Independence and Britishness

The British Library, in London.  Not a totally evocative photo for the subject matter, but the first result in a search for "British" in my Flickr stream.

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.

…but enhanced?

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.

FlagsBritishness 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.”

10 thoughts on “Independence and Britishness

  1. Do you think independence would stop people conflating Britain with “England” or do you think the Welsh would just get lumped in with the English?

    This is actually a serious question as I know people feel very strongly about it and that thier identity is overlooked when people think England and Britain are interchangeable.

  2. That’s an interesting question. I’d hope so and think so, because Scottish independence will make headlines around the world (and the referendum consultation the other day already did).

    They might, however, think that the UK has simply split into Scotland and England, with Wales taken to be part of England in much the same way that Britain is seen as synonymous with it now.

    However, the issue of identity and government in the remnant UK could help address this issue, and is a matter for the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Hopefully the Scottish referendum debate will encourage folk in the other three nations to think about how they express themselves to the world and how their country should redefine the relationship between them.

    Time will tell, I guess!

  3. Scottish independence will no more strengthen British identity than devolution killed nationalism stone dead. To say that it will is Pollyanna-ish tosh.It will have entirely the opposite effect

    That is not to say that independence should not go ahead. It is devoutly to be hoped that it will, there is no point in hanging on to a failed relationship. However those who vote for independence should do so with their eyes open. They will be voting to be foreigners to the rest of the United Kingdom and for the rest of the United Kingdom to be foreigners to the Scots. Culture and common identity north and south of the border have diverged substantially since devolution. That process will continue and accelerate after independence. This is of course what many Scots want. That is fair enough, but they really shouldn’t attempt to mislead those of their compatriots who don’t share their view into believing that it won’t happen.

  4. “it will continue to exist as a group of islands that contain Scotland, England and Wales”

    This is a perfect example of the ignorance purposefully encouraged by the Anglo-British establishment that has so angered the smaller nations of these Atlantic isles over the centuries.

    This “group” of islands” contains 6 historically attested national groups. The English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx and, well, I’ll let you do the necessary studies to fill in the hole in your education.

    Here is a clue:

    Oll an gwella

  5. Thanks for your thoughts folks, all very interesting.

    James, if you see the relationship as failed and diverging, do you think that might be due to the claustrophobia of the UK? I argue that upon independence, that process would contribute to a freshening of the relationship, which may be a bit looser but all the better for it. There may be less that unites us, but that which remains will be wholly positive and constructive.

    And Philip, I had no intention of ignoring Cornwall nor am I ignorant to it. I was referring to Scotland, England and Wales purely because they are the three nations that formally make up Britain – though arguably Wales does not as it was annexed by, rather than united with, England. Do you think that the inevitable post-independence self-reflection within England could be an opportunity for the Cornish nationalist movement? England will have to have a think about who and what it is, and this could be a chance for the Cornish question to gain coverage like never before.

  6. Identity-wise, I think it’s all quite daft. The islands we’re on now have only existed for a fairly brief time on a geological timescale, and will only exist for a fairly brief time to come geologically. The people who live here, on an even shorter timescale, all came from Africa, and on a shorter timescale than that, from what is now Europe, and on an even shorter timescale than that had no concept of “national identity” greater than family X live over the hill from Family Y. It would be only slightly less accurate to say Neil Armstrong comes from the moon than to say “I come from Scotland”, the timescales involved are so small compared to how long our ancestors spent elsewhere before migrating to these islands.

    There are people on this planet who have no freedoms at all, let alone the freedom of choice of whether to make their particular chunk of rock surrounded by sea a separate nation. Rather than fretting about whether it makes Britain less British, we should all be grateful we live in a part of the world where this debate can (a) happen and (b) perhaps the event even occur without people being so short-sighted and absurd as to kill each other over the temporary custodianship of a bit of land that was a different shape in a different place before, will be a different shape in a different place again, and was neither theirs to start with nor will it be theirs for any meaningful length of time. Let people do what they want if the majority of them want it – be it stay in the UK or go out on their own. Getting upset about things changing is as pointless as getting upset that the sun goes down each night, because they always do and always will.

  7. Absolutely, Gaz, nations rise and fall and nothing is permanent on this wee spinning ball of rock. It’s good to keep things in perspective and it is wonderful that we have the political freedoms to be able to have this debate when others can’t. I suppose my motivation for writing this post was the frustration that many people oppose independence because of the supposed death of Britishness, when actually I would contend that to be an erroneous assumption.

  8. To be honest, all that aside I entirely support independence if that’s what the people want. being British is about living on a certain small archipelago and hence being brought up in a certain culture. That won’t change any more in the short term or even the next few generations than moving to China would immediately make me Chinese. It’s not as if overnight if Scotland broke away the overriding culture would immediately become more akin to that of Inuit fur trappers, Japanese farmers or desert nomads. Things might eventually change, but equally they might not – and there’s no saying how culture in the UK might change in future anyway if Scotland didn’t break away. Regardless, there will always be far more that makes people living geographically close similar than not. France, for example, is hardly another planet with alien inhabitants we share nothing in common with, after all.

    Besides, if Scotland can make itself more like its progressive Scandanavian small country neighbours rather than into America Jr, as the current Westminster govt. seem determined to do to the UK as is, I’d be inclined to move back again as quickly as possible!

  9. Haha yes, you got me there, Keith! I’d love to say it was some post-ironic statement about how things will change upon independence, or something, but it’s purely because .uk was cheaper than a .com or suchlike. Unless you have any other suggestions?

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