Monday, 28 July 2014

On nations and national identity

National identity is a concept that I find genuinely fascinating, not least because it's something I profess to not really understanding. I'm from Scotland, but I can't say I've ever really felt a profound sense of Scottishness, and even less so a sense of Britishness. If someone were to ask me my nationality, I'd probably hedge my bets and say something non-committal like "I'm from Scotland" as opposed to "I'm Scottish". I'm not sure why -- I feel neither a sense of shame nor one of pride at the thought of being considered Scottish. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that any nationality invariably comes with a whole lot of assumptions and prejudices associated with it. Idealistic though it may be, I'd rather people simply saw me as a person rather than a member of a particular identity defined purely by virtue of where I happened to be born.

I've never, and suspect I WOULD never, describe myself as British, though I should note that in that respect I'm far from unusual -- in the 2011 census, 62% of Scotland's population described their national identity as "Scottish only", compared to a mere 8% who chose "British only". (18% described themselves as both Scottish and British.) 8% is a remarkably low number by any stretch of the imagination, but doubly so when you consider that their passports tell a radically different story! (And gives rise to the conundrum of the Scotsman abroad: "Yeah, I know it says 'British' but actually...") Again, I'm not sure why. But I think a lot of that has to do with the feeling that, despite continually being told that we're part of a bigger whole, voices in UK politics and in the UK media always construct me, as a resident of Scotland, as some sort of "other".

These feelings were recently crystallised for me when watching the BBC's coverage of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Although their coverage is ostensibly aimed at an audience across the whole of the UK, I was immediately struck by the fact that the predominantly English presenters (bussed up to cover the Games at the expense of local talent) continually used pronouns like "they" and "them" when describing Scottish athletes and indeed the Scots in general, versus "us" and "we" when describing the successes of athletes competing for Team England. The Games as a whole have been quite revealing in terms of shining a light on the weird cognitive dissonance required in order to view yourself as both Scottish (or Welsh, or English, or Northern Irish) and British at the same time.

The bulk of this confusion, I've no doubt, stems from the fact that the UK, as a "country of countries" (or a "family of nations", as we often hear Better Together representatives describing it), is something of a basket case in the world. This gives rise to all sorts of confusion internationally, with many people assuming that "England", "Britain" and "UK" are interchangeable. Then again, it's not just people from far-flung corners of the globe who can be forgiven for not knowing any better: plenty of people who are actually from the UK are under the misconception that Britain and the UK are the same thing. They're not. (For the record, Great Britain is a chunk of land and is a geographical rather than a political entity. The UK is that chunk of land plus Northern Ireland and various smaller islands, including Anglesey, Arran, Scilly, Orkney, Shetland and a great many others.)

It's often said that people in the UK are comfortable with the notion of having multiple identities. You can be Glaswegian, Scottish and British all at once, and if you happen to have come from another country (or have parents or grandparents who came from another country), even better: it's just another layer added to the rich tapestry that makes up your identity. (I know one person, originally from down south, who describes herself as an English Scot, and in fact English Scots for Yes is a growing force within the broader Scottish independence movement.) But I suspect that, with regard to the Scottish/British debate, that's misrepresenting the situation somewhat. In Scotland, as noted above,only a quarter of the population consider themselves British at all, which strikes me as a fairly clear rejection of that particular part of our identity. (Even if it's quantifiably untrue -- we live on the island of Great Britain and are therefore British whether we like it or not, just as Nigel Farage and his cronies are Europeans whether THEY like it or not.)

In England, this is less true. Speaking as an outside observer, I get the sense that, for a great many English people, "English" and "British" are in fact almost interchangeable. You hear and see it all the time, from reports on the 6 o'clock news about "the NHS" and "the education secretary" when in fact what they really mean are "the NHS in England" and "the English education secretary", to members of the English swimming team at the Commonwealth Games competing with Union Jacks on their swimming caps rather than the St. George's Cross. I don't believe any of these are examples of people trying to make overt political statements or trying to assert some sort of cultural superiority: it's simply a natural by-product of being the biggest constituent nation with the loudest voice. As the country with the largest population and land mass in the UK, not to mention the main seat of power in the form of the London Parliament and the originator of most of the media we consume, England is the dominant culture of the UK. Turn on the TV and radio and what you'll hear more often than not are English voices telling English stories representing English values. I'm not suggesting that these voices are in any way illegitimate, or that they should be stricken from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish airwaves, but it does lead to a strange feeling that you are a foreigner in your native country when you constantly hear the place where you live spoken about as if it is some strange, faraway land.

