Is Britishness important enough to be worth saving?
What is Britain? This question is important, mysterious, and frequently overlooked. It seems all the more pressing at the dawn of a new year which seems likely, unless something dramatic happens, to confirm the SNP’s political hegemony north of the Tweed and Solway. In the words of the historian Linda Colley, “Great Britain was an invented nation superimposed, if only for a while, onto much older alignments and loyalties”. This is a useful, perhaps even effective, summary of the nationalist case for Scottish independence
Scotland is different. Scotland is unique. Scotland is real. Scotland is not, never was, and never can be, England. Moreover, what we call Britain — whatever we mean by that — is an invention, a fabricated idea whose time, if it were ever useful, is now long gone. Ninevah and Tyre yesterday; Britain today.
Independence would answer that. It would be more than just an act of national liberation; it would prove a journey of self-discovery too. At long last, after three centuries of hibernation, Scotland would awaken and be her true self once again.
In truth some Unionists might even feel a smidgen of sympathy with this analysis. It was, after all, Sir Walter Scott, that paragon of Unionism, who, deploring changes to the law that would bring Scotland into line with how these matters were arranged south of the Border, complained “No — ’tis no laughing matter; little by little, whatever your wishes may be, you will destroy and undermine, until nothing of what makes Scotland Scotland shall remain”.
Yet nearly two hundred years later, a comparable complaint might be made of the modern Scottish nationalist: today’s Scotland is unavoidably a very British Scotland. We might admire the paradox, then, that diminishing or repudiating the importance or even existence of Britishness also serves, at least in part, to diminish or repudiate a certain idea of Scottishness. Such are the ironies of history and, indeed, of identity.
Last year’s referendum was a wrestling match with something much greater than the mere idea of Scotland. It was a question of the matter of Britain. An enquiry into whether that country, or even the idea of that country, could survive. The verdict returned was provisional and subject to future amendation.
If this truth escaped the notice of many commentators in South Britain that merely helps explain why partisans on the Union side came so close to losing the fight. Indeed, by focusing on Scotland to the exclusion of other interests and ideas they played a part in narrowing the nature of the debate in ways that, unavoidably, benefitted the Scottish nationalists. If Unionists had given up on Britain, why shouldn’t Scots?
Indeed, many Unionists explicitly conceded that Colley’s argument about Britain was apposite. This country might be older than most but it was still a comparatively recent invention; still a contractual, provisional, enterprise that could be rejected at any point and by either party. Even the slogan chosen by the No campaign was flawed: “Better Together” need not imply rotten apart.
Perhaps, intuitively, that seemed sensible. But it also and unavoidably meant the concession of a significant part of the nationalist argument. Britain would be the word not spoken, at least not by Unionists, throughout the campaign. No Unionist dared quote King James VI & I and argue: “Hath not God first united these two kingdoms both in language, religion and similtude of manners?”
Far less could they bring themselves to argue, as James did, that “God has made us all in one island, compassed with one sea, and of itself so indivisible” that a united kingdom should now “become like a little world within itself, being entrenched and fortified round about with a natural and yet admirable strong pond or ditch, whereby all the former fears of this nation are now quite cut off.”
If imagination and historical sympathy matter in politics — and I think they often do — there was little Unionist attempt to counter the dominant nationalist narrative. That story conceded that, even if the Union had brought some benefits — a questionable presumption to be sure — it had outlived its usefulness. All projects have their moment; no reality need be permanent.
There was, by contradistinction, a sorry lack of Unionist audacity. A pitiful lack of the long perspective. No attempt to argue, as John Thornborough did in 1605, that Union, first of crowns then of parliaments, might be thought “The Joyful and Blessed Reuniting [of] the Two Mighty and Famous Kingdoms”.
While playful, such an enterprise need not have been entirely in jest. It is possible to construct a history of these islands which, while nodding to the tortuous and often hostile road to Union, nonetheless stresses an ancient and underlying commonality between the people’s congregated together on this small island within its silver sea.
there is at least some evidence of a distinct British identity that predates the establishment of a clear-cut and independent kingdom of Scotland. Alba, now understood as gaelic for Scotland, once meant something different: it meant Britain. Moreover this designation did not just apply to the lands now known as the Borders and Lothians but also to ancient Pictland.
As Glasgow University’s Dauvit Broun has argued, the simplest explanation for this is that the inhabitants of Pictland “also regarded themselves as peculiarly the people of Britain”. In other words an idea of Britain existed even amongst people who we would not consider Britons per se.
Consider the greatest of all British myths. That of King Arthur. While many of the sites notionally associated with Arthurian legend lie in Wales and the west country, these counties have no monopoly on those associations. Other claims have been made for Arthur the Cumbrian while still more argue he came from the Scottish rather than Welsh Borders. Edinburgh, too, claims to be his seat. Arthur, then, belongs to everyone and the rival claims of Arthurian provenance demonstrate another underlying reality: the peoples of this island share a common history founded upon a common myth.
All of which has led the historian Alistair Moffat to suggest, “We are not Saxons, for the most part, or Vikings either and Normans hardly at all. We are the children of a defeated Celtic culture. And we live a sort of myth history, something from that ancient time between remembering and forgetting.” England is more Celtic than commonly imagined which, almost by definition, means Scottish (and Welsh and Irish) claims to exceptionalism are weaker than is generally assumed to be the case.
So what I mean is that it is possible to create a story — a narrative if you like — in which the disparate peoples of these islands spent centuries in defiance of their eventual destiny. That far from being the exception to the rule of history, Union could be considered its proof. What was once disparate slowly became united.
Union, then, was something greater than a squalid and easily-purchased piece of constitutional brigandry. The arc of history could, with some imagination and a measure of romance, be claim its justification, if not full perfection, in Union.
Now, of course, when set beside such gaudy considerations as the future of the Barnett Formula, history and romance must perish. Nevertheless, Unionism needed — still needs, in fact — some poetry of its own. Not because talk of ancient ties that bind butters electoral parsnips in the twenty-first century but because idiom is wasted without a shared sense of grammar.
Moreover, unless Britons talk about Britain they cannot be surprised if the idea of Britain fades from public consciousness. That means and requires more than familiar bromides about the Attlee government or the shared sacrifice of two world wars. It needs to reach further, and deeper, back than that.
Indeed, paradoxically, the power of the British idea was paid oblique tribute by its opponents. Independence, they averred, would demand no severance. Britishness would endure. Why, it might even prosper.
For instance Pete Wishart, the nationalist MP for Perth and North Perthshire, claimed that “Independence can actually even reverse the decline of the idea of Britishness, a concept that has consistently been on the wane and which I feared might eventually go in a devolved Scotland”. You can lose your country, you see, and keep it too.
Perhaps. But when it comes to the question of identity it is worth recalling Robert Louis Stevenson. In “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide” the good doctor Jekyll declares that, “Though so profound a double-dealer,” in terms of his dual identity, “I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest.”
Jekyll comes to the realisation that “of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness” — his ordinary life as Jekyll and his extraordinary existence as Hyde — “even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”.
So with the Scot and his other life as a Briton. There is no Britain without Scotland and if Britishness is worth something, worth preserving, then it falls to Scotland to save it. We would, after all, be saving something of ourselves too.
A version of this article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 4th, 2016.