Saturday, 10 May 2014

On the difference between a Scottish and British identity

For many people living in Scotland the statement “I’m Scottish” is straightforward and clear cut.  Some Scots maintain that this is their only identity and reject the idea that they are British. Many other Scots are willing to accept that they are both Scottish and British. There is probably a correlation between people who think of themselves as exclusively Scottish and people who intend to vote “Yes” in the independence referendum. But there are, no doubt, also some Scots who feel exclusively Scottish who recognise the benefits of Scotland remaining in the UK. After all, a person doesn’t have to feel particularly European in order to recognise the benefits of the EU. Likewise there will be some Scots who feel partly British who don’t wish Scotland to remain in the UK. Perhaps even Alex Salmond may be one of them.

Identity is a complex matter even for those of us who were born in Scotland and have lived here all our lives. But imagine how much more complex it must be for someone who arrived here from somewhere else relatively recently.  I was thinking about this recently when I came across a comment from someone with an Asian background who found it easier to describe himself as British rather than Scottish. Without doubt there are many people of Asian descent who are happy to describe themselves as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. It’s perfectly reasonable that they should do so. But it’s quite clear that some people who are descended from those who arrived from overseas find it easier to describe themselves as British. Why should this be so? What does it mean to say I am British? Fundamentally it means that I am a British citizen.  The word for people who come from the nation state called the UK is “British” as “United Kingdomer” never took off. It’s for this reason that it always struck me as odd for a Scot to say “I’m not British” as if he was unaware of the nation state where he lived. If you have a UK passport you are by definition British in the same way that if you have a passport from Germany you are a German.  It would be absurd for such a person to say I’m a Saxon; I’m not a German, even if he was in favour of independence for Saxony.

But let’s look at the difference between having a Scottish identity and having a British identity. If a Scot goes to live in England he would usually continue still to think of himself as Scottish. Often his children would continue to think of themselves as Scots even if they were born in England. We tend to use words like “English” and “Scottish” to describe where we were born and who are parents are. Someone may have moved to Scotland from England when he was a small child and lived in Scotland all his adult life, but many Scots would still think of him as English, either because his accent was English, or because of where he was born, or because of where his parents were born. The person who moved to Scotland as a small child may agree or disagree with this assessment, but even if he felt partly Scottish he would be unlikely to feel it in quite the same way as someone who can trace his ancestry back to a clan living amongst the mist and the heather, wearing plaid and speaking Gaelic.  We tend even if unconsciously to associate Scottishness or Englishness with where a person was born and bred, while Britishness is more a matter of citizenship. I think it’s for this reason that some people who were not born and bred in Scotland often prefer to describe themselves as British.

We are lucky that Scotland is a reasonably tolerant country. Both sides of the independence debate are committed to a multicultural Scotland. I’ve long maintained that the SNP deserve great credit for making it clear that Scottish citizenship would be open to anyone and everyone who is a British citizen living in Scotland today. It is this that makes them civic nationalists. However if Scotland did become independent, what would happen to the identity of those who on the census form feel unable to tick a box which includes the word Scottish, but prefer to tick a box with the word British? There must be many people living in Scotland who think of themselves as, for example, Asian British who must be wondering what would happen to my identity in an independent Scotland, who must be concerned about the hostility with which some independence supporters use the word “British”.

At the moment Scottish identity is a little bit too exclusive. It’s important that people living in Scotland must be made to feel that they can be Scottish even if they were not born and bred here. If Scotland becomes an independent country, then Scottishness must be as inclusive as possible. Come to think of it, if Scotland remains part of the UK it would be better if Scottishness could become as inclusive as possible. But whatever happens in the referendum it will take time to make Scottishness a more inclusive identity and acceptance from everyone born and bred here that our identity is for everyone who shares our country. Until then I suspect many people from elsewhere will continue to find Britishness the more inclusive identity.

My feeling of Britishness is because I think of my nation state as the UK. It has nothing whatsoever to do with geography. When someone from Northern Ireland says “I’m British” he is describing his identity and his citizenship, he is not mistakenly supposing that he lives on the island of Great Britain. Meaning is use and no one, but a few nationalists, I think rather insincerely, use the word “British” geographically and no one really thinks such usage would survive independence.

My feeling of Scottishness is different, because although I think of Scotland as my country and my nation, I don’t think of it as my nation state. I don’t want Scotland to become my nation state, because I’m happy for it to remain my nation. Scotland being my nation is not worse than it being my nation state, it’s not inferior but it is different.  Indeed if Scotland became a nation state I would regret the loss of my nation. I would regret the loss of the Scotland I have always known. 

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