The Commonwealth Games' opening ceremony was very much Scotland as seen through the eyes of an outsider: Nessie, Irn Bru, people prancing around in kilts, dancing Tunnock's tea cakes, and the "plastic Jock" himself, John Barrowman, putting on his best "Scaddish" accent in his role as master of ceremonies. For an outsider with a passing fondness for Scottish culture, it probably seemed mildly quaint. Speaking as someone who actually lives here, it was cringe-inducing: a budget Brigadoon version of a country that has at no point in its history been more alive with nuanced political debate and aspirations to forge a new society. It felt very much like "Back inside your box, Jock," and it comes as no surprise that much of the Twittersphere, particularly on the pro-independence side, erupted in righteous indignation at what was perceived as the denigration of an entire country, reducing it to a series of tired stereotypes and clichés. All that was missing were the "See You Jimmy" hats and an appearance from Rod Stewart. Oh, wait.

But at the same time, the independence debate has awakened a very pronounced desire to keep hold of Scotland in many of the same people who view it as a faraway land where people talk funny and dance strange jigs. I remember shortly after the SNP won their landslide victory in 2011 and it became clear that a referendum on independence would be held, David Mitchell (he of Mitchell and Webb fame) wrote an incredibly shrill piece in the Guardian decrying the very idea of it. Scotland should stay part of the UK, it seemed, purely because he liked the idea of having it there, and because his sense of "Britishness" would somehow be diminished if a part of it was no longer under the thumb of a government it never voted for. I've always found that mindset to be completely incomprehensible (and it certainly diminished Mitchell considerably in my eyes -- that and various sneering comments he has since made about Scottish independence on the likes of 10 O'CLOCK LIVE). We hear the same refrain often from the unionists: voting Yes would be bad because our friends and relatives south of the border (and in Wales and Northern Ireland, but no-one ever seems to mention them) would become... FOREIGN. Dun dun dun!!! (To which the inevitable response, though rarely articulated, must surely be "What have you got against foreigners?")

The bizarre sense of ownership and entitlement that many of these pro-union pundits exhibit has more than a vague whiff of the imperialistic about it and suggests a deep-rooted sense of insecurity about oneself. As James Kelly put it in his excellent blog, Scot Goes Pop:
I must say that in my view, a national identity that is so fragile that it depends on 'keeping hold' of others is a frighteningly immature identity, and one that for the sake of its own adherents needs to evolve as a matter of some urgency. Look at it this way - in the unlikely event that the ultimate 'unionist' fantasy ever came true and Shetland decided to become independent, how many of us would feel that our Scottish identity had been diminished as a result? Very few, I would guess, because Scottish identity is not rooted in the possessive mindset of imperialism. And how many of us would feel that Shetland was even one iota more 'foreign' when we visited? Almost none.
Many independence supporters have remarked that speakers for the No campaign often preface their comments by stressing their Scottishness and sense of national pride, to the extent that "proud Scot" has become a sarcastic nickname that is attached to anyone on the unionist side who talks the country down (e.g. Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown or any of the array of media pundits who are wheeled out with their doom and gloom projections on a daily basis). I don't think I've ever heard a Yes campaigner describe themselves as a proud Scot. You could argue that that's because many would assume that, in campaigning for Scottish independence, one's national pride is self-evident. I disagree. I'm campaigning for a Yes vote and am not, nor have I ever been, a "proud Scot". I think that national pride is a fundamentally nonsensical sentiment, and one for which I have little time. I'm not proud to be Scottish; I just happen to have been born in Scotland, live in Scotland and ultimately want the best for Scotland, as indeed I want the best for England, for France, for Mozambique, for Gaza, for the world. I want to end this rather rambling and incoherent post on a quote from a recent article posted on Wee Ginger Dug which I found very powerful, and tallies with my own feelings on the matter:
I'm not proud to be Scottish any more than I am proud to be left handed, or proud to be gay, or proud to be Glaswegian. I just am all those things and I act accordingly. The Proud Scots TM of the No campaign miss the identity point. When you are secure and confident in your identity your identity does not define you - you define your identity. And you define it by your deeds and your choices and how you live your life. Scottishness is what we make it, not what we are told it has to be. Identity is a living thing, not a faded photo of an ancestor in tartan. So let's live Scottishness, not commemorate or celebrate it in a stone age grave.
Amen to that. Let's leave the dancing Tunnock's tea cakes to the "proud Scots" while the rest of us work towards building a better society.


