Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The inflexibility of British identity politics

Owen: As I suspect most of the people reading this will know, I recently wrote an article for Cambria Magazine on the "affordability" of Welsh independence. You can read "The Big Independence Question" here at Cambria Politico.
"People can be Scottish and British, it's OK. And if they feel primarily Scottish that's fine too. But if they leave the UK they won't be British any more: it stands to reason." - Ed Miliband, 7th June 2012 (quoted from The Guardian)

One you move out of the parental home, your parents are still a part of your family, as are your extended family. That's "Britishness" to me, or what I would like it to be.

The status quo is the equivalent of several generations living under the same roof, generally getting under each others feet. Scotland is looking at Property Gazette, but put off by the prices. Wales is a forty year old man-child playing console games and eating Doritos all day long. Northern Ireland is the drama queen youngest daughter. England is the favourite son who has a successful job, is very attractive, but can't get a girlfriend because his personality stinks. Cornwall is locked in the attic, while the British parents are resolute that none of them would last five minutes without the constant, dedicated, love, care and attention of Mummy & Daddy – even if it kills them.

Personally, I'm quite comfortable with a Welsh ethnic, national and cultural identity, a Celtic pan-cultural identity, a pan-Britain, Commonwealth & Ireland "familial" identity and an all-encompassing European trans-national, civilisation identity. It also goes without saying I'm one of seven billion of the same species.

That's at least five different identities (more once you add community and family ones). Each has their own meaning to me - the last one being the most important, the first being the most relevant in practical and decision-making terms. I also have different opinions on which ones should wield the most influence on my daily life. If that still makes me a "narrow nationalist" so be it.

I might very well believe that Wales should be an independent nation state, and believe in the self-determination of all nationalities, but I'm not a fan of anybody dictating the terms of what someone can or cannot identify themselves as. I might not accept that "British" is my nationality, but it's still a part of my identity, just not as critical as I believe it should be.

If, post-independence, people in Wales still want to consider their nationality British, I'm fine with that. I'll be fine with people celebrating Jubilee's or whatever. In fact, I'll be more inclined to join in, as a looser part of my identity – the equivalent of a family reunion - as long as it doesn't affect Wales' inalienable right to exist on equal standing with every other nation on the planet.

"British" is a geographical truism. If you are from Wales, England, Scotland or Cornwall, you are "British" whether you consider it a nationality or not, and whether those nations become independent/self-governing or not. Northern Ireland and all those ever-present bits of pink on the map make it more complicated, but saying Scots wouldn't be British post-independence is a bit like saying citizens from non-EU nations aren't Europeans.

The trouble is, "British" is interpreted by many unionists as meaning – exclusively - Unitedkingdomofgreatbritainandnorthernirelandish. It's not, really, an ethic identity – not that such things really matter – despite attempts to create the notion of a single "British people". Although I can understand people from ethnic minorities being more willing to identify as "British" as opposed to the more ethnically-derived constituent nationalities.

It started as a personal union between crowns, so it hasn't always been the national identity as we know it.

When people describe "British culture", they usually describe things that are quintessentially English - just wrapping everything under a catch-all label to make those of us on the fringes feel included. I don't consider it my own national identity in part because it subsumes my Welsh one in a way I believe is artificial. Obviously I believe there are also inherent and irreconcilable political and economic disadvantages to Wales within the union, hence the blog.

The fact the Scottish are on the cusp of possibly rejecting their British "national identity", makes the whole notion of a British nationality weak at the core. The Scots shouldn't be in the position even contemplate doing this if Britishness were such a strong binding influence for the union as claimed. Almost everything about British identity as it currently stands also "feels wrong". It "feels fake" and without any meat to it.

You don't really see successful secessionist movements in federal nations with a powerful, overarching national identity; that's inclusive, not really dominated by one member state, combined with effective and less convoluted division of powers at local, state and federal level – the USA, Switzerland, Australia and Germany for example. These nations exist purely as the sum of their parts.

The likes of the UK and Spain don't really have this. Instead they have something "above" the sum of their parts, that hovers around, you can't ignore, but has little substance to it. It's a by-product of a political engine. "Britishness" is steam, while the other identities are shovelled and thrown into the fire. Neither can work without the other, but one is solid while the other dissipates surprisingly easily despite looking dramatic on the surface.

If Scotland leaves the UK (I'm not convinced the yes-side will succeed in 2014), "British", as Ed Miliband implies it means – Unitedkingdomofgreatbritainandnorthernirelandish - is by and large dead, returning to a personal union of the crowns of Scotland and England. If the Scots can no longer be British post-independence on those terms, neither can Ed.

But British identity shouldn't be viewed as a negative just because it doesn't seem to be working the way unionists or nationalists might like it to. It can be positive and something to celebrate, but it'll have to become something different, perhaps even something better, perhaps something we don't even know of yet.

It's an example that's been done to death now, but the pan-Scandinavian Nordic Union and Nordic Council is something that the "New Britishness" can model itself on. It acknowledges that there's  something in common between a collection of independent states, and has benefits of being part of "the family" – passport-free travel for example, or even sharing embassy space.

What a coincidence, something similar exists in the British Isles – The British-Irish Council, the Common Travel Area and perhaps even extending to the Commonwealth. People in the Republic of Ireland can freely move to any of the other nations, vote in their elections but the Irish can also play a full part in international affairs, making their own decisions and mistakes as a sovereign nation state. The same is vice versa, except "Britain" muscles in on the sovereign nation state bit.

