Posts Tagged ‘britain’
One of the most curious mantras of those campaigning for a “no” vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum is the idea that we should resist “breaking up Britain”. As if two hundred thousand square kilometres of rock that have lain off the northwest of Europe for several millennia can be in any way “broken up”!
Such people appear to forget that Britain is a collection of islands made up of three nations – Scotland, England and Wales (so surely in one sense it is already “broken up”?). These three nations have shared languages, history, heritage, culture and much, much more for many centuries prior to being finally united under one government in 1707.
Along with Northern Ireland, Britain makes the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Now, while Scottish independence would have to lead to some sort of name change for the remnant UK (which would still consist of England, Wales and Northern Ireland), it would in no way “break up Britain”.
Yes it would mean that there would be two sovereign states within the territory of Britain, but that in no way stops it being Britain, any more than “Ireland” stops being Ireland despite there being two sovereign states over there too.
Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s great scope for Britain and Britishness to be freed up by Scottish independence to become a truly regional, multinational identity in much the same way that Nordic, Iberian, Baltic or Balkan identities exist on top of the individual sovereign states within each of those regions.
Yet for some reason, opponents of independence persist under the bizarre, paranoid delusion that “Britain” will be no more.
But after thinking and blogging about the idea of Britishness and independence for a long time now, I’d like to jump in ahead of that question by asking it in a slightly different way:
Can you think of a single way in which Scottish independence would detract from British identity?
Please post your suggestions in the comments, and let the (respectful!) debate begin.
And as a way of kickstarting that debate, I’ve thought of – and responded to – some likely suggestions.
The British passport?
That essential icon of British identity, the British passport, inevitably springs to mind.
But technically, it’s the passport for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland rather than just Britain, and despite what passports claim, they are a certification of citizenship rather than nationality.
And the fact that people feel Scottish despite being holders of a UK passport demonstrates that citizenship need not impact upon nationality. Nationality comes, after all, from the multiple layers of identity we as individuals, communities and nations have and not from a government telling people what to feel.
So if people hold a passport for an independent Scotland or a remnant UK, their citizenship might be written down as something different from now but they’ll always feel what they felt before – be that British, English, Scottish or a combination thereof.
The British government?
Another suggestion might be that upon independence there would be no single British government.
True. But there would be two British governments instead – that of the remnant UK and that of the newly independent Scotland. And just like with passports, it is not from the affairs of state and the instruments of public administration that we derive our nationality – people feel Scottish, Welsh, English or British regardless of the name of the entity that governs them.
In any case, many areas of public life are conducted in entirely different ways throughout the UK. Scotland has a different legal system, churches, education system and languages from England. Does that make us any less British? Would we be any more British if the Church of England and Church of Scotland merged, if the Scottish and English legal systems were united, or if devolution was abolished and the NHS or schools systems in Scotland and England were run by the same government departments?
Of course not. Institutions alone do not make an identity. Let’s face it, nobody’s Britishness is derived from a fondness for the Student Loans Company or DVLA.
As supporters of the Union quite rightly point out, devolution in Scotland allows us to make certain decisions in our own way while still being a part of a whole. But if people can get by with separate legal systems, health services and university sectors and still feel British, then we can similarly do so with separate post offices, welfare services and taxation systems.
There are further clues as to the sorts of aspects of Britishness that Better Together expect people to say they miss, in a speech delivered last month by Better Together leader Alistair Darling.
It was an odd speech – so odd, in fact, that the very pro-independence website Newsnet Scotland printed it in its entirety without any accompanying analysis or commentary, confident that the oddness would speak for itself.
It was odd firstly in that it contained the contradictory assertions that:
If we vote for independence it’s irrevocable, there’s no going back
and then later, with reference to the SNP’s policy of remaining within a Sterling zone:
…the most obvious problem with the common currency is that sooner or later it takes you to economic and then political union.
…So Scotland would leave the UK only to end up in the same place as it began…
Leaving us unclear as to whether he believes independence would really be irrevocable or not.
But that’s by the by. The second reason for the speech’s oddness, and the more relevant reason in terms of this blog post, is that Darling claims that independence
signals the loss of things that we so readily identify with and cherish.
British music will no longer be our music. British art, dance and drama will no longer be ours.
So, Alistair Darling expects Scotland after independence to somehow be disenfranchised from British culture. As if culture needs a passport, or requires government permission to have a certain identity! What an insult to art and culture everywhere! In any case, Scotland has separate cultural and arts bodies already, and many people still feel British. Does Alistair Darling want them all to be subsumed into UK bodies in order to shore up British identity?
