Man walks into a column, no.20: Britain

Some of my friends are Scottish. One of my best friends is Scottish. Over the years he and I have almost come to blows on a number of occasions about the topic of Scottish independence. That’s not strictly true: what actually happens is that he is provoked to the verge of hitting me by my point of view. With friends like that, eh?

What annoys my tartan chum so much is that I would be perfectly content for the Scots to go their own way. This causes waves of William Wallace-esque rage to course through the veins of my usually emollient pal because, primarily, he thinks I am showing lack of regard for our shared cultural, political, military etc. heritage (he seems to be missing the point that for every battle our respective countrymen fought together, there are at least two or three we waged against each other).

The problem is I do not feel ‘British’, whatever that means. To be honest I don’t feel particularly ‘English’ either. I guess if anything I feel like a Londoner: it’s this wonderful city where I now live that most frequently provokes a sense of pride and belonging. First and foremost I feel like a Swindoner, thanks to the town I (have no choice but to) call my own.

I suppose it changes a bit depending on the context, although even during a football match I wouldn’t say I felt particularly ‘English’. Unlike David Mitchell (writing in The Observer) I never, ever feel British. Perhaps it’s because my family is exclusively south and east of the borders, and my holidays as a child were invariably in Devon. I also think, along with Billy Bragg, that the whole concept of Britain is past its sell-by-date:

As we experience it now, Britishness is fundamentally a 19th-century concept based on an imperial world view. The British among us are a people who believe that there is only one culture in our society, a sense of tradition which can be summed up in the phrase Queen and Country.

Maintaining a sense of history, of tradition, is absolutely vital; sure. But historic ties shouldn’t be a straightjacket either. Given how far devolution has already gone, the sensible thing would be to turn Westminster into an English parliament. Of course this is unlikely to happen any time soon: as the AV referendum showed, we are not a people (peoples?) prone to hasty decisions.

You’re unlikely to find me actively agitating for change, either: there are bigger fish to fry. But given the choice I would opt for separation. Apart from anything else I think a smaller state would be more befitting of our status in the world, dramatically shrunk since the age of empire and the world wars. It would stop us from always trying to punch above our weight and then feeling impotent when we fail.

The trove that is openDemocracy – ten years old! – is running a series on ‘The Scottish Spring’ which is worth following, I think. A recent piece, in response to David Mitchell, has Gareth Young arguing that:

If the way to a new understanding of British identity is to forge a Little England nationalism that replaces the Anglo-British nationalism of a faded imperial power, then yes, let’s reimagine Britain as a multinational, consensual, union of partner nations with an English nationalism that complements the nationalisms of Scotland and Wales.

I agree right up until the bit about ‘union of partner nations’. What, I ask, is the point in preserving a union that belongs to another age?


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