The Battle for Britishness

By Stephen Bowman

Last September I was interviewed on the radio by BBC Newcastle as part of a feature they were doing to mark the countdown to this year’s Scottish independence referendum. The one question that I wish I had answered differently was when they asked me whether I felt British. To my own surprise, I said yes. What I should really have said was, ‘yes, but…’

Even though I’m habitually somebody who refuses to identify myself as ‘White British’ on things like equal opportunities forms as a means of protesting against the Union and Scotland’s place within it, it occurred to me – having lived in England for over two years now – that it would be churlish not to accept that I do share some social and cultural affinities with the other residents of the British Isles, just as I do with my fellow Europeans. A man’s a man, and all that: my Scottish nationality isn’t threatened. That’s what I was trying to get at on the radio, but I’m not sure that that’s how it came across. Rather, by saying that I felt British, I implied a whole lot of other things, most of which I would argue are negative. For example, is Britishness not characterised by monarchism, empire, militarism (see David Cameron’s now infamous Olympic Park speech), neoliberalism, anti-immigrant UKIP, and institutionalised Protestantism? Perhaps not exclusively, but they are surely constituent parts of a dominant version of Britishness that seems to have changed little in the post-Second World War period, if not longer. To this version I don’t identify.

Britishness is also Anglo-centric, while perceptions of Englishness are themselves London-centric: not just in relation to government and the economy, but also culturally and politically. This is manifest partly in UKIP’s lack of success in Scotland compared to England, and by the fact that the political debate sparked by UKIP is interpreted as the most pressing issue in British politics. The Anglo-centrism of Britishness has also been commented on by the historian Colin Kidd, who has argued that this was partly a product of the eighteenth-century Scottish intellectuals who – in the years after 1707 – renamed Scotland as North Britain, and who identified with the founding myths of English, not Scottish, constitutional history. This has meant that a genuine pan-British identity was never established and that Britain, and versions of Britishness, have tended to be England, and versions of Englishness, writ large. Today, this is a Britishness and an Englishness that worries about foreign immigrants and the EU. It is also a Britishness that – across the political spectrum – is indifferent to, and ill-informed about, Scottish independence. This was evident this week in Owen Jones’s lazy article in The Independent, which articulated ostensibly legitimate leftist questions about the nature of nationalism (questions which now seem little more than excuses for not doing anything real to achieve progressive change), and which argued that, rather than pursuing independence, Scottish workers and political activists should stand in solidarity with their English colleagues. Of course they should, but it’s a strange sort of socialist internationalism that relies on the existence of a Union that is increasingly leaning to the right and which is on the verge of cutting itself out of the EU.

So what would a truly pan-British identity really look like? For one, it would recognise, and genuinely come to terms with, the regional and national nuances that exist in the British Isles. If Owen Jones had done this, his article would’ve reflected much more accurately the complexities of the independence debate, not least the roles played by groups like the Radical Independence Campaign, the SSP, the Commonweal project and Labour for Independence, and, indeed, the high-profile Labour converts to Yes, like Alex Mosson. In so doing, Jones would’ve understood that Scottish independence is increasingly regarded as the only realistic alternative to Westminster politics, including by Labour voters, and that it is not necessarily about nationalism. Within the Union, meanwhile, a pan-Britishness could also mean giving the same attention to the annual Scottish school exam results on the BBC News as is given to A-Levels and GCSEs, or by sports coverage that does not prioritise English football highlights over Scottish. But at present viewers in Scotland are fed an homogenous broadcasting output that ignores or misrepresents their own experience. Nor would an authentic Britishness allow for the ‘them and us’ rhetoric so shamefully demonstrated by Katie Hopkins and others during the debate on Scottish independence in an episode of Channel Five’s The Wright Stuff back in November. These things might seem mundane, but the importance of broadcasting was recognised by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, established by the Scottish Government in 2007.

A pan-British identity would also accept that the people of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester and Cardiff can identify with each other without reference to London, and without reference to the Union Flags adorning the Mall. In other words, Britishness need not have anything to do with Unionism. This would open doors rather than close them. Once Unionism is removed from Britishness, then the power of Westminster is diminished. When that happens, the peoples of these islands can look at what really connects them. Places like the North of England may indeed begin to look to Edinburgh for political and ideological synergies. Something of this was suggested by last year’s Borderlands report, compiled by academics at Northumbria and Durham universities. With Westminster’s privatisation of the NHS and its continuing assault on the welfare state, is it not socially democratic Scotland – united in its opposition to the bedroom tax and committed to free health care – that stands between neoliberal reform and these two positive legacies of Britishness?

So if it is accepted that Britishness need not be defined by Westminster politics, then all those jokey statements about the North of England joining an independent Scotland seem a little bit more realistic. That said, I have no doubt that people in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland feel English and that there is no real appetite for secession. But that isn’t necessarily because of Britishness. After Scottish independence, there is the possibility of greater cross-border co-operation and solidarity based on mutual priorities. This doesn’t need to be done with reference to London, and could be all the more British for not doing so.

In a week that David Cameron made an appeal for Scotland to vote no based on his notion of a shared Britishness, perhaps it’s time to ask what it is that Britishness should really mean. Just as Scottishness has been defined and redefined across the course of the Union’s existence – to the point that it now seems synonymous with a progressive and enlightened political culture – then so can Britishness morph into something better. Britishness doesn’t need to mean monarchy, empire or UKIP. Nor does it have to have anything to do with Unionism. Indeed, Unionism has singularly failed to create an authentic and representative Britishness. It seems increasingly likely that the dominant, inauthentic and unrepresentative versions of Britishness – as outlined by people like David Cameron, but also, paradoxically, by British socialists like Owen Jones – will equally fail to sustain the Union. Instead, perhaps it’s time to see if a new, progressive and inclusive Britishness – stimulated by an empowered Scotland – can emerge from a process of international cooperation and solidarity between the independent peoples of these islands.

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