British Identity & the Social Union

British identity seems to be a quiet but powerful factor in terms of voting intentions in the upcoming referendum.

While those intending to vote yes to independence are often cast as following ‘heart’ over ‘head’, it seems reasonable to suggest that a ‘heart’ emotional attachment to a British identity is a big factor for many of those voting no.

Screenwriter (of Katie Morag fame) Sergio Casci noted last week on Derek Bateman’s podcast that “the people who are committed no voters, in my experience, are those who have an emotional attachment to Britain and to the idea of Britishness.”  Bateman adds that this position, whether or not you share it, is deserving of respect: “These people are rooted in something; they have a belief system . . . it’s perfectly legitimate.”

This strikes a chord with me.  In meetings, women’s discussion groups and conversations with friends and family, British identity is a recurring theme, but a tricky one.  There often is a bit of reluctance to express this identity, particularly in political meetings (I’ve seen such expressions met with hostility and/or dismissed, thus shutting down discussion – part of a problem generally discussed here).

British identity is undoubtedly a tricky and complex thing, holding quite different, and very strong, meanings for different people.  This is not intended as a comprehensive discussion of them, at all.  But there is among these meanings a strong and appealing narrative of Britishness centred on justice and fairness, associated with characteristics of quiet reserve and honest even-handedness.  Honour and decency feature heavily in this version of Britishness, but like any stereotype or national trait this has certain class and gender assumptions that can’t go unquestioned any more.  However this ‘fair’ Britishness has more concrete associations than just ‘being a decent chap.’ Though those of a more conservative bent than me might not like these things linked, the idea of fairness is also associated with the ideals and institutions of the welfare state.

The post-war era has a strong influence on British identity in particular.  Those were, to an extent, hopeful times; Britain’s ‘peak democracy’ era when wages converged, housing improved, and wars and starvation became seen as a thing of the past.

There are of course lots of caveats and contradictions in the way the post war years really panned out – like the enormous strengthening of centralised state power, or the systematic mistreatment of the marginalised in society.  However the sense of hope and belief in collective action from that era is palpable. Even today despite years of right-wing dogma, the population is generally in support of renationalisation of key sectors and strongly defends the NHS.

My reasons for voting yes are, ironically, those associated with that British welfare state ideal.  I want to defend and build upon these institutions and ideals of public good and collective action which are being decimated by red/blue look-a-like neoliberal governments.  It now seems to me that the most pragmatic and effective way to do this is through independence.  Breaking up the British state, with its corruption, anti-democratic structures and delusions of imperial might, is a good move for everyone across these isles, as recently emphasised by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood in a Glasgow lecture.  But breaking up the British state through devolution and regional sovereignty is not the same as breaking the social union we all share.   This myth of the nasty nationalists as border-building, family-splitting separatists has to be dispelled, and having spent two years in this progressive, forward-looking independence movement I am constantly surprised at how prevalent this daft stereotype still is in England.

Then there is the idea of Britain as a welcoming place of opportunity and safety, a mixed and open society.  I’ve heard this from people who came here as immigrants 50 years ago, and those that arrived much more recently.  Though for recent migrants, the horror stories of dawn raids, deportations and abuse in private prisons are depressingly common.  Nevertheless, the feeling of Britain as inclusive, multicultural and progressive is a significant part of British identity for many.  It’s interesting to note that in some areas of England, those from BME backgrounds are much more likely to identify as ‘British’, whereas white respondents are more likely to choose ‘English’.  This perhaps is linked to the ‘tainting’ of English nationhood and identity through its appropriation by the racist far right in recent years.  But ‘Britishness’ also suffers from this association and use.  All these conflicting and overlapping meanings and associations make it an extremely complicated issue, as well as being very emotive.

A Britishness which centres around inclusion and diversity can be significant for those of us with family backgrounds in two or more of the nations or regions of the British Isles (this itself is a problematic term given Ireland’s history and position; if you know a better geographical term please suggest it!).  We are all so interlinked, and ‘British’ seems much easier and for some more natural than, say, ‘Scottish-half-English-third-Welsh’ or whatever.  From this perspective, proposals for Scottish independence can no doubt seem deeply regressive and personal; the breaking up of an identity and sense of belonging out of some nationalist fervour.  This understandably would lead people to feel aggrieved and emotional on the issue of independence, as though the Scots are ‘abandoning’ the big family, and abandoning the shared welfare state too.

I myself do not hold such positive associations around Britishness or Britain as a whole, despite my mixed Scottish/English background.  Part of this might relate to an early awareness of the ‘dark side’ of British history and power – the ‘blood never dried’ history – and also coming of age at the time of the Iraq War protests.  But to those who do hold this identity, and consequently feel threatened at the prospect of Scottish independence, I would stress again that this movement for self-determination is not anti-English or isolationist, or about severing social ties and putting up walls.  The Prime Minister said recently that it would ‘break his heart’ to see Scotland become independent (seems rather counterproductive; what more could spur us on!?).  And certainly something that ended our shared social history, family bonds, friendships, would break my heart too.  But that’s not what this is about.  People will get on with things whatever happens, having loves, lives, families, culture, and experiences together regardless of accent, census identity tickbox, or borders.  What we are seeking in this movement is democracy, self-determination, not a vindictive ‘split’ from our neighbours.

I’ll leave the last word to Dick Gaughan, as he always says it best.  Let friendship and honour unite, and flourish on both sides the Tweed…



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