Scottish Independence: Britishness

One of the most frequent observations made about Scottish independence is the claim that it would be the end of British identity.

I’ve had more than a few discussions with people from across Britain who say they feel British and therefore oppose independence for Scotland because it would end Britain and end Britishness, forcing people to choose between the nations it comprises.

My response to this is always the same – the name of the country on your passport is nothing to do with your nationality. If you feel a certain nationality, no political decision can ever change that.

Having reflected on the matter a bit more in recent weeks as the long road to the referendum is now opened up, not only do I remain convinced that independence will not harm British identity, but I also believe that it could potentially strengthen it greatly.

Britishness – not just unharmed…

Firstly, let’s look at that difference between legal citizenship and nationality in a bit more depth. I find it absurd that people wouldn’t be able to feel British if Scotland became independent. Britishness is a multi-national identity, reaching across Scotland, England and Wales and is more of a regional identity akin to being Scandinavian, Baltic or Iberian.

Since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a persistent minority of inhabitants of some of its successor states have continued to describe themselves in censuses as “Yugoslav” rather than as, say, Serbian. There’s all sorts of arguments to be had about the political, ethnic and historic reasons as to why that might be, but the point is as long as there remain people who identify with that old country and want to call themselves “Yugoslav” then the concept as an identity will always exist. The word means, after all, “southern Slav”, and southern Slavs didn’t just disappear when Yugoslavia ceased to be a country.

Similarly, Britishness will continue as long as there is someone out there who calls themselves “British”. Even if Scotland, England and Wales were not just wrought from each other constitutionally but literally removed from the face of the earth, a visit to Northern Ireland, Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands would assure you that the idea of being British lives strongly on.

And it’s not just Britishness that will live on, but Britain itself. People talk melodramatically about the independence movement wanting to “break up Britain”. But Britain is a geographical and cultural concept that has already transcended borders. As a collection of islands – including one large one – off the coast of mainland Europe, Britain has existed for millennia before the Unions of the Crowns and Parliaments, so if either of those unions are dissolved it will continue to exist as a group of islands that contain Scotland, England and Wales.

On the point of Britishness, take another illustration, Scotland. Most people here call themselves Scottish – often in addition to other nationalities, such as British, but most are Scottish all the same. If Scottishness can exist (and very healthily and vibrantly, too) without a corresponding Scottish state, why on earth can’t Britishness survive without a British state?

And if I was to quibble, I’d say there isn’t a British state anyway. We live in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a union composed therefore of British people on the one hand and Northern Irish people (it was the Irish as a whole prior to the republic’s independence) on the other. The whole is not in itself British, but a combination of British and Northern Irish. Sure, most Northern Irish people would claim a British identity on all sorts of strong cultural and historical foundations, but as a matter of geographical fact they are not British. The fact, therefore, that we are able to muddle the UK and call the whole thing “British” demonstrates the strength of British identity in the absence of a strictly corresponding state.

Looking further afield, there are plenty other stateless nations for whose people the identity remains strong. Just look at the Kurds, Afrikaaners, Uighurs or Chechens – nations of people who exist, and have existed for centuries, as a people without a state. Their lack of state does nothing to stop their identity existing, and the oppression those nations have arguably been subjected to over the centuries has done nothing to remove that identity from the people.

The same is the case with Scotland, and the same has been and will be the case with Britain and Britishness. If anyone fears for their Britishness with an independent Scotland, it suggests that their Britishness is not a very strong one, rooted only in the constitutional status quo rather than something more heartfelt and meaningful.

…but enhanced?

That’s not to say that issues of identity have no place in the pros or cons of Scottish independence, or that there will be no impact on identity if Scotland does become independent. Indeed, as I said above, I think it’s perfectly possible that independence could enhance Britishness. Here’s my thinking.

Britishness has – rightly or wrongly – been tied up with various connotations, such as colonialism and imperialism, a mistrust of foreigners, and violence such as that of the far right or loyalist terrorists in Ireland. Of course, there are many more good facets to Britishness than the bad, and I’m not one of those Scottish nationalists who regards Britishness as a myth.

There is much that makes us British beyond the existence of the United Kingdom: there’s our shared love of curry, beer, football and talking about the weather; our stoic and dry sense of humour; our healthy cynicism towards attempts at authority; and of course our shared languages. Using these and other positives, it’s time to shed the negative aspects of the image and redefine Britishness as something more about a broad basis of cooperation between good neighbours, rather than something imposed upon grumpy, claustrophic housemates.

Britishness could be defined in a post-independence world as a basis for cooperation between two sovereign countries (or three, if England and Wales ever part company), with scope for joint work on culture, environment or any number of other shared concerns. A model of this lies in the British-Irish Council, an institution borne of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland but an idea that had for years been SNP policy for a post-independence Britain.

The Nordic Council is another example. Through it, Nordic nations cooperate on matters of mutual concern but without attempting to rule each other.

Britishness could be something we share and shape equally, respectfully and voluntarily. It could be a Britishness that we could soon come to be very proud of. A Britishness very different to today’s.

Simon Varwell
Travel Writer and Photographer