For an unsteady image: Scotland and Britishness

September 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

A brief preface to this post: the referendum tomorrow is not my decision, but it is one that affects me, as a British citizen. It is, I hope, clear from the below which way I would vote if I could.

Watching Alistair Darling be thoroughly beaten by Alex Salmond in the second TV debate on Scottish independence, I found myself wondering, as many have over the course of the referendum campaign, why the ‘Better Together’ movement hasn’t found a more positive message. This failure was most obvious in the total absence from the debate of a particular word: ‘British’. That Salmond would want to avoid it is understandable, but why would Darling, defending the United Kingdom, not use the word which most succinctly expresses a shared identity?
There is a certain amount of irony here. Ian Bradley, writing in History Today, argues that Britishness, at least in its imperial, Protestant form, was essentially a Scottish invention. His list of examples is compelling, ranging from David Hume, who in the 17th century imagined a united Britain leading Europe against Iberian imperialism, to John Reith, a Scot who ‘almost single-handedly constructed one of the great modern institutional embodiments of Britishness, the BBC.’ During the Scottish Enlightenment, a group of contributors to the Edinburgh Review described their country as ‘North Britain’.

Why, then, has this enthusiasm disappeared both north of Berwick and south of Carlisle? Bradley suggests that the traditional British identity which the Scots expounded is no longer useful. This seems logical: we wouldn’t necessarily expect Scotland to take pride in its outsize role in creating and maintaining the British Empire given its difficult legacy, and the multi-ethnic character of the UK today. Similarly, the No campaign can’t base its arguments on nostalgia. So is it even possible to think of a contemporary Britishness?

To some, the question itself might seem suspect. What use is that abstract notion? Does it bear much or any relation to how people live their lives? In recent years, nonetheless, both the political class and the media have subjected this idea to repeated scrutiny. Is Britishness about democracy and tolerance? Or tradition and royalty? Football or cricket? Chicken tikka masala or fish and chips? These have all generated dozens of column inches. I would venture the suggestion, however, that there is no one symbol for British identity, however convenient such an image might be. The defining characteristic of Britishness is that it allows members of one constituent nation to participate in the culture and identity of another. I am English, but when I spent a few days in Edinburgh last month, I felt hugely proud of such a beautiful, vibrant city. I was very definitely not in England, yet I felt more at home than abroad. Some might say that this is just an example of the English colonial imagination, and that Britishness itself is nothing more than an useful vehicle for English domination. As we’ve seen, however, to do this is to ignore the historical evidence.

Rather than being a monolithic construct, Britishness is founded on a sense of difficult participation, on the conviction that a national community can exist while being near-impossible to visualise. It is precisely this difficulty which is worth preserving. Britishness is an obstacle to nationalist thought, both because of its negative imperial associations and because of its composite, unsteady nature. It is nearly always impossible to pin down, only occasionally coalescing around certain institutions: one example might be the NHS, when US Republicans dare to criticise it (that right being reserved for British citizens).

This need not be seen as a weakness, though. I am suspicious of any projection of national identity which is easily defined: particularly suspicious, therefore,of the distinctly Orwellian resonances in the name of Argentina’s new Ministry of National Thought. There is no such thing as British National Thought, and for that we can be very grateful. Robert Colls pushes this idea further, suggesting that ‘in 2001 there was no ‘manifest doctrine’ of Britishness as there had been in 1851 or even in 1951. It was not so much that the British people had ceased believing in themselves; it was more that over a very short period the conditions of that belief had evaporated. Between the Festival of Britain and the Millennium Dome, say, British national identity was no more.’

This is, I think, an overly apocalyptic statement. Perhaps I am unduly optimistic, but I would hope that it is possible to conceive of a national identity that does not depend upon a ‘manifest doctrine’. Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith in Cumbria, has eloquently argued for the relevance of a modern border identity that is neither English nor Scottish, but which draws upon the traditions and heritage of both nationalities. His writing poetically makes the case for a Britishness which admits its borders, its fractures, as essential to itself. Viewed in this way, British identity is not defined against an other (to use the terms beloved of humanities teachers), but rather created through cross-border encounters. The borders involved here need not be physical marks in the earth: they are also between cultures, religions, and generations. This is not the stuff of everyday politics, of concrete policy recommendations, though it might be used as the foundation for them. Rather belatedly, Better Together is putting forward a vision of a federal Britain, the ‘devo max’ option which is in a sense the logical conclusion of Stewart’s ideas. It seems like the only way to save the Union may be to loosen its bonds still further.

That would not be altogether surprising. Britishness is a confused, amorphous, difficult thing. A ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum would be the triumph of a simplistic, nationalist image over a cloudy shared identity. The SNP presents a series of ‘certainties’ about an independent future: high North Sea oil revenues, free universities, free NHS prescriptions. It is a compelling picture of a progressive Scottishness, but one which is so clear as to seem fantastical, a kind of Scottish exceptionalism. By contrast, I have no clear image of Britishness, but rather a collection of fragments, a shifting collage. It is a scrapbook I hope we keep, even if it needs some rearrangement.

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