If Scotland leaves Britain, what happens to Britishness?

As someone who lacks any strong form of patriotism or national identity, I’ve always found it interesting that I can happily go through life without an affinity to my country, beyond its political relevance, without fear of the guilt applied to minority communities for doing so. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that it can’t be assumed that someone ‘White British’ – as the equal opportunities forms would have it –  is inevitably harbouring an alternative allegiance elsewhere. The Tebbit test has never applied to me and I’ve never been obliged to take it. In more recent times Muslims in particular have come under pressure to assure the nation with declarations of Britishness as a mark of trust. Of course during the Cold War, when the fear factor was communism, internationalists like me were suspects and threats  – famously so in the US – on the basis of suspected allegiances abroad. 

It’s a complex area – so the British question seems a reasonable one to bring up in discussions that revolve around identity and diversity in cross community dialogue. On many occasions when conducting a standard axis/ agree-disagree dialogue exercises, the statement ‘I am British’ has been chosen to generate discussion – not least with groups of people of mixed heritage. Many Muslims have come out and expressed a strong British identity in response to national pressures. It seems ‘British Muslim’ is not a phrase many find difficult to express so in discussions it is not surprising to find it common for Muslims to shift themselves to an agree position in response to the statement. As a result, it sometimes feels that many minorities are much more comfortable self identifying as British than I am.

However, and with todays independence vote in Scotland in mind, it’s worth remembering that in the layering of national identities there is a confusing mix. British and English are often used interchangeably rather than distinctively, but this confusion is arguably one found more within the white majority than elsewhere. When a second statement is introduced – “I am English” –  a strong disagree position is frequently the response among those happy to otherwise identify themselves as ‘British Muslim’.

In my experience, ‘English’ is commonly used as short hand for ‘white’ among South Asians. From this position Englishness represents ethnicity as opposed to national belonging. Therefore Britishness, being potentially inclusive of a number of nations within and to the ‘commonwealth’ beyond, can be seen to come less weighed down by ideas of assimilation or racial difference. Britishness is capable, though imperfectly, of representing where we live and the political and cultural landscape we contribute toward. The decline of the BNP and rise of the EDL marks in some ways the inability of ideas of British ethnic nationalism to survive – perhaps because it’s been reclaimed, perhaps as a result of devolution.   

So what about Scotland? Personally, I’ve always felt frustrated by the way in which small nationalisms are able to present themselves as progressive and socially just in opposition to big nationalisms which are more readily seen as oppressive and racist. I’ve always felt that nationalism, from Scotland to Catalonia, still shares a fundamental misdiagnosis of who we really are and what it is that can solve our problems. Yet I’ve found myself shifting to the ‘yes’ side via convincing arguments from writers who share an internationalist outlook – in particular Irvine Welsh and Billy Bragg – who have come out in favour of the ‘yes’ campaign. They have identified a different form of nationalism, civic nationalism, which seeks to bring change through the greater opportunities presented through self determination and collective democracy (1,2). A nationalism where people can be proud to contribute, interact and commit to the political structure without need of cultural or political submission. The impression I get, though I admit I may be mistaken, is that this is a more common phenomena in the new nationalist momentum found in Scotland than the more traditional, isolationist ethnic pride of old that the ‘yes’ campaign is being judged as. This civic nationalism is perhaps much more in line with the idea of Britishness that allows the British Muslim tag to be more commonly adopted south of the border.

What is interesting from what I’ve discovered via academic sources focussing on racial minorities in Scotland, is that the exact opposite of the British Muslim/ English Muslim response is the case. For example, in Scotland Muslims are much happier to identify with Scottishness and much less with British for the inverse reason – the former perceived as civic and the later ethnic/ cultural (though there is of course never a clear line of distinction). 

So where does this leave the modern diverse England if Scotland votes yes? I’ve long felt that the toxic waste of devolution is Englishness. We just don’t know what to do with it. If Britishness was an ultimately confused and inadequate source of inclusive civic identity Englishness is far more challenging. If Scottish has come to mean the people of Scotland, English remains the white people of Britain for many, minority and majority alike. No surprise then that one prominent utilisation has come through the English Defence League.

Irvine Welsh calls for the construction of a new civic Englishness if Scotland go it alone. That sounds good, but given the toxicity of the term and the political dominance of the right without Scotland, this could prove a long and rocky road. But it is now becoming clear that the new wave of frustration in Scotland is not so much to separate from the UK but from the financial and political elitist dominance of London and this feeling is echoed in regions of England beyond the capital. If Englishness is too tricky to manage, greater devolution and powers invested in the other endless concentric circles of regional identities could come to the fore. Yorkshire, Cornwall and Norfolk could lead the way. Scotland has the identifiable means to break free but if the civic is more important than the imagining then why can’t we create all kinds of new regional democratic spaces?

While I was researching motivations for civic activism among South Asian Muslims in West Yorkshire, alternative areas of allegiance repeatedly came up  – that of the county, the city or the district. This goes beyond the binary choice we so often present people with and better reflects the modern evolving nature of communities and identity.

Pakistani? British Muslim? – My favourite response: “Listen mate – I’m from Keighley”

1. http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/09/08/labour-pains-labour-of-love/

2. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/16/scottish-nationalism-british-westminster-class


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