Even though I was born in Scotland, my parents moved to England when I was five years of age. After six years in England, my mother returned to her home town in rural South Ayrshire, with me closely in tow.
My initial time spent in the southern county of Dorset in England was originally met with a spate of bullying, which is now only dimly remembered but was speedily dealt with after my mother alerted the school authorities to it. I remember the Headteacher delivering a sermon at the school assembly about how it was wrong to treat people differently because they have an accent that is different to yours or to pick on someone who comes from a different country. I vividly remember all the perpetrators apologising to me for their behaviour even though we were all only five or six years old at the time.
Upon return to Scotland and entering Primary seven, I don’t remember being bullied for being “English” although I was asked on my first day if I was a Catholic or Protestant and was later accused of being “half-English” on a few occasions. I don’t recall my answer to these questions as like most normal children national identity and sectarianism weren’t issues that had entered my thinking at the time. But clearly in some areas of Scotland religious affiliation was still an important signifier of identity.
However, I had the vague feeling somewhere out on the periphery of mind, as my cognitive abilities developed that I was never quite “Scottish” enough, not born and bred as it were. I had lived in the land of the ancient enemy and was now tainted. I even remember caveating some conversations at secondary school with “yeah, but I was born in Scotland” when people asked me where I had lived and I replied that I had previously lived in England. As if being born in another nation in the UK would have been an offence.
Without realising it at the time and with the benefit of hindsight “Britishness” appeared to offer a new place for me and one that I have identified with my entire life. One that allowed the possession of a new identity, above mere English or Scottish.
Identity itself can provide a multitude of facets and very rarely do people solely possess just a single domineering one. Many people from the Scottish-English border may identify with “Borderer” or even “Reaver” and then their respective national identity followed by British. Someone from Shetland or Orkney may be an Islander first and a Scotsman second. A citizen from the United States may identify with his home state of Nebraska or Utah before the actual nation of their birth.
Over the last few years, since the “Yes” campaign brought the issue of identity politics to the forefront in Scotland, I have witnessed the gradual erosion of Britishness in the northern half of the United Kingdom continue unabated. The SNPs sweeping, landslide victory in the 2015 general election has not helped the issue and has exacerbated an already worrying trend.
In the long and attrition like campaign masterminded by the SNP in the years preceding the 2014 independence referendum I could have been tricked into believing that I was living in a nation that was on the verge of struggling free from the jackboot of foreign oppression that had been stamped firmly on its neck and was destined to be the second part of the English “inner empire” to regain its nationhood and self respect rather than what a Scotland actually is; a member of one of the most stable, peaceable and most prosperous states that the earth as ever seen, with a rich history and vibrant culture.
The sheer volume of saltires and blue “Yes” stickers on windows, wheelie bins and cars was overwhelming and very worrying for someone who views themselves as British. National symbols are all well and good. I even contemplated putting up a British flag in a very prominent window in my house but this would have been a descent too far into the nadir of crass nationalism. Something that the “Yes” campaign were all too happy to plunge headlong into but that only a few years ago would have been totally foreign to Scotland and ultimately, something that I thought better of.
In a spontaneous burst of open mindedness, I even attend a small presentation by the “Yes” campaign in early 2014. The speakers were entertaining and I always enjoy a seasoned political veteran or a keen amateur deliver a speech or lecture with passion and enthusiasm, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum. But I was struck with a certain level of pettiness throughout the proceedings. One of the presenters, a trade unionist if I remember correctly, complained that Scotland has contributed millions of pounds to the construction of the London underground and that this was “Scotland’s money”. Apparently, he believed that this was something of a travesty. I got the impression that he would have dug up the Jubilee Line if it was feasible. A tri-fold pamphlet at the same event stated that Scotland could be the most powerful nation in Europe. I assume this would have happened after independence rather than acknowledge the fact that Scotland is already part of one of the most powerful states in Europe, namely the United Kingdom. Someone should probably inform Angela Merkel that Germany is about to be taken down a notch.
The same level of pettiness applies to many nationalists when you meet them face-to-face as well. I was once asked, after a work meeting, in an accusatory and belligerent tone, “why I wanted my taxes going down to London” when I mentioned that I voted “No” during the referendum. I had no reply on this particular occasion but I would have replied that I don’t mind my taxes going to support any place in the United Kingdom from Aberdeen to Armagh to Aberystwyth to Aylesbury. I don’t even mind them going to help people abroad or to be used in humanitarian projects sometimes. I also quite like having a tax base of 29.4 million people.