  1. Interesting read as ever however I find myself attempting to defend David Mitchell, even though I didn't see the piece you are referring to. Whilst fully supporting Scotland's bid for independence if that is what the majority wants (and who could blame them?) as an Englishman myself I too must admit to feeling a vague mixture of happiness and a little sadness should independence be won; happiness for Scotland, but a sadness we are no longer 'united'. I too like having Scotland as a neighbour and a fellow countryman - regardless of the rights or wrongs of that status - I like being together and as such can see some of the reasoning behind dissenting voices. It's worth remembering no bugger, either Scottish, Welsh or English voted this ghastly govt in as such, and its a shame that the only way a part of the kingdom can gain a say in how they run things properly is by severing all ties from London...because I do think that ultimately that's the real issue; it's London and the Govt rather than Britain as a whole. Personally being from the north I find it just as frustrating being governed by a capital city that seems to care and/or understand little for life up here too. Personally speaking I'm an Englishman - though I'm not altogether sure how true I am in such a claim given we've such Irish blood in our families veins - but I totally take your point that British and English are easily transferable terms.

    1. Long reply coming up -- apologies in advance!

      I guess my question, both to yourself and to others like David Mitchell who have expressed similar sentiments, would be this: where is it that you think we'll be going if we vote for independence? We won't be physically separating Scotland from the rest of the British Isles. We'll still be where we always were, and we'll still be friends. The only difference is that people in Scotland will be able to directly elect the people who represent us and govern on our behalf. Ultimately I think that a lot of people just make way too big a deal out of the process of ending the union. The UK in its current form has existed for less than a century (hello Republic of Ireland!), and in any event independence is the natural state for any country.

      I also think it would be a mistake to assume that the referendum is simply a reaction against the present UK government. While I suspect the 2010 election results were probably one of the main catalyst towards the massive boost the SNP got in 2011 (the other catalyst being how competently they performed as a minority goverment in 2007-2011, delivering things like free prescriptions and tuition fees and returning the NHS to the principles of Nye Bevan), resulting in them getting a majority and being able to call a referendum, the push for Scottish independence has been building as a serious force for almost a century. (Longer than that, in fact, if you consider that Scots rioted in the streets while the aristocracy were busy signing the Treat of Union in 1707.) I think it's important to stress just how severe the democratic deficit is: given the difference in population size, regardless of how we vote in general elections, we ALWAYS get the government England votes for. Sometimes England ends up voting for the same government as Scotland, but more often than not it votes Tory and we end up stuck with them regardless.

      Now I know you can say "well, the North of England never votes Tory but we end up with them as well," and to be honest I don't really have any rebuttal to that, other than to say that, if the North (or any other part of the UK) really wants to do something about that, then it will have to find a solution to that itself. Due to a fortuitous aligning of the stars, Scotland has a chance to do that, and I reject the notion sometimes put forward by members of the left in England that we should stay to suffer in solidarity. I've said this before, but I'm convinced that if an independent Scotland was able to successfully pursue more socially just policies, it would strengthen the hand of progressives in the rUK (or whatever it ends up being called post-Scotland), allowing them to point to a nearby neighbour and say "If they can do it, why can't we?" (Or, as Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation puts it, "Run away and bring back help!")


    2. (Part 2)

      My attitude is that we've had three hundred years to make the current setup work, and it's failed us nearly every time. It's time to try something else. I think the whole UK system is broken on every level, from its antidemocratic system of government (the House of Lords??? FFS!) to its aggressive pursuit of a neoliberal agenda to the fact that it is willing to dump enough nuclear weapons to make Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like a picnic less than thirty miles away from Scotland's most populous city. I want independence for Scotland not just as an end in itself but to deliver the most almighty kick up the backside to the British establishment and force change on a much greater level than voting out David Cameron and voting in Ed Milliband can ever achieve.

      As far as the question of how "true" your claim to be an Englishman is... I really don't want to get into ethnic nationalism. For me, one of the most gratifying things about the independence debate has been that, a few fringe loonies aside, the question of ethnicity has never come up on the Yes side. (On the contrary, it's the No campaign who keep screaming about "foreigners" and erecting border posts.) Hence why the right to vote in September is based on being resident in Scotland, regardless of where you or your family originally came from, rather than being able to trace your ancestry back to Robert the Bruce. Which, in my opinion, is exactly how it should be.

