Taking wings from reality, or, nationalism’s failure to understand the concept of both/and

I came across a nationalist blog recently arguing that it was not possible to be both Scottish and British. If I had not found someone actually making this argument, I would hardly have considered formulating a counter argument as I would have thought I was open to the charge of arguing against a straw man. It looks however, as if this view is seriously entertained and so it should be addressed. The essence of the argument seems to be that in a crisis situation, when push comes to shove, Scots would be forced to choose between being Scottish or British. Thus, for example,  if there were a disputed independence referendum result, which unionists and the rest of the UK refused to accept, there could be a civil war situation, which would force everyone in Scotland to choose sides. It would in this context be impossible to be both British and Scottish.
Incidentally, I remember a certain Lord Fraser of Carmyllie being vehemently attacked and described as if he were some sort of loon for imagining a scenario where England bombed Scottish airports. In fact, Lord Fraser’s scenario of a foreign power at war with England taking over Scotland’s airports, forcing England to bomb them, would most certainly have occurred if Nazi Germany had tried to seize such airports in 1940. The French likewise bombed their own airports in occupied France between 1914 and 1918. Such a scenario is in fact much more likely than the UK descending into civil war over a disputed independence referendum. Most Scots, apart from a few on the extreme fringes, just don’t care that much about the result of the independence referendum one way or the other. However much I want the Union to continue, I would far rather Scotland were independent than that there were a civil war over this matter.

Nevertheless, let’s explore the issue of civil war in relation to the concept of choosing one’s identity. In 1861 there began a civil war involving a country which formed a union of states. Virginia was one of the states which decided to secede from the United States. Many Virginians were at that time in the US Army and faced a choice. Most chose to join the army of the Confederacy, but some chose to remain loyal to the army they were already serving. Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union Army, was against secession, but with great reluctance chose to follow his state Virginia, becoming probably America’s most revered soldier and general by serving the South. On the other hand, Virginian George H. Thomas remained with the Union army, possibly owing to his Northern wife, served with distinction throughout the war and gained lasting fame as the “Rock of Chickamauga” by saving the union army from a rout.

In civil wars people face incredibly difficult decisions, which divide families and can lead to permanent estrangement and lasting acrimony. But let’s look at the issue in terms of identity. Robert E. Lee and George H. Thomas served in different armies, chose different sides in The Civil War, but both remained Virginians. After the war finished both equally were citizens of the United States. They did not lose their identity as either Southerners or Virginians, because of the difficult choices they were forced to make. Of course, some people called out traitor to the one or to the other, but when a man follows his conscience he does not listen to such slander.

In the hypothetical example of a genuine dispute between Scotland and  the rest of the UK, there might be Scots who thought the secession of Scotland unjustified. They might think for instance that the referendum result had been fixed, or had been obtained by means of subterfuge. In the same way that some people from the Southern states fought for the Union, and some from the North fought for the Confederacy, it might, in this British Civil War, turn out to be the case that some English people would fight for Scottish secession, while some Scots would fight for the Union. But Scots who fought for either side would still be Scots. They would simply be  Scots who had  followed their consciences in different ways. Of course, we’ve had this situation in the British Isles before. When Ireland chose to secede, some Irish people chose to remain loyal to the United Kingdom. But both those who remained in the UK and those who left, remained Irish. Identity is not something that a person loses because he chooses one side or another in a civil war.

Let’s take another example. Imagine Scotland voted for independence, but a part of Scotland, for example Fife, chose to vote for independence from Scotland. There might be conflict. Some Fifers might want to stay loyal to Scotland, some Scots outside of Fife might try to prevent Fife from seceding by force of arms. People in Fife would have to make choices, but whichever choice they made, no matter which side they fought for, such people would remain both Fifers and Scots.

The idea that you can’t be both a Scot and British if true would mean that someone could not be both a Bavarian and a German, a Sicilian and an Italian. There are any number of nation states in Europe and the world which are made up of countries which formerly were independent. To say to these people, I’m sorry you’re mistaken, you can’t be both Norman and French, you have to choose, is to say something that would be met with genuine bemusement. Normandy was once an independent country and it had a great history, including being quite successful as an invader of one of its neighbours. Only a tiny number of Normans however, would maintain that they are Norman and not French. For a person to seriously claim that he was a Norman and not French, would be to invite derision as if I had delusions of being William the Conqueror. It should equally invite derision for person to claim he is Scottish and not British, as if he wanted to play at being William Wallace.

