The Britishness challenge

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.

For example, The Herald reports that Better Together, the cross-party “no” group, is going to ask people over 2013 what they would miss about Britain if Scotland became independent.

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.

British culture?

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.

The BBC?

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.

Your ideas?

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!

7 thoughts on “The Britishness challenge

  1. Interesting question. I think a lot of it comes from the ongoing confusion/interchangeable use of the terms ‘Great Britain’ and ‘UK’, when they’re not really the same thing at all. You’re right that it wouldn’t break up Britain, but it would break up the UK – and for some people, that means the same thing even if they don’t realise they’re technically wrong. That said, I don’t think the sense of “we wouldn’t be who we are now anymore” that some people find reason enough to be in the “no” camp should be discounted, even if it is pretty vague and nebulous when it comes to reasoning and they’re talking about the UK but saying Britain.

    However, the British cultural identity question is also a double-edged sword. Because if Scotland leaving the UK as is can be seen as having no real detractions to British cultural identity, or at least no detractions that aren’t largely trivial, then the natural counterargument is what would Scotland then gain from independence on a cultural identity basis? If British identity is not under threat from Scotland not being in the UK, then there is inherently nothing to be gained by Scotland from leaving the UK in this regard – but I’d be willing to bet that a lot of “yes” campaign propaganda will trumpet freedom of cultural identity as a key reason for leaving. And if that means Scottish people will then be encouraged to see themselves as primarily Scottish and not British, and a yes vote succeeds, then something *has* been lost from British identity. You can’t take something away and end up with the same thing, and British identity will change if this happens.

    So I’d argue either there’s no benefit for Scotland leaving, in which case this particular avenue re: independence is largely moot. OR, Scotland leaving would detract from British identity because British identity would largely lose the influence of the Scots, at least in the short term while Scotland was (quite rightly) busy asserting itself as a new country. I think that’d be a loss, for one.

    That said, as a disclaimer I would be entirely in favour of an independent Scotland as long as it was not to the detriment of the country – my main concern would be that the people in power pushing for it are doing it for ideological reasons. My only other concern is really the scenario where both Scotland *and* the remaining UK would suffer by both being diminished, (i.e. the whole as it is being greater than the sum of its parts). But of course there’s no way of knowing if that would be the case in advance.

  2. Thanks Gaz, all very thoughtful stuff.

    Let me hone in on the question in your second paragraph, albeit that my answer is something of a tangent to this post’s point:

    “…if Scotland leaving the UK as is can be seen as having no real detractions to British cultural identity, or at least no detractions that aren’t largely trivial, then the natural counterargument is what would Scotland then gain from independence on a cultural identity basis?”

    I think Scotland would gain a lot from independence on a cultural identity basis, not least through the more effective and relevant marketing of the country as a tourist destination, as a “brand” and as the home of unique and wonderful traditions such as its music, literature and so on. There would be a hugely enrichening conversation in Scotland (and I’d wager, in rUK) when independence happens and people then ask “right, after all that, who are we?”

    And while culture is a devolved issue, broadcasting is not, so there will be much to gain from devolved broadcasting in terms of the cultural dimension of that. Further, we can argue that with full political freedom and not to mention slightly increased wealth, there will be more money to put into culture.

    That said, a lot of it will come down to political choices made after independence. Some romantic nationalists would have you believe that independence could be a great boost to, for instance, the Gaelic language. I’d not be so sure, because – as some might currently argue is the case – Scotland ruled from Edinburgh might not be as pro-Gaelic in its decision-making as many Gaels would like.

    However, I’d actually challenge the “natural counterargument” you refer to, because I don’t think it is automatic that independence would not strengthen or enrich Scottish identity. Your assumption perhaps implies there is only X amount of culture and it will not grow or shrink however you cut the cake. Rather, it’s more like cutting a cake and ending up with two cakes which have the ability to be shaped, iced, remoulded or even expanded anew.

    Think, for instance, about resurgent cultures – eg post-Soviet identities in the 1990s. They never came at the cost of a unit-for-unit reduction in some other culture.

    It’s rare I resort to cake metaphors so hopefully you see where I’m coming from!

  3. I assume you’re coming from a cake shop! 🙂

    I get what you mean, but you have kind of made my point for me though (possibly better than I did) – an enrichment of Scottish Culture and, I agree, probably a knock-on similar effect in the rest of the UK (though possibly more an assertion of Englishness, which may not be in the best interests of the Welsh and N. Irish, but that’s another problem) will naturally increase the individual nature of the two countries. Hence British culture as it is now *will* change, arguably for the worse *if* you’re coming from the point of view that the current mixing pot of culture is what you like and what you want to stick with with no changes. What it’s replaced with may well eventually be much better to most both in and outside of Scotland- this is a strange argument in that sense – but British identity will undeniably change and what we know it as will cease to exist. To use another cake analogy, you won’t get the same cake if you enrich one or two or more of the ingredients. It might be a better cake for the enrichment (I’ve eaten NIgella chocolate cakes with an obscene amount of stuff in, for example, and they’re great), but there’s no guarantees because no-one quite knows what the ingredients will be yet.

    I think really what I’m saying is that I get where you’re coming from, but it’s possibly the wrong argument. Rather than saying British identity won’t change if Scotland leaves, which is untrue, it would be better to say British identity will change, but there’s a good chance that the new British culture that replaces it will be better, with stronger identities for the component parts. The trade-off being it *might* be worse overall or for some. That’s a risk, but I think an honest acceptance of it is probably the way forward.

  4. Ah but I am not denying that there will be change. Of course there will. My question is specifically about whether there would be a lessening of British culture. And I don’t think that there would be any change to the current mixing pot of culture, as you put it. In exactly the same way that there is cultural similarity and exchange between, say, Northern Ireland and the Republic, or Flanders and the Netherlands, or Sweden and Denmark, so there will continue to be between Scotland and rUK. It may have a clearer and refreshed nature, but it won’t be worsened.

  5. I think I’m basically arguing semantics really! Would there be a change to British culture? Yes. Therefore, for those that like things as they are, that *would* be a lessening of British culture because what they like will no longer exist as it was, even if the actual changes would be seen as positive from almost all other points of view (enrichment of national identities etc).

    This is what I mean about this possibly being the wrong argument. To convince such people to vote yes, they will need to be convinced that the changes to British culture would be for the better rather than that a change wouldn’t happen at all. Because we both agree it would, and for some the very fact there would be ANY change IS the detrimental factor, rather than any specific aspect such as loss of the BBC as is or flags etc.

    A lot of people like stuff to stay the same, and they don’t always have to have a coherent reason to feel that way and indeed may still feel that way even if elements of their fears are debunked. To sell them the idea of independence being a good thing they need to be reassured and convinced that British culture would change but crucially that those changes would almost certainly be for the better; effectively, you need to cancel out their innate negativity from the fact *any* sort of change may happen by accentuating the positives to a level where they see an overall net gain. That’s a tricky thing to do, so I don’t envy the “yes” campaign marketing people!

  6. Britishness is nothing to do with geography. That’s why the people of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are fanatically British, but certain people in Scotland and Wales aren’t. Even within these islands, the people who identify most strongly as British tend to be found in Northern Ireland, which according to the title of the UK, is in the UK, but is not part of Great Britain.

  7. Gibraltarian, Falklander or Northern Irish Britishness may be for cultural or historical reasons, but for those actually living here it is inherently geographical (if it is not also other things).

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