Scottish/British – The False Choice

Time and time again I find myself reflecting on the notion of Britishness against the backdrop of the Scottish independence referendum.

Not because I feel that Britishness and British identity is somehow relevant to the debate; in fact, I dwell on it precisely because the concept is irrelevant to the debate and yet many insist on crowbarring it into proceedings.

This is, after all, a debate about where power will lie and where decisions will be taken, and not a debate about what our identity is – something that referendums can  never have any substantial impact on.

I’ve argued in the past, for instance, that no aspect of Britishness, other than the passport, is under threat from independence, and indeed that Britishness could flourish post-independence.

Yet many people on the No side insist on repeating the mantra that independence would force a choice between being Scottish and British, and that being a part of the UK allows us to be both. Just recently, Alistair Darling, chair of the Better Together campaign, argued that:

A great number of people are proud to be Scottish and proud to be British and they want to know why they have to choose between them. They don’t want to choose between them.”

His party leader, Ed Miliband, has also got in on the act, last year saying:

In Scotland, the narrow nationalists of the SNP pose a false choice. They ask: are you Scottish or British? I say you can be both.”

I genuinely do not understand this. Why would there be a forced choice post-independence between the two identities, but not just now within the UK?

And, more importantly, how precisely would this choice manifest itself? How, never mind why, would an independent Scottish Government enforce it? By doing surveys? By asking people to renounce passports? By evicting anyone who felt British from the new Scotland? Is that honestly what the No camp believe might happen? If so, they are in a terrifyingly deluded place.

Of course, it’s all hypothetical, because no such choice will be desirable, required or indeed faintly possible. That’s because identity is a personal, collective thing that has next to nothing to do with what country you’re a citizen of. After all, as Alistair Darling says, people feel Scottish and British just now – and if identity depended on where you held citizenship, then nobody would call themselves Scottish.

Let’s take the example of Darling’s fellow No traveller, my local MP Danny Alexander. In a recent defence of Britain’s interests in the European Union, he said:

I am a Highlander, a proud Scot, a patriotic Brit and a European. In a modern outward looking country these identities work together, and we are stronger because they do.”

It’s great stuff, because I would say the same thing. I too am a Highlander, Scot, Brit and European, all to very much greater or lesser extents. Identity is a wonderful thing precisely because of its diversity and patchwork nature.

But let’s try to pigeonhole these types of identity, just for a moment, into three categories:

Sub-state identities – that is, identities that are geographically smaller and narrower than the country of which we hold citizenship. In this category, I’d put labels like Invernessian, Highlander, Scot and others.

State identity – this is the one identity we have through being a citizen of a country. In my case, obviously (and we’ll leave aside the UK/Britain pedantry for the moment), that is British.

Supra-state identities – these are identities that we share with others beyond our national borders. I’d claim European, Esperantist (it’s more than a language – it’s a global identity), perhaps even human, white person, male, and Christian.

The point of that list is to show that whatever country you live in, whatever your state of citizenship is, you’ll always have identities that are above and below the level of that citizenship. None of those identities, if sincerely held, can be disputed or removed. Indeed, attempts to do so are often likely to strengthen them.

So why the false choice between Scottish and British after independence? The No camp are basically arguing that the following scenario is possible…

Highlander, Scottish 



…but the following scenario is impossible:



British, European

Can someone please explain why?

Simon Varwell
National Collective 


There are 13 comments

  1. DavidHalliday

    If you can be Scottish and British in a British state then you can be Scottish and British in a Scottish state.

  2. Kate

    Tito worked very hard to create a pan-Yugoslavian ‘national’ identity. It didn’t work very well ultimately. You can’t make people feel a national identity they don’t feel. As you say, it’s about personal identity. In that light, it is fascinating to watch what is happening in Macedonia where they are (much to the annoyance of Greece) trying to create a national identity based on antiquity. It’s yet to be seen if it will succeed, of if Macedonians will continue to define themselves as Serbs, Albanians, Bulgars, etc.

    1. Simon Varwell

      An interesting comparison, Kate. And yes, people throughout that corner of Europe are deciding their identities for themselves, quite often entirely separately from what their governments or passports might tell them.

      Mind you, there are a small number of people in the former Yugoslav states that do still define themselves as “Yugoslav” in censuses. It does, after all, mean just “southern Slav”, which by definition many of them are. It’s all part of the patchwork of identities, and is another comparison for the lingering Britishness we can choose to feel (and geographically will have by default) post-independence.

  3. karenbirch

    Really interesting article Simon. I agree that the choice is about
    governance; where the power lies. That being the case I think decisions
    should be made as near to the communities affected by that decision as
    is reasonably possible. I also agree that a false choice is being
    mooted by the No campaign and, it follows, a similar falsehood is being
    voiced by some in the Yes camp i.e. that you can’t be truly Scottish
    unless you vote for independance. I’m wondering, though, where I would
    fit on your sub-state, state, supra-state. I was born in England and
    have built a home and businesses here in Scotland for nearly 25 years. I
    don’t see myself as English but neither do I qualify as Scottish. Would my sub-state be English and my state Scottish? Answers on a postcard :0)

    1. Simon Varwell

      Hi Karen. Surely one’s identity is what you perceive yourself to be but also about the facts of the situation. So I’d say you’re (in part) Scottish, just as DI MacDonald above is also (in part) British, whether he likes it or not, both by virtue of geographical default.

      So to answer your question, I’d say you could rightly claim both Scottish and English as sub-state identities (alongside, presumably, other regional/local identities). If we become independent, Scottish would move up a level to become your state identity.

