Critics were quick to slam the faux pas of Foreign Secretary William Hague when he wished Team GB every success at the Commonwealth Games. Of course, each of the home nations competes individually. But the Foreign Secretary’s remarks are less a gaffe, and more a revealing chance to see the lesser spotted elements of British identity that would be lost with Scottish independence.
Whether it be the Queen or the BBC, Yes Scotland have attempted to present unassailable guarantees that with independence the sun will still rise, Strictly Come Dancing and Doctor Who will still be on TV, and a ‘social union’ with our ‘closest friends’ will operate across the British Isles.
According to the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, a ‘social union’ rests on the laurels of 307 years of shared Union experience. The document, Scotland’s Future, mentions the term eight times, stressing a “shared language, culture and history” across the British Isles that forms the justification for an open border, sterling area and shared assets.
In the referendum debate, the ‘social union’ proposals are often overlooked in favour of economic and administrative criticism. But it’s a canny appropriation by the SNP Government who are playing from the rulebook of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In 1967, Wilson infamously went on television and radio and offered a guarantee that the devaluation of the pound would not affect the ‘pound in the pocket’ of ordinary people.
Like Wilson, Yes Scotland has rested their assurance on a mercurial ground. Every promise, and every post-yes vote negotiation proceeds and would proceed on the assumption that British identity will survive.
It’s no small irony that with this argument Scottish independence would rest on the product of three centuries of British nationalism. Many pooled Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish cultural contributions, including books, people, names, places are so commonplace that they are hidden in plain sight; they are taken for granted but they would, by the definition of independence, cease to be shared between the nations of the UK.
For this author, Winston Churchill is my personal and political hero. Much of my enthusiasm and interest for this man’s life is due to his contribution to Britain, my country. Yet, after a small electoral window in September, Churchill could cease to be an admired fellow countryman and instead become an estranged historical leader from a foreign country. As sure as people across the world can respect the achievements of the likes of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, the innate connection of generations of countrymen to their own historical figures is not the same as those who do not have a shared national connection.
What is true of Churchill is as true for The Beatles, Billy Connolly and a million other people, songs and films et al; whether it be Burns or Shakespeare, James Bond or Harry Potter, all are shared national hallmarks that would cease to be so with Scottish independence. The dissolution of the United Kingdom would result in the alienation of otherwise synonymously held cultural attachments.
The social scientist Michael Billig dubbed these subtle forms of national identity as ‘banal nationalism.’ In his 1995 book of the same name, Billig argues that conventional considerations of nationalism do not differentiate between ‘hot’ nationalist outbursts that can be violent or socially disruptive, and nationalism like language and culture which “appear as nationalism, disappearing into the ‘natural’ environment of ‘societies’ but still reproduce national identities.”
He argued: “in established nations, there is a continual ‘flagging’, or reminding, of nationhood.” These forms, like sporting events, national anthems or flags constantly reaffirm national identity and exist in the background of public consciousness although they are “not removed from everyday life.”
The First Minister, Alex Salmond, has insisted Great Britain would survive Scottish independence because it is a mere “geographical expression” and that “after independence, people in England will still cheer Andy Murray, and people in Scotland will still support the Lions at rugby.”
It does, however, remain uncertain whether or not UK banal nationalism could survive Scottish independence. The strategy of the Scottish Government is to conflate two kinds of nationalism that are self-defeating in the referendum context. It wants to share both the cultural nuances of the UK and combine it with their vision for a new Scotland that does not yet exist.
Contrary to Billig, the political scientist Benedict Anderson argues that a nation is an ‘imagined political community’ because the “members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their community.” It functions then as a collection of mental symbols, associations and values, that creates a shared identity and affinity.
This strategy is being played to promote a vote for independence. For a ‘yes’ vote to proceed, and the promise of independence to be fulfilled, Scotland must become divergently different to the aims and practices of Westminster, or more bluntly, the nations of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The White Paper states that: “Democracy, prosperity and fairness are the principles are at the heart of the case for independence.” It places itself in direct juxtaposition to Westminster so as to “build a fairer society.” The inference is that at the moment Scotland does not have one in the UK. A rejection of the Union with a ‘yes’ vote begs the question of why, and how, Yes Scotland wants a social union when they think it is currently failing Scotland.
Perhaps the test is to suppose how, given the geographical distance between Scotland and London, the case for Scottish independence and a social union would do if Westminster were parked in Berwick. Would Britishness fill Anderson’s ‘imagined’ isolation of Scotland from London that’s emphasised by the Yes campaign?
What is certain, however, is that there is no scholarly agreement on the ethical, political, identity, racial, religious and historical factors that produce and sustain the forces of nationalism. There is no clear trajectory, and no agreed upon explanation as to the interactions that produce it or hold it together. Many factors work in concert and it is an interdisciplinary academic endeavour that is ongoing.
There is no irrevocable agreement on what will happen to national and cultural identity with the break-up of the Union. No one side has the monopoly on the truth of nationalism, and it is a fallacy for the Scottish Government to categorically claim to do so. While British nationalism cannot be conclusively defined, or have its formation categorically traced, it is remiss to preclude that a constitutional change would not have ramifications on the social union that Yes Scotland presumes will endure. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is the message to take to heart.
Reform rather than cessation springs to mind as a progressive means by which to create equanimity across Britain than asset grabbing secession. To stem Scottish nationalism, there must be a satisfactory solution to the real and imagined imbalances in funding and political representation. Until the equilibrium is resolved in a satisfactory way, the challenge of nationalism will seep through like a slow drip from a pipe that might burst at any moment.
Better Together has likewise given a guarantee that a ‘no’ vote will mean devo-max, devo-more, or some form of federalism. We will all remain Britons, whatever the constitutional arrangement, but there has to be a Union. Of course, there remains the question as to whether more powers to Holyrood and an eroding of the relevance of Westminster’s powers, will undercut the social union that they hope to preserve.
Until then, we must pause to consider those banal notions of Britishness that would silently disappear from the lexicon of Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish nationhood. Churchill, Shakespeare and Burns would be but a few gems pulled out of the richness sewn into the tapestry of the United Kingdom. This, more than anything else, would be a great loss.