  2. Phew, blimey Mikey! haha

    Nah in all seriousness, I've little to challenge the points you make. The feeling here, on the streets that is, not the media or the establishment, tends to range from *shrug* who cares? to it's a shame we can't stay together *sighs* with a peppering of good luck to 'em, given the chance I'd be voting yes too. As you know, I'm in that latter camp primarily because yes, if I was in your shoes I'd be wanting what you want. But I do feel like it IS a shame that the UK can't stand together and work for every constituent part for the better. Call me an old leftie hippy but maybe its just my desire for unity and general getting alongness, of a 'together we are stronger' bent - and when I say that I mean it as a Socialist motif as opposed to the hypocritical, buying favour lip service Cameron is currently employing it as. Impractical I know, and as a kneejerk reaction it is of course wholly naive of the subject at hand. Because as you say the system has failed at every turn, but that just brings me back to my previous point, that it's a shame that nothing can be worked at together to improve such a thing. Pie in the sky I know.

    I'm with you that this is a culmination of centuries and not necessarily to do with the govt of the day, I just referenced that because it was a point you raised, or at least I construed you as raising in your original post; 'if a part of it was no longer under the thumb of a government it never voted for'

    Around ten years back when it looked like devolution from London was getting some serious currency I did put a fair bit of support behind the notion which, for the North West, was mainly led by Tony Wilson! I still think that's the way forward to a certain extent and that fobbing cities like Liverpool off with mayors is just a joke that offers nothing, it just seems to line the pockets and up the profiles of greedy egocentrics.

    PS you've tagged this as 'ommonwealth games' btw

    1. Yeah, I did warn you about the length! Sorry about that, but I can witter on for pages and pages on this subject.

      Very interested to hear how the referendum is being perceived in your neck of the woods. The matter has come up with other friends from south of the border and, for the most part, the reaction has been one of indifference and "hope it works out for you." That said, I did have one friend who came up from Sheffield a fornight ago, who saw my Yes wristband and asked what it was about. I told him it was to do with the referendum. He looked at my blankly and said "What referendum?" Then again, he's essentially taken a vow of abstinence when it comes to television and newspapers, so I doubt he has any idea what's going on in Sheffield, let alone Scotland!

      I've occasionally asked myself how I would feel if the boot was on the other foot and it was England holding on a referendum to leave a UK in which Scotland was the dominant power. To be honest I can't see that it would bother me at all, but it's not a situation I can really visualise. I disagree on the whole "together we are stronger" argument (I do think that the whole system is so broken that it's going to take outside influence to change it), but I wonder if that perhaps has something to do with my lack of engagement with a broader British identity. This may make you shake your head in disbelief, but I do regard historical events like the Falklands War as a conflict between two foreign powers that have absolutely no connection to me -- hence, for instance, you having a heartfelt loathing for the likes of Sean Penn whereas my response is more along the lines of "Eh, I think he's wrong but he's entitled to his opinion."

      As for my comment about no longer being under the thumb of a government we never voted for, that's a fair cop, though I'd point out that we've actually spent approximately half of the last 70 years being ruled by Tory governments we didn't vote for, so it's not a new situation by any means.

      Incidentally, I do think that some form of regional parliament is, in the short term, the North of England's best hope, particularly if it led to the birth of a new political party exclusive to the North. The reason the Scottish parliament has been such a success is, in my view, because since 2007 it's been controlled by a party that only has to answer to the people of Scotland and therefore always acts in their best interests (or, if you want to be cynical, gives them nice things like free prescriptions because that wins votes). A North of England version of the SNP could serve as a very powerful buttress against the ravages of London.

      Or alternatively, once we're independent we'll just invade England and annex all land as far south as Nottingham. :P

      PS: Cheers for pointing out the typo!

    2. Gonna address each para in order;

      He sounds like a Yorkshireman I once knew who uttered the immortal line 'the internet? Is that thing still going?'

      It doesn't make me shake my head in disbelief though I do wonder how disconnected you'd feel if you were directly touched by it, say you knew someone, a fellow Scot, in the army who had fought there or even, shudder to think, was injured or died there. That said, I'd rather hear an opinion from someone detached emotionally but close in proximity, than a Hollywood A lister with no connection and who hasn't done his homework at all. Its the lack of a researched opinion from him that made my blood boil, but that's for another convo I guess.