      Identity is and should be inclusive – there should be no kicking people out of certain circles.

  4. Eilif Gustafson

    Two words, WE’RE HUMAN! Well, that’s sort of three words. But anyway my point is as human beings we only have ONE identity. Unless you’re Dr Jekyll of course and in some ways that wouldn’t surprise me of certain unionists! We have one identity but with many tags to attach to it whatever side of the debate we’re on.

    The big question is what tags do we use and when? Well I think most Scots travelling round the world even if they’re pro-union are going to put, in the nationality section of a visitor form, “Scottish” without any permutations, if they have the choice to write what they like that is. Why? Because Scotland is more specific than Britain and most people should know where Scotland is and if many don’t that is truly bad news. If we regard Scotland as being a British nation (ie. part of United Kingdom OR Great Britain) then we should be able to say we are British simply by saying we are Scottish. Otherwise this so-called partnership of nations is highly Anglo-centric as demonstrated by the considerable interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’ south of the border!

    Put simply in terms that politicians can understand, the difference between being Scottish and being British is a bit like the difference between being in the House of Commons and being in the Houses of Parliament. You’ve already said you’re in the Houses of Parliament by saying you’re in the House of Commons. Of course it doesn’t quite work the other way round but you get the picture.

    The main reason why we might need to use the term British is if we can’t identify something or someone as specifically English, Scottish or Welsh and that’s relevant on many occasions. But otherwise the individual national terms should be enough.

    So I would say – Scottish THUS British.

  5. D.I. MacDonald

    begs the question why you would want to identify as British post-independence? Except for the loose geographic definition (which excludes Ireland), the only connotations I can think of for British is that repulsive jingoistic nationalism that characterizes the far-right in England. I would happily call myself primarily Scottish and half-English by blood (as my mother is English), but British??! Britishness is an identity sculpted by 18th and 19th century Imperialism to transform Scotland into a subjugated unCeltic North Britain…

  6. rod mac

    If the status quo remains post 2014 (god forbid) and in 2017 Westminster takes us out of European Union.
    Does this mean we cease to be European any longer?

    1. Simon Varwell

      By the logic of the No camp, yes we would. But culturally and geographically it would be an absurdity to say so. Even ardent withdrawalists who hate the EU still maintain that they do not hate “Europe” (whether not not they’re telling the truth is another matter, I suppose).

  7. Ru Pringle

    Hi Simon, hope it’s not nit-picking to point out Britain isn’t a country, nation or other geo-political unit: it’s a geographical entity (an island). In the light of this I can’t see any issue with a dual British/Scottish(or English, or Welsh) identity. Everyone who stays in Britain is both by default.

    The UK on the other hand is geopolitical: a ‘sovereign state’ comprising (predominantly) 3 countries (Wales, England, Scotland) plus a territory (NI).

    This distinction’s important, although even most political commentators apparently don’t get it – I suspect because the UK’s geopolitical circumstances are unique, complex, and anomalous. Added to which the term ‘citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue!
    Perhaps this terminological mess is at the root of most of the world saying ‘England’ or ‘English’ when they mean either Britain or the UK, and even well-versed commentators using ‘Britain’ and ‘the UK’ as synonyms.

    I’ve never met a Briton who’d consider England a region. Nor – before reading this post – a Scot (including Scots specialising in international law) who’d consider Scotland a region. However, I’ve met countless people living in England who do consider Scotland a region – as has almost everyone from overseas I’ve talked to about it (all but a very well-informed minority are convinced it’s a region of England, exactly like Yorkshire or Surrey… something it’s easy to get a feel for by filling out commercial webforms drawn up in e.g. the US).

    At the same time, you hear people all over Britain referring to the UK (or Britain) as ‘the country’ in one sentence, then English/Scottish/Welsh sports teams as ‘national’ the next. So, are England, Scotland and Wales nations from which the UK is composed, or is it the UK that’s a nation containing 3 regions which used to be nations? It can’t be both. And if we’re confused, perhaps it’s no wonder the rest of the world is.

    Scotland is a non-sovereign nation under centralised state government which, by historical accident, happens to be in London rather than Edinburgh (many seem to forget the Union resulted from a Scot taking the English throne). Just as the European parliament happens to be in Brussels (curiously we don’t hear about the UK being part of Belgium…). The fact Scotland’s widely regarded as a region of England undoubtedly contributes to the desire of many for self-rule. And why not? Surely anyone who lives anywhere – Scotland, England, or 21 Royal Oak Avenue, Vancouver – has the right to be correctly identified?

    The effects of this go way beyond cultural confidence and notions of identity: they directly undermine Scotland’s brand. Scotland is virtually invisible to world trade. Because of this wholesale mis-identifying of Scotland’s status, it’s the English brand and image (as distinct from British/UK) that enjoys much of the benefit of Scotland’s overseas trade. This is something I see in action every time I work selling a (recognisably) Scottish product in mainland Europe.

    More accurate reporting of the status quo by institutions that should
    know better (e.g. the BBC), and spreading the word that England, Britain
    and the UK are not the same thing, might be a big step towards addressing
    some of these issues – as well as better informing arguments I’ve been hearing from both sides regarding Independence.

    1. Simon Varwell

      Broadly speaking, Ru, I agree. Britishness existed before the union (when Britain was not a country in any arguable sense) and will do afterwards: only without its perception as English in much of the rest of the world, as you suggest.

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