Sunday, 17 June 2012

Do I Feel British? No, Why Would I Want To?

During my activities in politics I have been interviewd countless times by all branches of the media and frequently asked if I feel British. The answer has always been the same, "No, I don't. I don't even know what Britishness is, or means." Occasionally, particularly if the interviewer was from one of the English newspapers, I have been pushed to say why I don't feel British. I have then asked them to define Britishness for me, in the expectation that I might learn why they thought it important. The explanations invariably involved definitions of what I have associated with being English or, at least had more to do with how I assume it must feel like to be English. I know why I feel Scottish, having been born in Scotland and with several generations of my family having been born in Scotland. The culture in which I was brought up is Scottish and the history of those among whom I have lived and worked all my life, is Scottish.

The symbols of nationhood, such as flag, buildings and castles, language and culture, to which I have a strong attachment are all Scottish. As a republican with absolutley no fondness for the institution of monarchy, the present Queen, most frequently held up us the symbol of Britishness to which we must all pay homage, represents privilege and inequality, never someone to whom I must give allegiance. Does that make me parochial or inward looking, a narrow nationalist? No, I don't think so, because Nationalism to me means no more than the desire to see my nation become a nation/state once again. I feel no animosity to other nations, nor do I desire to dominate any other nation. Having travelled widely and experienced other cultures, I have yet to see any other country that would persuade me to go and live there, although I have a particular fondness for France and speak the language well enough to be able to converse freely when in that country. Those who profess to be European have never been able to explain to me what that means, anymore than those who profess to be British can explain what that means.

The only reason there is now a need to speak about identity and what it means and represents, is because the SNP, in its eagerness to persuade Scots that independence will be so painless, it will not even entail leaving the United Kingdom, or ceasing to be British. This has been presented in a manner that removes the element of choice from those of us who do not feel British nor have any desire to be British. Scots are being told that on Day One of independence, they will still be British, whether or not they have ever been British when Scotland was part of the UK. Britishness is not about mere geography, it is meant to signify something more than just living in a particular area of the British Isles; it is supposed to signify a way of life that is peculiarly British - and that is where the problem begins. In my frequent spats and discussions with supporters of the EU, I invariably asked them to illustrate what it meant to be "European" as opposed to being British, Scottish or Irish or any other nation in the continent. What is it about being "European" that made them feel different - as opposed to just superior - to those of us who were content to just feel Scottish. I have yet to get a reply and in many instances found that the most ardent Europeans spoke only English.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle for the purposes of the SNP's campaign for the referendum, we will hear countless references to Scandinavians. On the most recent Question Time programme, Alex Neil used that very example to illustrate how if Norwegians, Danes and Swedes can also be Scandinavians, so Scots after "independence" can also remain British. I have met any number of Norwegians, Danes and Swedes and when asked where they were from, I have never had any one of them say, "I am Scandinavian". Historians argue it is a relatively recent term, dating from the 18th century, and although Hans Christian Anderson wrote "I am a Scandinavian" in 1839, the term does not seem to have caught on to the extent that in normal speech a Norwegian, Dane or Swede considers him or herself to be Scandinavian first. Despite the SNP's concern, according to the YouGov poll on identity in April this year, only 5% of respondents considered themselves to be British, rather than Scots.

The SNP's concern to be British is of very recent origin, so recent in fact that John Swinney, during his term as leader of the party, addressed annual conference with the words, "It is time to tell the Brits to get off". Had any reporter or commentator approached SNP members at any gathering in the 1970s, and asked if any of them felt British, they would have been subjected to some good natured banter but left in no doubt that the answer was a resounding "No". In fact, I would hazard a guess that this little charade comes from the same "positive-psychology" school that has deemed the word "independence" to be unsuitable because it denotes "risk". Now, every letters page, every twitter and facebook programme will be inundated with references to how British we are obligated to feel. One enthusiast, in his eagerness to illustrate how this is so, wrote to the Sunday Herald, "From Cape Town to Cairo, millions of Africans feel they belong both to their homeland and the mother continent." The argument can get no more ludicrous and pretentious than that and will no doubt comes as a great surprise to those very same millions of Africans.

Perhaps one of the reasons that so few Scots tend to describe themselves as British first, and not many more describe themselves as British at all, is that for years the English have laid claim to the term, so that to be British was to be synonymous with being English. It has often been the complaint of over-sensitive Scots that the English media in particular, seemed to find it difficult to differentiate between the two. How often have we heard, "Aye, so-and-so is only British when he/she is winning. They are always Scots when they lose". References to "The Queen of England" or "Anglo/American relations" have irked Scots for generations and now suddenly, we are all supposed to profess such a strong attachment to being British, that we will continue to shout it from the rooftops, even after we are independent. It is all so artificial there is a danger it will make the "Yes" campaign an embarrassment or, signify just what being "independent" means to the New SNP.

This concern to express an identity has become more important in England, in direct proportion to the demands for independence in Scotland. Now the English feel threatened to such an extent that several newspapers, including the Telegraph and the Guardian, have conducted surveys to discover what identity means to people in the UK. The results have been interesting although whether or not they are what was hoped for, is difficult to tell. What did come across loud and clear, is that few if any, of the respondents could define Britishness or say what it was that made them British. In fact, the majority of those who made the attempt seemed to be first generation immigrants to England, in particular, and few English people saw themselves as being British first and English second. Significantly, Scots who described themselves as British, tended to do so in terms of their negativity towards independence, while some of those who considered themselves to be strongly English, tended to bemoan the loss of the "England we knew".

Being British meant no more than "to obey the law" or "warm beer and cricket" or "to be polite to people" or "we have special festivals that no one else has". When suggestions have been made that "Britishness" might be taught in schools - English schools - the problem that has been raised most often, is knowing what to teach. The one symbol to which everyone could cling and which symbolised Britain more than any other, is the monarchy but English people still tend to regard the Queen as being "their Queen". Elizabeth is Elizabeth the Second whether Scots like it or not and, if we want to argue that she is "our Queen! as well, we will just have to accept she is the Queen of England first and foremost. So, to all those "independence ambassadors" out there, I hope your independence manual has a definition of "Britishness" so that you can explain it to the general population, particularly those who are going to be both independent and British for the very first time. I suppose it is too much to expect you will have a definition of independence.

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