The claim that someone can not be both Scottish and British goes against the experience of millions of Scots, who feel both identities. The fact that some Scots out of warped patriotism have chose to reject their British identity, does not change the experience of the rest of us. We love our country, and count it to be both Britain and Scotland. It is the love of both these things, which makes civil war in the UK unthinkable. This is the case for apart from the few who would create division, nearly everyone realises that in a British Civil War we would be fighting against ourselves.


Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Wings Over Scotland  On December 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    “I came across a nationalist blog recently arguing that it was not possible to be both Scottish and British”

    No, you didn’t. You came across one saying you can’t have them both as your COUNTRY at the same time. I’m Scottish. My country is Scotland. It is also, however, an incontrovertible fact that I was born in Great Britain and am therefore British, just like I’m European because Great Britain is in Europe.

    So in fact you ARE arguing against a straw man. Try reading the words next time.

    • Effie Deans  On December 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      I think I’ve demonstrated why it is possible to have both Scotland and Britain as my country and to belong to both. The rest is just quibbling over words. Belonging to Britain means being British, belonging to Scotland means being Scottish. To deny this I think is to make a distinction without difference. Anyway thanks for the reply. I enjoy your blog very much.

      • Wings Over Scotland  On December 10, 2012 at 5:00 pm

        “I think I’ve demonstrated why it is possible to have both Scotland and Britain as my country and to belong to both.”

        No. You’ve SAID it, which isn’t the same thing at all.

      • Effie Deans  On December 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm

        With respect my whole article was an attempt to demonstrate that it was possible to be both British and Scottish at the same time or to have both Scotland and Britain as my country. I used examples from history in an attempt to demonstrate this and compared the situation of Scotland with other countries. Naturally you might disagree that I have demonstrated the point, but that does not mean that I have failed to put forward arguments, that I have simply made assertions.

      • Wings Over Scotland  On December 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm

        You most certainly DID make baseless assertions – indeed, empirically untrue ones. You claimed that my article “that it was not possible to be both Scottish and British”. It did the opposite. I’m Scottish and I’m British. It’s just that only one of them is my country, because you can only have one country at a time. Your entire “argument” simply skips over that point and concentrates instead on attacking the straw man you set up for yourself.

      • Effie Deans  On December 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm

        It was not my intention to misunderstand you or to misrepresent your views. I find your idea that you are Scottish and British, but only one is your country frankly baffling. How can you be British if Britain is not your country? Or is it that you think that Britain is not a country? I think that both Scotland and Britain are countries and I belong to both. I think we will have to agree to disagree here. Until next time.

    • Wings Over Scotland  On December 11, 2012 at 9:26 am

      In the ways I’ve already patiently explained. I’m European, but Europe isn’t my country. I’m from West Lothian, but West Lothian isn’t my country. I’m from the Northern Hemisphere, but the Northern Hemisphere isn’t my country. And the same is true about being British. It’s not hard to follow.

      • Effie Deans  On December 11, 2012 at 10:40 am

        So if a person was from Bavaria, he would say I’m German, but Germany is not my country. If he was from Normandy, he would say, I’m French, but France is not my country. Both Bavaria and Normandy were formerly independent countries, just like Scotland. Nationalists from such places could make exactly the same argument as you. But The way that you are attempting to prove your point that it is not possible for someone to have both Britain and Scotland as their country is by assuming that Britain is not a country. This is clearly circular. The debate between us is likewise going nowhere, but thanks for taking part.

  • Juteman  On December 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Dearie me Effie, Walter Scott is in the past.
    I’m Scottish, but i live on the British isles called Great Britain.. I’ll vote YES, and still be Scottish and still live on these islands.
    The difference will be that i get a government that i voted for. I’ll still visit my family that live in England.
    What’s difficult about that?

