here. As someone who is not heavily invested in politics, is this what the SNP are saying? And are they saying it loudly? I believe that the parallel of Britain and Scandinavia is a good one.

    Confusing the issue is the general misunderstanding – even within this country – between GB and the UK. We’re always going to be British, as we share the same island, speak the same language, largely share the same history and culture, whether we like it or not. A Norwegian can’t decide he’s not Scandinavian. We can’t decide we’re not British. What we can decide is whether we want to belong the United Kingdom, which is essentially just a political entity anyway.

  2. I think the SNP are making this point to an extent, and do often draw on Scandinavian or Nordic identity as a regional equivalent. Though I sense there is a slight tension in the party between a new wave of accepting this regional Britishness as a part of people’s prospective post-independence identity on the one hand, and on the other hand a strong dislike of anything “British” like the monarchy, BBC or empire that many in the SNP have long stood against.

    This is why the multiplicity of pro-independence standpoints is a good thing – socialist, pro-business, Green and of course nationalist arguments all point to independence from different starting points, and all would embrace British identity (or not see it as a problem) more than many within the SNP.

    The result is that some people – particularly neutrals – are not distinguishing, as you say, between Great Britain (the cultural and geographical entity) and the UK (the state); though many increasingly are as the message gets a little clearer over time. And I think it will continue to do so.

  3. I have to say though, again from a fairly non-involved stance, the two most common views (of Scottish people) from those against independence aren’t really about Scottish/British identity – I’ve almost never heard that raised. It’s almost always about the economy or not liking Alex Salmond.

    Economy is a valid concern, but in my view predicting the future of any national economy in the world is impossible. The global recession was hardly widely predicted. We can’t agree how the UK economy should be run or how things will shape up, so any predictions about the Scottish economy is guesswork. Clearly, we’re not all going to immediately become bankrupt and third world, nor will we become vastly wealthy. Unfortunately, economy is where scare tactics can become very effective. Fear is an easier headline than figures.

    And though I personally quite like Salmond, I know plenty of people who don’t. It shouldn’t be an issue – clearly the SNP and Salmond aren’t going to rule Scotland for the next 1000 years as a dictatorship should we vote independence. But that message needs to be made clearer. There are people who like the idea of independence but don’t like Salmond or SNP politics and can’t see beyond that. Weird as it sounds, the pro-independence campaigners need to distance themselves from the SNP. I assume there would be a general election held immediately if people went for independence? If so, the pro-independence campaigners need to hammer home that point. Independence should have nothing to do with party politics as it will last a lot longer than all the MPs out there.

  4. You’re quite right – the line about the SNP potentially not being in power needs to be hammered home more strongly. There will be elections in 2016 to the Scottish Parliament and that’s when the Scottish Government proposes negotiations aim to finish and actual independence happens.

    So yes, on day one we could see the SNP swept out of power, and that’s quite feasible given that their support consists of a lot of folk who would traditionally support other parties but for the independence issue.

    Obviously, though, the SNP would want to stand and win in that independent Scotland so they are probably unwilling to encourage people to think about the prospect of their removal from office. Meanwhile the Yes campaign in other quarters does talk about the scenario, but perhaps it doesn’t get sufficient coverage.

    It raises the curious paradox of an argument that says if you don’t like the SNP, then independence is the way to get rid of them. It’s neatly summed up by this taken from an unofficial Yes poster website:

  5. (I’m very late to the party, but here’s my reply) I’m sure that some people will consider themselves British after independence, and will be able to do so. But if they do so, they will be like those Russians (and others) who still identify as “Soviet”. In the proper sense, Britishness is not a geographical identity at all, but one which is tied into notions of imperialism and unionism, designed to bring Scots (and Welsh etc) into the fold. One of the main reasons that the last independence referendum failed is precisely that the Yes Campaign didn’t address notions of Britishness enough. They were too tied up in trying to appease Britishness, which is the core of unionism. I’m sure some independence supporters do still feel a sense of Britishness, but that’s because they haven’t really faced up to what it represents.

  6. Hi R. I agree with your point about “Soviet” identity. Indeed some may continue to feel British for political/nostalgic reasons, or indeed for geographical reasons (I disagree that Britishness isn’t geographical at all. Look at a map and you see it is – whether or not it is also other things). Whatever the reasons though is not the point – my point is that Britishness can easily exist after independence, and I am sure it will.

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