Tuesday, 1 May 2007

British Identity

Jack Straw in an article published through Chatham House talks about identity, about the need for national stories of identity which can help citizens live their Britishness. The backdrop to the article is the alienation of groups within Britain. He says:

“…we have to be clearer about what it means to be British, and, crucially, to be resolute in making the point that what comes with this is a set of values which have not just to be shared but accepted. Yes, there is room for multiple and different identities, but those have to be alongside an agreement, a contract, that none of these identities can take precedence over the core democratic values of freedom, fairness, tolerance and plurality that define what it means to be British. To be a British citizen, fully playing your part in British society, you must subscribe to that. It is the bargain and it is non-negotiable.”

On first reading I had difficulty with this section because he makes Britishness a contract that one must “sign” as though Britishness is a simple set of criteria.

What about my Britishness and Scottishness? I know the article isn’t aimed at those – like me - who already feel British but is aimed at those whose religion might conflict with Straw’s definition of national identity and the underpinning values. However, unless we want to create more difficulties whatever Straw proposes must fit all citizens.

Firstly, I consider myself Scottish and then British but, if asked, I couldn’t find words to describe even my Scottishness. I just am Scottish. I was born here. I have always lived here. As far back as I have traced – about 1750 - all my ancestors were born in Scotland. I feel British but this is a poor second to my Scottishness. I don’t feel European, ever. I know I am officially a European but the concept of Europe as an entity of which I am a citizen means nothing to me.

Some might suggest that, because I live in Edinburgh, I will have more in common with those in other large cities, for example, London or Manchester, than I do with those living in remote parts of Scotland. Certainly, my lifestyle is more similar to those in metropolitan areas than it is to those in remote Scotland but I do not identify, in any way, with other metropolitan dwellers whereas I do identify with other Scots regardless of where in Scotland they are.

The values Straw sees as underpinning national identity are freedom, fairness, tolerance and plurality but these four values have no part to play in my feeling of Scottishness (or Britishness). I might believe in them; I might live them but they are irrelevant to my national identity. Would I be any less Scottish if I were an intolerant bigot who longed for a dictatorship in Scotland. No! I would be a much less pleasant person to know but my national identity would be unaffected. It so happens I do believe in these four values as, I imagine, do the vast majority of my fellow Scots but we are not defined by these values.

Therefore, my Scottishness is undefinable – it just is – and, similarly, my Britishness just is.

The difficulty Straw has in describing how one should re-establish Britishness is like taking a cake, identifying the constituents and thinking simply by bringing the constituents together again a cake will magically appear. Baking doesn’t work this way and neither will attempts to impose national identity.

His task is made more difficult because he wants to define Britishness only because he sees Britishness as a way of minimising the impact of “… certain fringe minority Muslim groups”. If some in Britain already have religious or non-British identities no amount of detailing rights and responsibilities of being British; no amount of listing the values supporting Britishness (freedom, fairness, tolerance and plurality) will have an effect. For those who have another identity, the greater the difference between Britishness and the other identity the harder it will be for Britishness to get a foothold and attempting to force Britishness on them will meet only resistance.

If I were told that my Scottishness had to be subservient to my Britishness I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. It isn’t as though I spend my time considering Scottishness – I rarely do - but asking me to relegate my Scottishness would be like asking me to give up my right hand so that my left hand became more important. I can’t because it’s part of me. Only by performing this simple thought experiment can I get an understanding of those for whom religion is more important than their Britishness and the difficulty they would have making their religion subservient to Britishness

Straw is right to highlight the problem but I feel his proposals are dangerous because they demand of people more than is reasonable and, therefore, could lead to even greater alienation and lack of Britishness. Doing nothing will not improve matters either. Unfortunately I believe no-one knows what has to be done. I certainly don’t but I am convinced that Straw’s suggestions would be counter-productive.


  1. I'm English first, british second. EUropean is about sixth as I belong to several clubs and societies...

    (I have both Scottish and Irish roots as well).

  2. I like the cake analogy. Yes, it's becoming much clearer as we go on. David Farrer has some nice ideas on Federalism, in which British is just for defence purposes.

  3. Different Religions and ‘Brutishness’ can coincide comfortably. In fact until the idea that religion meant you couldn’t be loyal to the nation and your fellow citizens ad been forced on me by Islamicist terrorists and those who are less than forthright in their condemnation, I had largely imagined such a thing to be consigned to history and mostly related to the reformation.

    Millions of Moslems and Hindus, Seeks, Jews, Catholics and Protestants, etc. had no trouble reconciling their religion and being imperial citizens. Many fought loyally and ferociously, sometimes giving up their lives to defend the idea of the British Empire. As did the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, Australians, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders, Africans, etc. So religion does not have to be a bar, nor indeed nationality.

    Certainly there appears to have been what must at some level be a deliberate effort by some, probably multiple, parties to weaken the sense of Brutishness felt by citizens of these isles, for various reasons. Certain elements within Labour and New Labour appear to have played a role in this process. They appear to have had some success.

    Mr Straw is suddenly now concerned having detected the odour of freshly brewed coffee.

  4. Phil A

    I assume your using "BrUtishness" is deliberate.

    There is no reason why nationality should be the key factor in one's identity but for some it will be.

    Similarly, there is no reason why religion should be the key factor but for some it will be.

    I can understand why for some their religion - whatever that religion may be - is so important to them that it transcends national borders. I do not have any problem with this.

    I do not understand why for some the notion of national identity, in general, is so important. I feel and I am Scottish but it doesn't matter to me if others born or living in Scotland do not consider themselves Scottish.

    My identity is mine alone. Others may attach labels to me but these labels do not represent MY identity but only others' views of my identity.

  5. British, English, Hint of Scots a dab of Irish, Anglospheric. I am randomly these, depending on mood, never ‘professionally’ any. I can’t ever claim to have felt particularly European.

    Re: ”I can understand why for some their religion - whatever that religion may be - is so important to them that it transcends national borders. I do not have any problem with this. “

    I must admit I do have a problem with it, in that I find it worrying that any religion can turn a citizen into a sort of ‘human time bomb’. If it correlates enough with adherents of a specific religion you have got to wonder about the compatibility of said religion with continued health and wellbeing of the citizen. Though you certainly get a sprinkling ‘alienated nutters’ everywhere.

    If everyone mad it their business to be as pleasant and reasonable as they could be to everyone else maybe there would be fewer…