Saturday, 20 August 2016

Scottish nationalists reject what we share and what we are

There is a pattern to conversations with Scottish nationalists online. At some point the same old arguments are repeated. It is these arguments above all that mean that there is very little common ground between Pro UK people in Scotland and those who would prefer that Scotland became a sovereign independent nation state.

One of the reasons that it is so difficult to interact with Scottish nationalists is that they speak a different language to the rest of us. I don’t mean that they try to write in Gaelic or in Scottish dialect, though some of them do. What I mean is that certain ordinary words are used quite differently by Pro UK people and their opponents. The words that are most contentious are “country”, “nation”, “United Kingdom”, “Britain” and “British”. It’s because we have no agreement on these words that we cannot hold a civil conversation with each other.

I have long argued that when we use words like “country” and nation” we do so in different senses. Scotland correctly is called a country and a nation, but it is not a country or nation in the way that the United Kingdom is nor indeed in the way that France or Japan are. Scotland is not a sovereign, independent nation state. This is all very straightforward. But crucially Scottish nationalists deny something that is self-evidently true, that the United Kingdom is a country in the same way that France is, while asserting something that is self-evidently false that Scotland already is a country in the way that France is. This means that they continually beg the question or assume what they are trying to prove.

When I point out that in any democracy a part will sometimes vote differently to the whole and that this would also be the case in an independent Scotland, I always find the same objection made, but Scotland is a country. Quite so. But this argument only has any force if Scotland were already an independent nation state. In the United Kingdom we have national elections that cover the whole of our country. In this context it makes no more difference that five million people in Scotland vote differently to the UK as a whole than that five million people in Yorkshire vote differently. Why are the rights of people from Yorkshire less important than those from Scotland? Ah, because Scotland is a country, but Yorkshire is not. But this would only matter if the relationship between the parts of the UK were international. It would only matter if when I travelled from England into Scotland I were crossing an international border and going abroad. Given that our relationship remains national it is simply unjustified to point out that Scotland is a country in order to complain about election results we don’t like.

When we say Scotland is a country, we really mean that historically there was a country called Scotland which has retained a rather different identity from the other parts of the UK. But this is not unusual. There are differing identities all across Europe. There are places that once were independent sovereign nation states and the people from those places have both a separate identity and a common identity. I can feel both Bavarian and German, Sicilian and Italian, etc etc.

Scottish nationalists routinely treat the United Kingdom as if it were a collection of independent, sovereign nation states. It is for this reason they say that the UK is not a country or a nation. They see the UK as being like the EU or the United Nations. But amusingly if that were the case Scotland would already be an independent state? Why then struggle to gain something you already have? It is this above all that shows the circularity of Scottish nationalist reasoning. Nicola Sturgeon assumes that Scotland already is independent, for which reason she travels to Brussels as if she had exactly the same status as Angela Merkel or François Hollande. She then discovers that in point of fact she is the leader of a regional parliament with no more competence to negotiate internationally than the leader of Saxony or Burgundy. She must have known this already so why did she go. The reason is that the argument for Scottish independence depends on this circularity. Without it there would be no argument. It’s only because so many Scots assume that Scotland is a country in the same way that France is, that there is even a debate about independence.  

What do we call someone from the United States? We usually call them an American. What do we call someone from the Netherlands? They are usually called Dutch? What do we call someone from the United Kingdom? A United Kingdomer? We could but that would be an odd way of speaking. We instead call them British. Anybody who is a citizen of the UK is called British citizen. Yet I routinely come across Scottish nationalists who deny that they are British. This is exactly the same as a German citizen denying that he is German. Sometimes they claim to be Scottish citizens. But once more this is to assume what they are trying to prove. If Scotland became a sovereign, independent nation state, there would be such a thing as Scottish citizenship. Claiming that you already are a Scottish citizen is to assume that there already is such a state while arguing that there ought to be one. Once more the typical Scottish nationalist argument shows itself to be obviously circular.

But what is it to be British? Many Scottish nationalists deny that there is any such thing as being British. This usually takes the form of once more denying that there is a sovereign independent nation state called the United Kingdom? How am I supposed to argue with someone who denies the existence of something that obviously does exist? It’s like going to Germany on my holidays and telling the Germans that there is no such thing as Germany, but only Saxony, Bavaria etc. Sometimes Scottish nationalists maintain that the word “British” refers to the island of Great Britain which they think is a geographical term similar to Scandinavian. But again this is to fail to realise that there is no independent sovereign nation state called Scandinavia, but there is one called the UK. Italy is a peninsular and at one point Metternich said “The word 'Italy' is a geographical expression”. That may well have been true when he said it in 1847, but it is not true now. It would be absurd and indeed offensive to tell an Italian today that his identity is merely geographical.