Granted, Britain over the centuries has created some of the world’s most famous and prolific musical traditions in the world, from pop to classical. But let’s take one of British music’s biggest names, The Beatles. To the extent that Scottish people can arrogantly claim the music of four young men from Liverpool as in any way “ours” before independence, we still could do so afterwards because The Beatles – like Scotland – would remain British. British music is British music in the same way that Scandinavian music will always be Scandinavian, and individual bands are enjoyed and celebrated between and beyond the different independent Scandinavian nations.
After all, if U2 can be widely loved in the UK despite being from the Irish republic and not the UK, then so The Beatles or Blur can be still loved and identified with in an independent Scotland. The idea that we cannot share in or celebrate music that comes from beyond our borders smacks of a cultural insularity that is contrary to the togetherness that the “no” campaign is trying to demonstrate.
British art, culture and music will exist for as long as the people of Britain keep making it.
The British Olympic team?
The British Olympic team, so much to the fore this year after a great London 2012 games, is another suggestion we can predict. The British Olympic team, it might be argued, would end with independence and we would no longer be able to share in each others’ sporting successes.
What rubbish! Of course we would! After all, we in Britain can be inspired and awed by the terrific achievements of great international athletes from the USA or Australia, and we can cheer on the plucky amateurs from micro-nations we never hear about except when the Olympics come round.
Similarly, or in fact more strongly, independence will still allow us to celebrate the successes of our friends and neighbours from across the Scotland-UK border, just as we do at the Commonwealth Games or in football where the British nations compete individually. (And if you think we don’t cheer each other on just now, then that’s a case in point: nothing would change upon independence.)
Indeed, independence wouldn’t end the British team at the Olympics – there would instead be two British teams, those of the remnant UK and Scotland. We could talk not just about the two countries’ individual successes but the collective British successes, just as we might refer not just to individual countries’ successes but also to the collective Caribbean or East African successes or the Scandinavian teams, or the Pacific Island teams.
Another great British institution that might be suggested is the BBC.
Well, of course the BBC would change upon independence, with its assets being moved into two bodies: a UK state broadcaster (which might quite justifiably retain the “BBC” name) and an equivalent in Scotland. Both would be broadcasters within Britain, and would produce output we could collectively describe as “British” as well as Scottish, English or whatever. We would, like with the Republic of Ireland, be able to see each others’ programmes on a daily basis so the cultural exchange would be unaffected. Indeed, given the increased output that two broadcasters would be able to create, the British television and radio heritage could actually be strengthened and enriched.
The Union flag?
When I voiced some of the thoughts behind this blog post on Twitter the other day, someone suggested the British flag as an aspect of Britishness that would end upon independence.
Not so, I would argue.
The Union Flag was actually created in 1606 following the union of the Scottish and English crowns, so it was conceived not as a national flag but as a royal flag, long before the political union in 1707. Then in 1801 it was modified to reflect Great Britain’s union with Ireland and to incorporate the cross of St Patrick.
These are important details, because it shows that the Union flag has only existed in its current format for two-thirds of the time that Scotland and England have been one state. So it is not in any way synonymous with, or exclusive to, or owned by, Scotland and England’s political unification.
Therefore, upon independence it would be quite conceivable that the Union flag could continue, modified or not, as the flag of the remnant UK or as a symbol of British identity. And if you think about it, to abolish or modify the flag could create hassle across the world, because it would raise questions among Commonwealth members such as Australia or New Zealand, who incorporate the flag in a corner of their own flag. And even if the Union flag was abolished, those who felt British enough to want to maintain it and proudly fly it would continue to so, much as many people around the world fly flags of stateless nations or long obsolete states because that is how their identity rolls.
Those are my ideas for starters, and as you can see, I don’t believe that any of them represent or would cause a loss of Britishness upon independence. It will be genuinely interesting to see what suggestions the Better Together campaign come up with in 2013, and perhaps I’ll blog again on the subject as their answers emerge.
But if the loss of Britishness is such an important factor in this debate, then let’s not wait – I’m keen for you to post your comments. I’ll be respectful of all contributions and will censor those that aren’t.
So again, the question: can you think of a single way in which Scottish independence would detract from British identity?
I bet you can’t, but I’m open to your attempts to prove me wrong!
One of the most frequent observations made about Scottish independence is the claim that it would be the end of British identity.
I’ve had more than a few discussions with people from across Britain who say they feel British and therefore oppose independence for Scotland because it would end Britain and end Britishness, forcing people to choose between the nations it comprises.
My response to this is always the same – the name of the country on your passport is nothing to do with your nationality. If you feel a certain nationality, no political decision can ever change that.
Having reflected on the matter a bit more in recent weeks as the long road to the referendum is now opened up, not only do I remain convinced that independence will not harm British identity, but I also believe that it could potentially strengthen it greatly.