My experiences as an active campaigner for Better Together were not much better and we were told to “Fuck off” from someone’s doorstep on our first attempt at canvassing. A few doors later, a shirtless gentleman came to his door and informed us that, “I remember Thatcher, you lot can fuck off”. At least that time we were given a clear explanation of why we should “fuck off”. Perhaps the lion rampant tattoo on his left arm with “Saor Alba” underneath should have given us a subtle clue to his voting intentions, but it was too late by that point.
I live in a small town of eight thousand people and in the run up to the referendum I was the only person who had a Better Together campaign poster in my window. Only in the last few days before the 14th of September 2014 did I see some very belated but most welcome British flags and “No thanks” posters start to appear.
Larger cities were not much better. I remember the area around Kelvingrove in early August 2014 was filled with “Yes” stickers, posters and other associated paraphernalia. This shouldn’t have been surprising as Glasgow was one of four areas of Scotland that voted for independence but 46% of the electorate still voted “No”.
It genuinely felt that I was in a shrinking and timid minority in my own country. Even a trip to the cinema for some light entertainment offered no respite from the background of belligerent and vapid nationalism as one middle aged man heckled a pro-union/British advert by spluttering: “is this being sponsored by the fucking English” while eating his Ben and Jerry’s.
Britain’s place in the world is not unsullied. From the Irish famine to the Indian Mutiny and to contemporary foreign policy disastrous such as the Iraq War, Britain and Scotland (something that nationalists like to forget in their revisionist rhetoric) have been at the forefront of this and this must be acknowledged and remembered.
But is it fair to reduce the United Kingdom to its darkest deeds alone and to shun the very notion of “Britishness” for our respective, smaller national identities?
This is the nation that has halted the hand of despotic, authoritarian and murderous dictators on the European mainland three times, once in living memory. The place where the cry of “am I not a man and a brother” were not merely words but served as a call to action often decades before anywhere else. The nation where an organisation such as the Salvation Army, originally founded to help the poor and destitute of London in the 1860s now operates on a truly global basis, bringing help and relief to all those in need.
Where Mary Wollstoncraft wrote A Vindication of the rights of women, forming the modern basis for feminism. It was a slow process but The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882 allowing women the same rights as men to own and run a business and hold property. This started a clarion call later taken up by the Suffragette movement. It’s easy to scoff at this, but the majority of woman around the globe still do not have such rights.
Where social concern during World War Two led to the publication of the Beveridge Report in 1942 that served as the blueprint for the welfare state and the foundation of the NHS and the notion that people shouldn’t be penalised because of circumstances outwith their control and that all individuals, regardless of social background, are worthy of a safety net in difficult times.
The place where the divine right of Kings was not only challenged but eventually constrained and transformed into the constitutional monarchy of today.
Where engineering marvels such as the worlds first iron hulled ocean liner, the SS Great Britain was constructed by Brunel. Where the Englishman Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric engine was later refined by the Scotsman James Watt to lay the foundation of the industrial revolution. Where the Jet Engine, an invention that would revolutionise leisure time and be at the forefront of the compression of time and space that now characterises the 21st century lifestyle was invented in the 1940s by Frank Whittle.
Being Scottish, I can lay claim to the works of Adam Smith, Alexander Fleming, David Hume, James Clerk Maxwell and Robert Burns. Being British allows me to lay claim to the works of Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Joseph Lister, Oscar Wilde and Tim Berners-Lee as well.
For many Scottish nationalists, the holy trinity of grievances are Westminster (or “Wastemonster” if you prefer), Trident and the Iraq War. They are entitled to their opinion on these issues and to campaign against them. They even have much to say that resonates with committed unionists as well. But to focus all their attention onto a small number of issues, most of which occurred in the space of a human lifespan is a bit short-sighted and totally ignores the larger historical picture of Britain and the benefits it has brought.
For the quieter and more thoughtful, possibly more introspective Scots, it may have seemed that we were outnumbered during the referendum, but we never were. Being loud, belligerent and insulting on occasion does not make your argument any more potent or valid. Completely disregarding British history, culture and achievements, not only does a disservice to Britain but also to Scotland’s many achievements as a partner in union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.