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.