Saturday, 8 December 2012

Taking wings from reality, or, nationalism's failure to understand the concept of both/and

I came across a nationalist blog recently arguing that it was not possible to be both Scottish and British. If I had not found someone actually making this argument, I would hardly have considered formulating a counter argument as I would have thought I was open to the charge of arguing against a straw man. It looks however, as if this view is seriously entertained and so it should be addressed. The essence of the argument seems to be that in a crisis situation, when push comes to shove, Scots would be forced to choose between being Scottish or British. Thus, for example,  if there were a disputed independence referendum result, which unionists and the rest of the UK refused to accept, there could be a civil war situation, which would force everyone in Scotland to choose sides. It would in this context be impossible to be both British and Scottish.
 
Incidentally, I remember a certain Lord Fraser of Carmyllie being vehemently attacked and described as if he were some sort of loon for imagining a scenario where England bombed Scottish airports. In fact, Lord Fraser’s scenario of a foreign power at war with England taking over Scotland’s airports, forcing England to bomb them, would most certainly have occurred if Nazi Germany had tried to seize such airports in 1940. The French likewise bombed their own airports in occupied France between 1914 and 1918. Such a scenario is in fact much more likely than the UK descending into civil war over a disputed independence referendum. Most Scots, apart from a few on the extreme fringes, just don’t care that much about the result of the independence referendum one way or the other. However much I want the Union to continue, I would far rather Scotland were independent than that there were a civil war over this matter.

Nevertheless, let’s explore the issue of civil war in relation to the concept of choosing one’s identity. In 1861 there began a civil war involving a country which formed a union of states. Virginia was one of the states which decided to secede from the United States. Many Virginians were at that time in the US Army and faced a choice. Most chose to join the army of the Confederacy, but some chose to remain loyal to the army they were already serving. Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union Army, was against secession, but with great reluctance chose to follow his state Virginia, becoming probably America’s most revered soldier and general by serving the South. On the other hand, Virginian George H. Thomas remained with the Union army, possibly owing to his Northern wife, served with distinction throughout the war and gained lasting fame as the “Rock of Chickamauga” by saving the union army from a rout.

In civil wars people face incredibly difficult decisions, which divide families and can lead to permanent estrangement and lasting acrimony. But let’s look at the issue in terms of identity. Robert E. Lee and George H. Thomas served in different armies, chose different sides in The Civil War, but both remained Virginians. After the war finished both equally were citizens of the United States. They did not lose their identity as either Southerners or Virginians, because of the difficult choices they were forced to make. Of course, some people called out traitor to the one or to the other, but when a man follows his conscience he does not listen to such slander.

In the hypothetical example of a genuine dispute between Scotland and  the rest of the UK, there might be Scots who thought the secession of Scotland unjustified. They might think for instance that the referendum result had been fixed, or had been obtained by means of subterfuge. In the same way that some people from the Southern states fought for the Union, and some from the North fought for the Confederacy, it might, in this British Civil War, turn out to be the case that some English people would fight for Scottish secession, while some Scots would fight for the Union. But Scots who fought for either side would still be Scots. They would simply be  Scots who had  followed their consciences in different ways. Of course, we’ve had this situation in the British Isles before. When Ireland chose to secede, some Irish people chose to remain loyal to the United Kingdom. But both those who remained in the UK and those who left, remained Irish. Identity is not something that a person loses because he chooses one side or another in a civil war.

Let’s take another example. Imagine Scotland voted for independence, but a part of Scotland, for example Fife, chose to vote for independence from Scotland. There might be conflict. Some Fifers might want to stay loyal to Scotland, some Scots outside of Fife might try to prevent Fife from seceding by force of arms. People in Fife would have to make choices, but whichever choice they made, no matter which side they fought for, such people would remain both Fifers and Scots.

The idea that you can’t be both a Scot and British if true would mean that someone could not be both a Bavarian and a German, a Sicilian and an Italian. There are any number of nation states in Europe and the world which are made up of countries which formerly were independent. To say to these people, I’m sorry you’re mistaken, you can’t be both Norman and French, you have to choose, is to say something that would be met with genuine bemusement. Normandy was once an independent country and it had a great history, including being quite successful as an invader of one of its neighbours. Only a tiny number of Normans however, would maintain that they are Norman and not French. For a person to seriously claim that he was a Norman and not French, would be to invite derision as if I had delusions of being William the Conqueror. It should equally invite derision for person to claim he is Scottish and not British, as if he wanted to play at being William Wallace.

The claim that someone can not be both Scottish and British goes against the experience of millions of Scots, who feel both identities. The fact that some Scots out of warped patriotism have chose to reject their British identity, does not change the experience of the rest of us. We love our country, and count it to be both Britain and Scotland. It is the love of both these things, which makes civil war in the UK unthinkable. This is the case for apart from the few who would create division, nearly everyone realises that in a British Civil War we would be fighting against ourselves.

Duck-rabbit_illusion

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