“Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.”
Laplace was, of course, referring to the redundancy of any deity in relation to his mathematical explanations of celestial mechanics. But it occurs to me that the sentiment applies just as aptly to my own attitude to the matter of Britishness in relation to my personal identity. Quite simply, I have no need of that hypothesis.
The famous words of the French mathematician and astronomer came to mind a while back as I read a piece by Kenny Farquharson in Scotland on Sunday that actually managed to be thought-provoking – (Cultural revolution as SNP learns to love the Brits). A piece which, in turn, prompted me to revisit Pete Wishart’s offering on the subject of Britishness which received wide circulation, and a not entirely positive reaction, back in July 2011 – (Proud to be British in an independent Scotland).
Then there was the decidedly cringe-making efforts earlier this year by David Cameron to wrap himself and his party in an ill-fitting saltire – over which a discreet veil might usefully be drawn – as well as the rather more troubling ill-informed and ill-judged interventions from John Redwood and David Trimble – both suggesting (or seeking to introduce?) a confrontational anti-English dimension to the issue of Scotland’s independence campaign. All of which caused me to reflect upon issues of identity and ideology.
As will be apparent from the foregoing, this reflection has gone on for quite a while. I have been revisiting the topic for months now, fretting over it and rewriting it repeatedly. I have returned to it yet again today because the whole topic of the politics of identity – never all that far from the surface – has been revived by Ed Miliband’s most recent intervention in the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. An intervention judged by all but the most sycophantic Labour loyalists to have been clumsy and confused, but one which has provoked some interesting responses – notably from (again) Pete Wishart (Pete Wishart on Britishness and Independence post-Miliband) and the still respected Iain MacWhirter (This debate isn’t about flags and national identity… it’s about power).
Miliband’s speech, and subsequent interview on Channel 4 News, was useful for another reason. It nicely illustrated the fact that identity is a complex matter which one should not comment on unless and until one has given it careful consideration and put some effort into marshalling ones arguments. Miliband signally failed in both regards. My problem with writing this article arises from a desire to avoid the very mistakes that he made. It is the age-old problem of defining ones terms. And doing so without recourse to a lengthy academic treatise on the nature of identity in all its psychological, sociological, anthropological and political complexity. Even seeking to simplify things by abstracting and isolating the nationality component of identity is fraught with difficulties. Not least because of the inescapable overlap between, and intertwining of, personal and group identity.
Having thus made my excuses in advance, I will venture my personal thoughts on the matter of “Britishness”.
In his very effective rebuttal of Miliband’s suggestion that independence for Scotland would necessarily imply a complete loss of British identity, Pete Wishart identifies two concepts of Britishness. The geographical concept is so glaringly obvious that Miliband’s failure to recognise or acknowledge it can only be described as remarkable. We live on a group of islands known as the British Isles. Therefore we are British in the same sense that Norwegians and Swedes are Scandinavian. This is so obviously true that it is well-nigh impossible to state without quoting a certain anthropomorphic Russian meerkat of TV advertising fame.
The second, infinitely more subtle and potentially problematic, concept identified by Pete Wishart is the idea of “cultural Britishness”. He wisely avoids the pitfall of trying define by reference to concrete things or institutions or abstract personality traits as Miliband and others have attempted to do. Not for him the cricket and warm beer of John Major, far less the supposed stoicism and exceptional sense of “fair play” that others have tried to claim as distinctive and defining British characteristics.
Others still have sought to associate Britishness with institutions such as the British Parliament and the “English NHS” (another Milibandism), in blithe disregard of the planet-weight irony in the fact that the corruption, incompetence and democratic deficiency of the former are leading to the imminent destruction of the latter.
Wishart is on pretty safe ground with the terms in which he describes cultural Britishness.
It is a necessary social construct designed to describe the joint relationship of all the peoples and nations of these islands. With political union within the UK it meant a certain thing; with independence, it will mean something different. Britishness is a fluid concept effectively meaningless but also immensely important. It can mean just about anything and that is why it is so difficult to define.
So far, so good. But there is another concept of Britishness which Pete Wishart fails to identify or address. For me and, I suspect, many others it is the most problematic aspect of all. It is the concept of Britishness as derived from the representation of Britain as a nation. An idea which I totally and unequivocally reject.
Where cultural Britishness is aptly described as a necessary – or at least convenient – social construct, the idea of Britain as a nation is nothing more than an expedient political contrivance. There is no such country as Britain. I cannot be British in the sense of belonging to a country called Britain because that country does not exist. It is an invention. A concoction. A myth.
It is time to stop pretending that the idea of Britain as a nation is anything other than a euphemism for the concept of Greater England. We’re all grown up now. Our politics within the union has surely matured to the point where we can face up to and deal with such truths as the fact that the UK was never really intended to be a “marriage of equals” and, as constituted more than 300 years ago, never had any hope of being so. From England’s perspective the assumption always was that Scotland would pretty much cease to exist. The habitual conflation of Britain and England is more than mere terminological imprecision. It is the underlying concept of Britain as Greater England revealing itself through everyday speech like the traces of archaeological remains revealed by aerial photographs.
I say this without any trace of resentment. It’s just the way things are. As Nelson Mandela so wisely put it, ‘Harbouring resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.’ I just want to acknowledge the reality and move on.
It is hardly necessary to point out that the idea of Greater England never had any currency in Scotland. Even in the guise of Britain, it has never really entirely caught on, tending to occasion apathy if not outright antipathy. The sheer weight and volume of jingoistic propaganda required to sustain a generalised notion of Britain is evidence enough of how tenuous is its hold. It’s not even as if this idea of Greater England was ever widely embraced by the people of England. And it is certain that no more than a handful of Englanders would subscribe to it now. So why does it survive? Who, or what, is served by the artifice of portraying Britain as nation?
The answer to that is, quite simply, the British state. The political establishment. The economic cartels and social cliques of the ruling elite. The inheritors of that power and privilege which derives from, and depends upon, the continued existence of outmoded structures developed in another era for purposes that were never more than marginally concerned with the needs of society as a whole and which have no relevance whatever to the world of the 21st century. In this context, Britishness has more to do with ideology than identity. The profoundly conservative ideology of British nationalism to which all unionists subscribe to at least some extent.
The ideology of Britishness serves a British state whose overarching purpose is the perpetuation of the concept of Britain in order to ensure the preservation of the British state. And, yes! It is all just as circular, self-serving and ultimately pointless as it sounds.
Independence is Scotland’s only hope of escaping this morass and, arguably, the best hope of breaking the stultifying self-perpetuating political hegemony that serves the people of England no better than it does the people of Scotland or any other part of the UK. Scotland’s nationalism is inherently progressive. Iain MacWhirter expresses it as eloquently as I could ever hope to.
Scottish nationalism isn’t a chauvinist movement based on notions of ethnic supremacy or racial exclusivity. It is a constitutional, not an emotional, nationalism with civic objectives not cultural ones. It’s not about identity but about taxation and representation more immediately it is about the Scottish Parliament winning the power to reshape the Scottish economy by gaining fiscal autonomy.
Geographical Britishness is trivial. Cultural Britishness is meaningless. Ideological Britishness is ineluctably and irredeemably regressive. I have no need for any of this. I am content to simply be Scottish – as in a person whose personal identity includes a component informed by the fact that I regard Scotland as the country to which I belong. I will not have notions of Britishness imposed upon me. And I am certainly not about to assert Britishness in order to pander to the political sensitivities of others. I’m Scottish, not British. As far as my personal identity is concerned, Britishness is an entirely redundant concept. I don’t reject Britishness. I simply have no need of it. My identity is complete without it.
Peter A. Bell