Scottish Independence: a question of identity

It is becoming clearer, as Scots debate about the independence referendum, that in Scotland there exist different identities. Some people feel wholly Scottish, while some, though very few, feel wholly British. Many people feel both Scottish and British, with a difference in emphasis often depending on context. Watching Scotland attempting to win the Grand Slam in rugby a Scottish spectator may feel entirely Scottish. On the other hand while watching Mo Farah entering the final 100 metres of the Olympic 5000 metres, that same Scot may feel mainly British. Similarly while reflecting on history and literature each Scot’s identity may have differences in emphasis. While reflecting on D-Day or the Battle of Britain, a Scot may find the British side of his identity coming to the fore, on the other hand that same Scot could feel especially Scottish when attending a Burns night or listening to traditional Scottish music or reflecting on the tragedy that occurred at Flodden.

 

As a unionist Scot, these kinds of difference of emphasis are familiar to me. While reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen, I feel that this literature is a part of me, it is my tradition, because I am British and all that occurred in Great Britain is part of me, no matter where it comes from or when it occurred. I loved the story of the Spanish Armada as a child and never once thought it was someone else’s story, just because it occurred before the Act of Union in 1707. Elizabeth the First was as much my Queen as is Elizabeth the Second. When Welsh people sing their national anthem, I thrill to the sound, though I understand not one word. I don’t think that’s theirs and therefore not mine. Rather I think it’s all ours. We’re all one.

 

As a unionist Scot I feel these differences in emphasis. I feel a fluctuating Scottishness and Britishness. It all seems natural and I don’t notice the change. I am Scottish and British and there is no contradiction between the identities. I accept however, that some Scots feel only Scottish. They may support team GB at the Olympics, but in doing so they completely retain their Scottish identity. They support in the same way that an Irish person supports the British and Irish Lions. Most Dubliners do not feel in any way British when they do this. People with an exclusively Scottish identity can support team GB in the same way that they support the European team in the Ryder cup.  When someone with an exclusively Scottish identity supports the European Ryder cup team, he does so because that team contains Scots. He does not have to feel  European when he does so. Likewise, he may support team GB, because it contains Scots, but need not feel at all British in doing so.

 

I may disagree with a Scot who feels exclusively Scottish. I may argue against him and point out that he is mistaken, but questions of identity are not really amenable to reason. They are the product of experience and upbringing.

 

The reason that we are having the present debate in Scotland is that Scots who feel exclusively Scottish long for independence. They want their feeling of exclusive Scottishness to be reflected in Scotland being an independent nation state. But nationalists must realise that those Scots who feel Scottish and British also want this identity to be reflected in their nation and in their nationality. A unionist would not feel that his British identity was being reflected in an independent Scotland, because Scotland would no longer be part of the British nation. Some nationalists have suggested that Britishness would remain, as Scotland would still be part of the British Isles. But a Scottish unionist would in no way be satisfied by being only part of a geographical entity called the British Isles, because identity is not a matter of geography. The issue of dispute, for instance, in Northern Ireland is about being part of the British nation or being part of the Irish nation. Questions of geography do not come into it. A Dubliner does not feel British, owing to the fact that he is part of the British Isles, as he is no longer part of the the British nation. A Northern Irish Unionist knows that geographically he lives in Ireland, but he maintains that he is British because he continues to live in the British nation, continues to be part of the UK. The Ulster unionist does not want Northern Ireland to join with the Republic because he wants to maintain his Britishness, which can only be kept by Northern Ireland remaining in the Union. These are real issues of identity and to suggest that there is a geographical solution is to misunderstand the nature of identity.

 

A Scottish nationalist may feel that such a concept of Britishness is mistaken. He may disagree with it and try to persuade his fellow Scots not to feel British, but he is unlikely to make someone who feels both Scottish and British change his sense of identity, for this sense of identity is something deep in a person, that has grown gradually from how he has experienced life.

 

The two kinds of identity in Scotland are really incompatible. An exclusively Scottish identity will only be satisfied by independence. The British and Scottish identity will only be satisfied by maintenance of the UK.  

 

That identity is the crucial factor in determining how someone is liable to vote in the independence referendum is easily seen by reflecting on the following examples. A person who feels exclusively Scottish would want independence even if it meant that Scotland would be economically poorer. Likewise, a person who feels both British and Scottish would prefer to remain the in the UK no matter whether an independent Scotland would be wealthier than it is at present.  For this reason, the issue of identity is the most crucial factor in determining the result of the referendum on independence, far more so than issues of economics or politics.  

 

It is vital for all Scots that the vote should be fair, decisive and final. If either side does not accept the result and continues to campaign for the losing position, Scotland will remain a divided society. If Scotland votes for independence, unionists must accept the result and not campaign for Scotland to rejoin the UK. Likewise, if Scotland votes to remain in the UK, nationalists should not continue to campaign for independence and must give up their dream for the foreseeable future. Thus if the majority of Scots feel exclusively Scottish, let nationalists rejoice in their victory, but if the majority of Scots feel both Scottish and British, let nationalists accept their defeat.

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