Britishness – not just unharmed…
Firstly, let’s look at that difference between legal citizenship and nationality in a bit more depth. I find it absurd that people wouldn’t be able to feel British if Scotland became independent. Britishness is a multi-national identity, reaching across Scotland, England and Wales and is more of a regional identity akin to being Scandinavian, Baltic or Iberian.
Since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a persistent minority of inhabitants of some of its successor states have continued to describe themselves in censuses as “Yugoslav” rather than as, say, Serbian. There’s all sorts of arguments to be had about the political, ethnic and historic reasons as to why that might be, but the point is as long as there remain people who identify with that old country and want to call themselves “Yugoslav” then the concept as an identity will always exist. The word means, after all, “southern Slav”, and southern Slavs didn’t just disappear when Yugoslavia ceased to be a country.
Similarly, Britishness will continue as long as there is someone out there who calls themselves “British”. Even if Scotland, England and Wales were not just wrought from each other constitutionally but literally removed from the face of the earth, a visit to Northern Ireland, Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands would assure you that the idea of being British lives strongly on.
And it’s not just Britishness that will live on, but Britain itself. People talk melodramatically about the independence movement wanting to “break up Britain”. But Britain is a geographical and cultural concept that has already transcended borders. As a collection of islands – including one large one – off the coast of mainland Europe, Britain has existed for millennia before the Unions of the Crowns and Parliaments, so if either of those unions are dissolved it will continue to exist as a group of islands that contain Scotland, England and Wales.
On the point of Britishness, take another illustration, Scotland. Most people here call themselves Scottish – often in addition to other nationalities, such as British, but most are Scottish all the same. If Scottishness can exist (and very healthily and vibrantly, too) without a corresponding Scottish state, why on earth can’t Britishness survive without a British state?
And if I was to quibble, I’d say there isn’t a British state anyway. We live in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a union composed therefore of British people on the one hand and Northern Irish people (it was the Irish as a whole prior to the republic’s independence) on the other. The whole is not in itself British, but a combination of British and Northern Irish. Sure, most Northern Irish people would claim a British identity on all sorts of strong cultural and historical foundations, but as a matter of geographical fact they are not British. The fact, therefore, that we are able to muddle the UK and call the whole thing “British” demonstrates the strength of British identity in the absence of a strictly corresponding state.
Looking further afield, there are plenty other stateless nations for whose people the identity remains strong. Just look at the Kurds, Afrikaaners, Uighurs or Chechens – nations of people who exist, and have existed for centuries, as a people without a state. Their lack of state does nothing to stop their identity existing, and the oppression those nations have arguably been subjected to over the centuries has done nothing to remove that identity from the people.
The same is the case with Scotland, and the same has been and will be the case with Britain and Britishness. If anyone fears for their Britishness with an independent Scotland, it suggests that their Britishness is not a very strong one, rooted only in the constitutional status quo rather than something more heartfelt and meaningful.
That’s not to say that issues of identity have no place in the pros or cons of Scottish independence, or that there will be no impact on identity if Scotland does become independent. Indeed, as I said above, I think it’s perfectly possible that independence could enhance Britishness. Here’s my thinking.
Britishness has – rightly or wrongly – been tied up with various connotations, such as colonialism and imperialism, a mistrust of foreigners, and violence such as that of the far right or loyalist terrorists in Ireland. Of course, there are many more good facets to Britishness than the bad, and I’m not one of those Scottish nationalists who regards Britishness as a myth.
There is much that makes us British beyond the existence of the United Kingdom: there’s our shared love of curry, beer, football and talking about the weather; our stoic and dry sense of humour; our healthy cynicism towards attempts at authority; and of course our shared languages. Using these and other positives, it’s time to shed the negative aspects of the image and redefine Britishness as something more about a broad basis of cooperation between good neighbours, rather than something imposed upon grumpy, claustrophic housemates.
Britishness could be defined in a post-independence world as a basis for cooperation between two sovereign countries (or three, if England and Wales ever part company), with scope for joint work on culture, environment or any number of other shared concerns. A model of this lies in the British-Irish Council, an institution borne of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland but an idea that had for years been SNP policy for a post-independence Britain.
The Nordic Council (see the photo on the left) is another example. Through it, Nordic nations cooperate on matters of mutual concern but without attempting to rule each other.
Britishness could be something we share and shape equally, respectfully and voluntarily. It could be a Britishness that we could soon come to be very proud of. A Britishness very different to today’s.
Since publishing, this post has been reproduced here on National Collective, which describes itself as “an open and non-party political collaboration of talent focused on driving social and political change in Scotland through a variety of the arts.”