    • Effie Deans  On December 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      Try reading Walter Scott, you might enjoy it. But agreed he was writing about things that are now long past. Still I enjoy his writing and sometimes find it inspirational. I don’t think there is anything difficult about your voting intentions. I hope that if things go against the way I will vote, I will continue living much the same way as I do now. I believe that in a democracy we get the government which the majority vote for. At the moment that means we have a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, because that’s what the majority of the British people chose. I might have voted Labour and think that’s not fair, why should Scotland have a Tory government when most Scots voted for Labour. But let’s imagine that Scotland was independent. I might still get a government different from the one which my region voted for. If Aberdeenshire votes Labour, but the rest of Scotland votes SNP, does that mean that Aberdeenshire should secede? No. Then Scotland has no more reason to secede.

  • douglas clark  On December 9, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Whilst you are right to say that some unitary states, France, modern Italy etc have made a reasonable fist of projecting a national identity that is largely subscribed to, it is hardly a universal that countries formation or expansion is a one way process. The Norway – Sweden split comes to mind, as does the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Movements in both directions appear to be by the will of the people rather than being any sort of natural law.

    Your best case in Europe has to be the re-unification of Germany, whose split at the end of WW2 was a pragmatic solution to a big problem for the Allies. One thing that it certainly wasn’t, was the will of the German people.

    The disintegration of Yugoslavia, with all the mayhem that that incurred, suggests that a dynamic of building a federation out of disparate bits is probably not a good idea either.

    Neither is drawing arbitary lines on maps.

    There does seem to be some traction for more local identities bouncing around right now, apart from Scotland, there is also Catalonia and the possible split of Belgium.

    Frankly, I am not an existential nationalist, I am a pragmatist. I think both you and I everyone else living here would be better off with decisions that effect Scotland being made in Scotland.

    Finally, who is talking about civil war? Certainly, no-one I know. We have the Edinburgh Agreement and a democratic way to express our will. Try as I might, I cannot see Alex Salmond as a guerrilla leader!

    • Effie Deans  On December 9, 2012 at 10:51 am

      I agree that civil war will not occur. Whatever happens will happen peacefully. I was using the hypothetical example of civil war, as I was attempting to respond to an articles from Wings over Scotland.
      I think there is something of a case for secession movements, when there are differences in language or religion. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all speak languages, which are quite different from Russian, moreover they are normally not Orthodox Christians. Secession in these countries has however led to some difficulties, especially for Russian speaking minorities, who have often not been granted citizenship. In Yugoslavia people mainly spoke nearly the same language, but there were religious differences and historical enmities that came out of the woodwork, once Milosovic began playing the Serbian nationalist card. Scotland on the other hand is remarkably similar to the rest of the UK in terms of language, religion and culture. I just don’t see the need for the split. Catalonia at least has a language which is somewhat different from Spanish and which a significant number of people can speak.
      I’m not sure I buy the distinction between a pragmatic unionist and an existential one. I might write about this sometime soon. But let’s accept that someone is motivated purely by pragmatic reasons to vote for independence. The logic of the position that we are better off with decisions that affect Scotland being made in Scotland, would mean that equally the people of Aberdeenshire would be better off with decisions that affect Aberdeenshire being made in Aberdeen. This is to imply that Aberdeesnshire therefore should secede from Scotland. The nationalist might say ah, but Aberdeenshire is not a country, to which the British unionist might reply that Scotland is neither a country in the sense that the UK is not a sovereign state. To which the nationalist replies that we want Scotland to be a sovereign state, making him an existential nationalist once more. I think the pragmatism always in the end reduces to the existentialism.

      • douglas clark  On December 10, 2012 at 12:56 am

        The British Unionist may indeed reply that Scotland is not a Country. Indeed, it can be argued that England was, not always, a country either. It too had periods of factionalism and absorption. I suppose by the Romans and then the Normans, although I was completely astonished that the Norse had got as far South as York. That is not a country living under a completely stable governance, if you’ll excuse the somewhat extended timescale. Neither was Scotland, of course.

        What they have become is convenient metaphors for a difference of opinion on how we wish to be governed. Something to coalesce around perhaps. To that extent you have a point, we cannot separate the pragmatic from the existentialist completely.

