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Issue 40 - A question of Britishness

Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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A question of Britishness

The debate that is currently preoccupying the intelligentsia throughout the United Kingdom is the future of ‘Britishness.’ A lot of this has to do with providing 21st century immigrants with a sense of national status through swearing allegiance to the flag of their adopted country, a no doubt commendable practice, but one that has unintentionally highlighted the duality problems faced by all indigenous UK citizens. Are they British first, and Scots, English, Welsh and Irish second? Or do they see themselves as primarily representing their ethnicity within the framework of the British Isles? And does it matter?

It is the same dilemma that many of us encounter when we go abroad and have to fill in a visa application. Are we Scottish or are we British? Most Englishmen, I suspect, will write British. Very few Scots are so inclined, not, I hasten to add, because they are any less proud of belonging to the United Kingdom. It is simply because they appear to have a far stronger sense of their ongoing individual cultural identity. They are Scots first and British second.

Although the topic is featuring more in the English media than in its Scottish counterpart, I recently took part in a BBC Panorama television programme in which a group of eight friends, which included the former father of the House of Commons Tam Dalyell, were invited to a dinner party and asked this exact same question. Did we consider ourselves to be British or Scottish?

Only two of those present chose to be exclusively British, one because she was English born and bred and married to a Scotsman, and the other because she was from India and brought up in Wales.

Which, to my mind, is what the concept of being British is fundamentally all about. However, while the definition looks relatively simple, underlying the smooth veneer of national unity, as our politicians are now discovering, lies a can of worms.

For going on 10 years now Scotland has enjoyed a devolved parliament at Holyrood, but, despite its success, the rumblings over full fiscal independence from Westminster have never gone away. To some extent this was not a problem when the same political party dominated both legislatures, but after a year with the Scottish National Party in power in Scotland, albeit with a minority administration, Westminster politicians, notably our Scottish-born British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, are becoming edgy. But trying to impose a composite, all-embracing British identity in the hope that it will save the Union is not the answer.

One of the more unfortunate initiatives of a British Government Minister in recent months was when he proposed that the annual Summer Bank holiday held on 25th August should be designated British Day, a suggestion that was hastily retracted when it was pointed out that this was not a holiday in Scotland.

Somebody should have done their homework. Scotland is different from England. We have our own legal system, our own kirk, and 69,510 of us even speak a different language.

Albeit, so far as the majority of those domiciled in Scotland are concerned, defending our nationality is not a subject to lose any sleep over because we understand our history. Because so many of us are interrelated through family and our everyday lives, we know who we are, and, despite rumours to the contrary, we by and large rub along pretty well with England. Otherwise, why would there be just as many Scots living and working in the Home Counties and the City of London as there are living and working north of Berwickupon- Tweed. I wonder what they write on their visa applications?

Furthermore, Scots were also at the forefront of creating the British Empire, and when that Empire faded its legacy was the sparkling multi-culturalism and diversity it brought to our shores.

As with America, Canada and Australia, the influx of settlers from overseas continues to enrich us in much the same way as the Viking, Saxon and Norman invasions of 900 years ago.

In the course of our Panorama television conversation, the presenter Vivian White asked Jameela, our Indian friend, how she defined being British and living in Scotland. “Me,” she said.

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