Sunday, July 24, 2011

Brits In

I'm not surprised Pete Wishart's article on how Britishness may well survive and flourish after Scottish independence has provoked such an instant reaction. After all, it strikes at the very heart of one of the articles of faith of unionism, namely that while a dual Scottish/British identity is possible within the context of union, somehow the prospect of independence forces people to choose. Hmmm. We only have to look as far as Scandinavia to recognise that argument for the nonsense it is.

David Torrance's response to Wishart is, as you'd expect, exceptionally well-written, but in places it seems to be a classic example of someone saying things that don't really make a lot of sense in an extremely elegant way. For instance -

"Yet on another, the politics of national identity, Wishart appears almost as confused as he claims Britishness is. Surprisingly, he concedes the geographical dimension almost straight away (why? It’s integral to so much of the argument, not least in terms of oil)"

Why concede the geographical dimension, ie. that someone from Scotland is by definition British? Because it's true. Scotland is geographically part of Britain in an unambiguous way that Northern Ireland unionists would love to claim for themselves, but can't. If Torrance thinks this statement of the bleedin' obvious has any bearing at all on whether a state called the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ie. not "Britain") would have a claim on Scottish natural resources, he's the one that's confused. It certainly appears that it'll be a jolt for some to discover that being British does not mean the same thing as being part of a state that has London as its capital city.

"Now I wouldn’t quibble with this assertion, far from it, but Wishart singularly fails to – although it is implied – articulate a definition of “Scottishness”, which presumably he believes exists. “Cultural Britishness is then a rather curious construct that can be almost anything, and usually is,” he writes..."

When people talk about what they identify with being Scottish, in my experience it's usually things like "the scenery" or "the sense of humour". Torrance might well scoff at such sentimental notions, but they're a hell of a lot more concrete and instantly understandable than the attempts to define Britishness that Wishart rightly dismissed as ludicrously contrived, such as Michael Portillo's offering that it's all about "anti-fanaticism".

"Wishart then offers a generous – and actually quite convincing – definition of Britishness (“great historic cultural achievements…pride in our victories in the wars we fought together”), but then spoils it by labelling this “the social union” which, of course, is a relatively recent Nationalist construct. “Our gripe”, explains Wishart, is with the “current political arrangements within the United Kingdom”. Doesn’t it occur to him that those “political arrangements” were central to the cultural achievements and wars he rightly lauds?"

But these are simply immutable facts of the history that has shaped us as Scots. They don't tell us anything about the suitability of those political arrangements for the present or the future. For good or ill, the modern face of India has been partly shaped by the British colonial legacy, but that doesn't mean independence isn't right for India now, or for that matter that it wouldn't have been right for India long before it actually happened. Indeed, one of the aspects of Britishness that Wishart identifies - and Torrance ignores - is our collective shame over the crimes of slavery and colonialism. And as for wars, Torrance might want to reflect on the fact that many independent Commonwealth countries found no difficulty in fighting alongside Britain in the Second World War - something that is conveniently edited out of the British national myth when we talk of a "small island nation standing alone in 1940".

* * *

A few hours ago, Allan of Dispatches from Paisley left a comment here suggesting that an independent Scotland in "the EU/Euro" would look like "lunacy" in present circumstances. Well, the euro is one thing, but the EU? Looking at my trusty map of western Europe, it appears there are very, very few "non-lunatic" countries left these days - and the UK isn't one of them.


  1. Many years ago, even as a life long SNP supporter, I was prepared to accept the term "British" as a secondary nationality identifier.

    Ironically, the strong tendency of unionists to claim as anti-independence supporters anyone prepared to accept the term "British" has long made me very reluctant to accept the term at all.

    However, Pete Wishart makes a case that I have long supported, that the term British should be accepted, but that it be emphasised that one can be British in a Scandinavian sense but favour Scottish independence.

    I believe that is a winning strategy for the SNP and all the better for being true :-)

  2. It seems to me that there can be no argument that we Scots are British. We were born in the British Isles, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and both of these give us some sort of British identity. We are also, whether or not we like it, European, and of the Northern hemisphere. This is called geography.

    As for Britishness of an emotional or social nature, I’m dubious. I've never been convinced of any collective traits which make us British or indeed Scots.

    Successive prime ministers and presidents have talked about our shared values; a love of freedom and fair play, justice and decency, the rule of law, and other such 'words'... for that's all they are, convenient for the president to mutter as he presses another obligation upon us.

    I've certainly had cause to wonder on occasion where on earth they got the idea that these "values" actually exist in either of our two states, except perhaps in comparison with North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia or the likes. But surely, even if they do, we can't assume any monopoly of them, and to hint that we do is yet another reason that Brits and Americans are collectively considered arrogant.

    The emotional side, or patriotism (the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Johnson said), is a construct battered into our heads over the years and legitimised by the need to protect oneself from foreign interlopers. But it is conveniently employed to allow governments to get away, quite literally, with murder, in the name of the people. And every so often it’s reinforced by marrying off a prince in a glittering and expensive ceremony.

    I "feel" no particular Britishness, no particular loyalty to, of affection for, a British state, and marrying off a prince is only ever of interest to me in the attendant public holiday, but to deny being a part of Britain, whether or not Scotland is independent, flies in the face of indisputable geographic fact.

  3. Tris, there was one attempt to define Britishness on the recent Newsnight programme that was even more bizarre than Portillo's "anti-fanaticism" - namely that it was all about being comfortable with multiple identities. So by my reckoning that means anyone from Sweden or Denmark must be British, as they're very comfortable with multiple identities.

  4. Surely that schizophrenia rather than Britishness, isn't it, James?

  5. The shortbread site have their latest 'er'! Must be something in the water or ....