        It seems to me that at that level of debate, it is however a philosophical arguement.

        Whether timescales matter, whether any of this arguement matters is up to the electorate now. My pragmatism, for I think that that is what it is, cuts both ways. I think we can manage ourselves better independently, indeed I worry about what will actually happen if we vote ‘no’. I deeply doubt that it will be the status quo as it appertains at the moment. We would truly become ‘North Britain’ as Gordon Brown would have wished. Perhaps still does.

        We are where we are, and turning back from it has the potential to be much more harmful than going on,. Sir Alex Douglas Hume has much to answer for for my attitude. As do more recent jobsworths in Westminster.

        We could see ourselves as two versions of Goldilocks. In your version the porridge served up by the status quo is ‘just right’. In my version the porridge served up by the independence movement is ‘just right’.

        I am pretty sure these differences are irreconcilable.

        Just saying.

        Best wishes.

  • Effie Deans  On December 10, 2012 at 8:19 am

    People who blog about independence and those who comment are likely to have our minds made up already. Both sides need to try to convince those who have yet to make up their minds. Naturally therefore our differences are liable to be irreconcilable, but it is still possible to share ideas and views. At the very least we come to a better understanding of the other side’s point of view.

  • douglas clark  On December 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Indeed we do. I have enjoyed our discussion.

  • sneekyboy  On December 12, 2012 at 9:34 am


    The blog in question was not a serious belief in possible civil war (as was noted by the author in several instances), but rather a thought exercise to try and elicit a response to a question.

    The idea was to get people to think about what their nationality really is, so that if they described themselves as British and Scottish, then which is the dominant (and therefore true) nationality.

    The argument was that although you can have more than one sympathy, you can only have one nationality deep down in your heart.

    I’m not sure I agree but the case the blog put was to pose a hypothetical.

    They argued that if you class yourself as both British and Scottish, who would you side with if it came to a war?

    There is no suggestion of any violence erupting, and this was pointed out in the article in question along with reasoning behind that, just as your references to the American Civil war are merely references to emphasise a point rather than a call to arms.

    It was an interesting piece that explored the issues of cultural nationalism (Scottish Nationalist and British Nationalist) rather than civic nationalism, which is the current theme of the debate.

    On the other hand, the reason that Lord Fraser of Carmyllie was ridiculed (quite rightly) was that he actually meant what he said as a realistic outcome. However, in the 90 odd years of an (organised) Scottish Independence Movement there have not been any violent scenes, and that looks set to continue, so the Lord should have known better.

    • Effie Deans  On December 12, 2012 at 11:44 am

      I think we’re all engaging in thought experiments, and that’s good as it enables both sides to explore different scenarios. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks there would be any chance of civil war in the UK, no matter what happens. I’m certainly not suggesting that nationalists think this. The issue of debate is whether it is possible to have two identities. The hypothetical example of a civil war in Britain was used to suggest that people would have to choose. But the historical examples I give suggest that such a choice would not be necessary. Thus I’m maintaining that even in this context my identity would remain the same no matter which side I chose. Scotland’s position as a formerly independent country that is now part of a larger state is not unusual in a European context. Feeling both Scottish and British is no different from feeling both Bavarian and German. To suggest that there is a problem with this most common of feelings, strikes me as strange.

      I don’t recognise the concept of British nationalism. I think nationalists tend to use this term in an unfair attempt to associate unionism with the far right. One of the main reasons that I reject Scottish nationalism is because I reject nationalism in general as an ideology.

      I remember when there was the fuss about what Lord Fraser said that the scenario he outlined was perfectly plausible in certain contexts. It may not have been wise for him to express himself in that way. But, for example, if German paratroopers had taken over Edinburgh airport in 1940, the RAF would most certaintly have attacked that airport. What he said was therefore more likely as a hypothetical scenario than a British civil war.

      I agree that Scottish nationalists have been peaceful and I have no doubt that this will continue no matter what happens. Scottish unionists too will accept the will of the Scottish people. We are not enemies, just people who disagree about the constitutional future of our country. Of course we sometimes debate vigourously, we care about these matters, but the most important thing is that we can discuss these matters while respecting each other as opponents.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: