Callum Macdonald: It’s Time We Face The Difference Between Britishness And The British State

In a week in which coverage of the independence campaign has been dominated by haranguing over currency, as the No camp took their fixation with Salmond to cultish extremes, an important dimension of the debate has somewhat slipped under the radar. Over the last couple of years the Yes movement, particularly its grassroots components, have been keen to stress that this debate should not be misunderstood as one primarily about identity. In light of some recent developments it is a point worth reiterating and exploring further, particularly in relation to notions of “Britain” and “Britishness”, and what these represent.

Last week we witnessed the most co-ordinated lovebombing yet in the shape of “Let’s Stay Together”, a letter to Scotland signed by over 200 British celebrities headed by Dan Snow (above). Meanwhile, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey announced findings that since 2011 the number of people living in Scotland who picked British as their national identity had  risen from 15% to 23%, while the proportion of people choosing Scottish fell from 75% to 65%, which most media outlets used as evidence to support the view that Yes is losing ground. While the figures perhaps suggest that the sense of “Britishness” of those in the No camp has been reinforced by the campaign to keep Scotland in the union, in my experience identity and voting intentions are more nuanced than this Scottish v. British dichotomy suggests. While identity will undeniably influence the way many people vote, even at a subconscious level, there is no doubt that overriding democratic and political concerns motivate many people more than the extent to which they feel Scottish, British, neither, or both.

After all, “Great Britain” is the geographical term for the island that includes the three nations of England, Scotland, and Wales. Personally, I will still consider myself “British” in a general sense after the referendum, regardless of the outcome, much in the same way as people from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark consider themselves “Scandinavian”. Other Yes voters might not share this identity, and that’s fine; “Great Britain” obviously has connotations, many of them negative, that transcend apolitical geographic place-names. In an independent Scotland, the name we use to define our commonality and shared history and culture with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (and indeed the rest of the world) will be less important than acknowledging and preserving its existence. Call it the North Atlantic archipelago or whatever else, the point is Scotland will remain a part of these islands and we will continue to share unique bonds and a close relationship with family and friends across them.

But why should that justify a political union if it’s failing to benefit its constituent parts? Why should that justify sharing a highly centralised government, based 300 miles from the Scottish border, that has in the last 35 years systematically privatised key industries and the welfare state, led us into illegal wars despite overwhelmingly public resistance, and induced the most widespread democratic malaise probably since universal suffrage? What’s most striking about the “Let’s Stay Together” intervention is the complete lack of attempt to grapple with why many people in Scotland support independence, beyond the lazy assumption that “they must not like us very much.” It’s substance-free fluff, devoid of any political content whatsoever.

“But remember Team GB! London 2012!” they cry, as if the fact that it was nice seeing Mo Farah win should be considered a compelling argument. Why not just support each other’s athletes anyway, as some friends have told me they do across Scandinavia? (That might sound a bit idealistic, but look at the positive reception English athletes got at the Commonwealth Games.) And just as people from Scandinavia can live and work in each other’s countries without a passport or a visa, there’s no reason why that will be any different across Britain after a Yes vote. The problem is not with “Britain”, or English people, it’s with the United Kingdom and its dysfunctional institutions and imbalance of political and economic power. A Yes vote will fundamentally challenge that, and all these celebs with their cosy notions of Scotland will still be welcome here afterwards.

With just five weeks left to go, I think Yes campaigners need to stress these points to folk who are convinced by the many political arguments for independence but are reluctant to vote Yes purely because they “feel British.” The SNP has at times in the past and during the campaign been accused of adopting an unhelpful “us and them” kind of attitude, and in the case of a few of their less tactful, more “nationalistic” MSPs, that has occasionally been true. Yet Nicola Sturgeon has regularly insisted that for her, the debate is not about identity. At a Yes event last December, she said:

“I represent a constituency in Glasgow where if you asked somebody randomly on the street what their national identity is, they are as likely to say Pakistani, or Irish, or Polish than they would they are to say Scottish or British or European. What we are seeking to end is the parliamentary union, the political union, we are not seeking to end the social union, or the cultural union.”

Sturgeon went on to state she has “attachments to aspects of British identity,” and that Scotland would seek to preserve and strengthen interdependencies with other parts of the UK post-independence. Whether or not you like her as a politician, her sincerity is not in doubt.  These reflections will not be new to many people, but I’m not sure whether at this late stage they been widely enough received in the campaign.

In a segment on Scotland 2014 a couple of weeks ago, MSP Pete Wishart attempted to put that message across,emphasising that the crux of the matter is political autonomy, and getting the governments that we vote for. Willie Rennie immediately jumped on this, demanding to know who Wishart meant by “we”. In this terrain the debate becomes ultimately philosophical – which “imagined community”, to go by Benedict Anderson’s definition, do we see as best suited to provide a good quality of life for its citizens? This touches on the point made this week by another English celeb offering their tuppence, the ubiquitous Russell Brand, who advocated independence because he supports power devolved as locally as possible, but warned against loyalty to imaginary concepts.

Of course he’s correct that nations are social constructs, but ultimately “Scotland” is no less arbitrary than any other country. British nationalism is no less arbitrary than Scottish nationalism. If the unionist alternative truly embraced a borderless world of no nation-states, then this logic might be more valid. Patently it does not, so the issue instead is not the existence of the nation-state but how well it works for the people who live there and how it relates to the rest of the world. Virtually no one on either side of the campaign would refute that Scotland is a country in its own right, therefore its claims to statehood and self-determination are no less divisive than those of any other country, especially when it is regularly ruled by a government that very few of its citizens voted for, imposing policies which decimate communities. If sharing a government with its much larger neighbour had a recent track record of improving the lives of the people of Scotland, to say nothing of those in the rUK, then fuzzy assertions of “unity” and brazenly hypocritical allusions to post-nationalism might hold some ground.

In reality, however, it is the status quo which perpetuates division. This is a state united only in name; where the five richest families are wealthier than the bottom  20% of the entire population; where asylum seekers and refugees are met with dawn raids and “Go Home” vans; where the government’s rampant austerity agenda continues to punish the poor for the crimes committed by a cocooned wealthy elite. Recent forecasts indicate that by the end of this decade, at least 65,000 more children in Scotland will have fallen below the breadline, despite Labour’s pledge in 1999 to eradicate child poverty by 2020. In Glasgow today, city-wide child poverty levels stand at 33%; in Glasgow North East it is 43%. Meanwhile, the city continues to be blighted by the notorious “Glasgow effect” –– with mortality rates the highest in the UK and among the highest in Europe (male life expectancy in some parts of the city is in the fifties).

The fact that other cities in the UK have similar problems is not a reason to stay. Radical change is needed to address these chronic ills, and it’s very hard to see that happening within the current structure. In the last fifteen years opportunities to restructure democracy in the UK have come and gone. Promises to reform the unelected House of Lords never materialised, the referendum to (modestly) change the voting system was rejected, and the opportunity to devolve additional, if limited, powers to the most northerly councils of England was overwhelmingly passed up. It’s time to try something different. Independence is the best chance in generations to transform politics in our part of the world, and one we might not get again for a long time.

For some people across the rUK there might be a visceral, negative reaction to Scottish independence for the first few years. Ordinary folk who, unlike Dan Snow and co, are also victims of the UK state, might initially feel jilted. But if it leads to some soul-searching across Britain that could be necessary, and in the long-run, a good thing. England especially needs to reconnect with the positive aspects of its own history, politics, and culture, without it being couched in a watered-down, all-encompassing “Britain”, which tends to basically just mean England anyway. Meanwhile, future Scottish society should seek to maintain the shared aspects of its history and culture with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, whether that is defined as “British” or not. For instance, the Scottish history curriculum should include the role played by Scots in building and strengthening the British Empire, as well as our mutual experiences in World War Two and the building of the postwar welfare state.

It will be up to all of us, whichever way the vote goes, but especially if it is Yes, to work co-operatively and amicably to preserve and strengthen our bonds with the remaining countries of Britain. Solidarity with the rest of these islands can be expressed by showing that another way is possible, leading by example with a more devolved and democratic structure. New proposals to radically strengthen Scotland’s local democracy as a means of building a more equal society are a step in the right direction, and will be crucial in ensuring that change goes beyond merely the location of our central government.

Callum Macdonald
National Collective

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About Callum Macdonald

Callum Macdonald lives in Glasgow and is studying a masters in History. He is originally from Edinburgh and is a member of the Scottish Green Party.