      Too true indeed. And I genuinely understand the fury and dissatisfaction that must bring about; I bang on about how vital it is to vote, how people fought and died for that right you have yet it must be extremely disheartening to feel like your vote is just pissing in the wind. Meanwhile 'the special relationship' between the UK and US treats you like some shagpad to house their sex toys aka Trident.

      Maybe we should all just gang up against The South? ;)

      Just out of interest, taking away hopes, desires, personal stance etc...what do you think the chances are for getting independence? Are you quietly confident, or screaming from the rooftops confident, do you really wish some people would wake up and smell the coffee now before its too late or are you picturing a bleak day that will feel like 17 hangovers and 21 wakes all rolled into one?

    3. Like you, taking each para in turn:

      Haha, love it. :D I'm frequently amazed by how unaware people are of what's going on around them. I suppose sometimes it's a defence mechanism -- shut yourself off from the world to avoid all the bad stuff.

      Another interesting "what if..." and again one that's difficult for me to answer. I suppose the fact that I wasn't even born when the Falklands conflict took place, couple with the fact that I don't know anyone who served in it, does distance me from it somewhat. My only real point of comparison would probably be the Iraq war, and my overall attitude to that is that we were dragged into a matter that didn't concern us against the express will of the people... but again it's a totally different situation in so many ways, and that's a view that's shared by many throughout the UK. I think the unfortunate reality is that I've known the British military primarily as a force of destruction rather than a force for good due to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that unfortunately colours my opinion a great deal -- not so much of the soldiers themselves, but rather the way they've been deployed by successive governments.

      On the subject of Trident, I'm currently reading a novel by Mark Frankland (a northerner now living in Scotland and campaigning for a Yes vote) being serialised on his blog ( It's a piece of speculative fiction about the run-up to the independence referendum, in which a band of rogue figures in the American military hid a nuclear device at Faslane in the 80s and, with the realisation that their little dirty bomb will be discovered if there's a Yes vote, go into overdrive to prevent that from happening. Obviously it's total fantasy, but just believable enough to be seriously compelling.

    4. As for my predictions of the result on the 18th September... I really, really don't know. I have days when I think it's hopeless, and I have others when I think it's in the bag. My dad has wanted independence since he was about 15 (he's 67 now) and he is totally pessimistic about it, convinced it will never happen in his lifetime. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that most of the people he knows are 60+ and comfortably off -- by far the most No-friendly demographic there is. Meanwhile, I don't know a single person of my age who has expressed any opinion to me other than Yes. If I went by the number of Yes badges, stickers, posters and so on that I see vs. the number of No stickers etc., I'd assume we were headed for a 95% Yes vote, but I know the reality is that the biggest hurdle is not going to be any profound love for the union but rather fear of the unknown. The grassroots Yes movement is mobilised in a way that the No camp can only dream of (they've recently taken to bussing up kids on Workfare from cities such as Liverpool to man street stalls because they can't get anyone in Scotland to do it), but all that is going to count for nothing if the Yes camp can't convince the significant number of people that are open to the idea of independence but too nervous to take that leap.

      Ultimately the way I look at it is this: I'd have liked the polls to have shown Yes in the lead or at least level-pegging by now (though in fairness a three-point swing is all that would be needed for that), but I also know that these polls can't possibly be taking account of the vast swathes of people who don't normally vote but are, by all accounts, going to turn out for the referendum. Something tells me that people who are so disengaged from politics that they never normally vote are not going to come out in droves to support the status quo. I also look at the quiet confidence being shown by the Yes people versus the increasing hysteria of the No group (which has been through so many rebranding exercises, changes in key personnel and relaunches that I've lost track) and can't help thinking that there's something to that. On top of that, John Swinney, the finance secretary, was interviewed in the Sunday Herald this weekend and stated that he expected a 60% Yes result. Now while you could argue that that was simply a statement designed to boost morale, he's a man who's cautious to the point of paralysis. I've never known him to make rash predictions, which makes me wonder if he's seen some internal polling that hasn't been made public.

  3. Well I can only echo what others have said, good luck and I hope it works out for you :)

    PS, that serialised novel sounds interesting. Might take a look at that