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!