Once you throw in the Crown Dependencies, if you had little understanding of how the UK worked, it would likely appear inexplicably and unnecessarily complicated.

One thing is becoming obvious though. On the constitution and devolution, the Welsh Labour leadership currently trumps anything that Westminster Labour can put out.

If only Labour had someone, at UK level, who talked some sense on the future of the UK and all its associated conundrums – someone like Carwyn Jones perhaps.

Maybe if the London-based branch of Labour took their heads out of their backsides, and gave their most senior elected politician anywhere in the UK the time of day, they might be able to create a slightly more coherent policy on devolution, identity, federalism and England that could preserve the Union - instead of the dribbling nonsense put out last week.

Instead of getting bogged down in the not particularly important "heart" issues of identity and belonging, both sides of the debate are going to have to offer a "head" vision that not only lasts beyond the next set of elections, or the next decade, but works 30, 50 or 100 years from now. One of the union's strengths is that it has an ingrained flexibility because it doesn't have a written constitution – the union, as it is currently, is only 16 months old – but it's rapidly approaching an end point unless we have something bolder.

That something will also have to offer the English more than expressions of "good nationalism". That safe kind of nationalism, that arises with every major sports tournament, and doesn't deal with the nitty-gritty of decision-making - you know, doesn't deal with the stuff that actually matters to people or could result in awkward questions being asked.

If the identities of the constituent nations of the UK shouldn't belong exclusively to nationalists, neither should British identity to unionists. What Ed Miliband has said - and what presumable many others in the coming years will be saying - is that you can only be British on unionist terms.

What inflexible, narrow British nationalism.


  1. Weirdly enough I was just reading an old article on Canadian identity


    "Canada’s identity is changing. There was a time, and it probably ended shortly after the Second World War, when Canadians had quite a distinct identity. We have always struggled with distinguishing ourselves from our rather large and boisterous neighbors to the south. Until the last great war we were widely considered more British and less American. But as time has gone on and the world has shrunk, more people tend to lump us in with the United States. Most Canadians are less than thrilled with this development. Today the Canadian identity can probably be best expressed as “multicultural and not American.”

    The same can be said for the Welsh - we have become less unique, more Anglicised than ever yet very few Welsh-born people would be willing to accept Welshness as a subset of English identity.

  2. At what point did England take over Britishness? Historically the Welsh were described as 'Britons' and were different from the Saxons. I've always thought of 'Britain' as a geographical term and the 'United Kingdom' as the political entity. In that way Welsh people could still describe themselves as British, if they want, after Wales becomes independent in the same way that Norwegians describe themselves as Scandinavian. Looking at it this way may also help some of those not yet convinced of the arguments for independence.

  3. Where do Greek Cypriots find themselves in Ed Miliband's world? Ethnically and culturally Greeks, sometimes supporting Greece at football when Cyprus aren't playing, but citizens of the independent Republic of Cyprus due to historic compromises between the British empire, Turkey and Greece. They have found themselves in a separate state but are still Greeks culturally.

    Anon 19:34's comment is really interesting because it reminds me about what people say about globalisation, in that there tends to be this argument that says "because of globalisation, travel, trade, the internet, technology etc your local or national identity is less relevant now". At the same time as that might be a valid point there is a contradiction in that as a protest against globalisation, rediscovering and revitalising national or other local identities can be a focus for progress, cohesion and expressing a popular or collectivel will. Marx disparagingly wrote that nationalism in his time was a "protest against the revolution" and that remains the case today, but now in an essential way.

    Alun's point is also useful but I think it's a misreading of these islands to equate post-independence Britishness with Scandinavian identity. People on this island are more closely linked linguistically than the Scandianvian countries, and economically too, and will probably want more shared institutions between the 'British' states than the Scandinavians do. But the principle is broadly correct in my opinion.

  4. Thanks for the comments everybody.

    Alun - I imagine the turning point was the Laws in Wales Acts, which probably did us a back-handed favour by "elevating" the status of a Welshman to that of an equal of Englishman - as long as "we" accepted English ways and customs. Once James I came to the throne there probably needed to be something "different" to avoid being seen as a foreign monarch ruling England, hence the creation of the non-English, non-Scottish, "Kingdom of Great Britain", which centralised around London, perhaps using the LIWA as one reason - if not for justification then a passive acceptance - that England/Englishness being the core of "Britishness". If the LIWA had never happened, I imagine Wales would've taken a very similar historical path to Ireland, except we wouldn't have had a sea between ourselves and England.

    "At the same time as that might be a valid point there is a contradiction in that as a protest against globalisation, rediscovering and revitalising national or other local identities can be a focus for progress, cohesion and expressing a popular or collective will."

    I think this answers what Anon 19:34 says pretty succinctly. The West, at least, despite being more and more homogenous, places a remarkable emphasis on "individuality". It's almost as if not choosing a traditional/accepted national identity like "British" is forbidden fruit. We're constantly told it's a "bad thing", and so it becomes something far more dangerous and exciting than the mainstream. It's something we're supposed to "want" to lose to become better people (aka "citizen of the World") or to become accepted by our "betters".

    Britishness is like Rod Stewart to Welshness' Sex Pistols.