But what is it that unites Italians and gives them a common identity. One thing that unites them is a shared culture. But what is this shared culture? How can I define it? Here we immediately come up against a difficulty. How do I define a shared culture without listing things that are either common to everyone in the world or are instead clichés? I could list some things that I think are typically Italian. They eat pasta and pizzas. They drink expresso coffee. They love football. They are romantic and emotional. But all of these qualities are stereotypical. Each of them is also shared by many other people in the world. In Italy moreover there are many dialects and in each part of the country there are different cultures and traits. Yet when I go to Italy I immediately recognise that there is something different about it from Britain. I may have difficulty pointing out exactly what it is, but it would be absurd to deny that Italy had a shared culture or indeed that it had a culture at all. It would be like saying Japan didn’t have a culture.

How do I define Scottish culture without descending into tartanry? Most of the things that are taken to be typically Scottish are not a part of our everyday lives.  Few Scots play bagpipes on hillsides or speak like Robert Burns. Yet no one sensible denies that there is a Scottish culture that is somewhat different from the other parts of the UK. The same goes for British culture. Visitors to the UK will find much that is common between the parts of the UK while recognising some differences. But is it possible to define British culture in a way that avoids cliché and which incorporates the identities of people from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Here’s my attempt:

In Britain we love defeat more than victory. We celebrate the Charge of the Light Brigade and the defeat at Dunkirk while other countries forget these things. If you go to the Second World War Museum in Moscow you’ll find no defeats mentioned. Even the response of Scottish Nationalists to defeat in 2014 was typically British. We came so close just like in 1745. We had a glorious defeat just like Culloden.

If we have a victory we prefer it to be a “close run thing” like Waterloo or the “narrow margin” like the Battle of Britain. In sport we are almost the only country that celebrates the gallant loser. We alone think that taking part is more important than winning.

When I’m at the bus stop most Brits take note of where they are in the queue and try to get on the bus in that order. We try to be fair to those we’ve never met and may never meet again. On the bus we never talk unless a crisis happens in which case we overcome our reserve. Compare busses in Italy.

We are prudish yet promiscuous. It is the combination of opposites in the British character that is so unusual. See also the combination of politeness and aggression.

We are anti-intellectual. There isn’t really an intelligentsia in Britain. We favour empiricism over reason, which means our philosophers use common sense like Hume, Locke and Reid rather than abstract reasoning like Kant and Hegel.

We rarely learn foreign languages. I have hardly ever met a Brit who has taught himself a foreign language and reached fluency. The only bilingual Brits I know were either brought up that way or studied languages at university.

We are defined by our language which has spread Britishness all around the world. Wherever that language is spoken as a mother tongue there we find a culture that we recognise and share. This is what British culture is. If you go to New Zealand, you’ll find some things that are different, but much that is the same. I have far more in common with Canadians, Americans, Kiwis and Aussies than I do with anyone from Europe. It would be straightforward for me to work in any of these places and almost nothing about the culture would seem strange to me. This is because we share our British heritage and have kept our common culture just as we’ve kept our common language. For a Scot to deny he is British is to deny what he shares with much of the world.

British people are indifferent to food and therefore our food is indifferent. I have almost never seen a British restaurant when I’ve been abroad. The idea of a British restaurant seems absurd, yet everywhere there are French and Italian restaurants.

In almost all of the rest of the world people drink either wine or yellow beer. In Britain we also have brown beer that is fermented with top-fermenting yeast rather than bottom fermenting lager yeast. Until recently no-one other than the Belgians brewed in the way that we do.

British people get drunk in a unique way. The French and the Spanish drink wine slowly with food. They may drink more than we do, but you wouldn’t notice. The Russians on the other hand may not drink every day, but once you open a bottle of vodka it has to be finished. Such bottles at one point came with caps like our beer bottles. On holiday you can always spot the British by their unique form of drunkenness, sunburn and terrible clothes.

What defines British culture is our shared history and tradition stretching back hundreds of years. Russia abolished serfdom in 1861 and has never really been a proper democracy. Corruption was endemic during the time of the tsar, during communism and under Putin. In Britain we developed free markets and free trade centuries before anyone else. We haven’t had peasants let alone serfs since the Middle Ages. We started on the path to democracy earlier than anyone else. Our monarchy was limited by parliament when nearly every other European country still believed in the divine right of kings. It is for this reason that I do not expect a policeman in the UK to be corrupt. I expect to be fairly treated if I have a dispute in business. It is also for this reason that we settle political difficulties with elections and with parliament. While everyone else in Europe had revolts we did not.  It is this that we share in the UK and also with most other countries that share our native language.

Because we are confident in our British identity we rarely feel the need to boast about it. The difference between an American and a Brit is that the American continually needs to go on about how great America is.

Because of this confidence we also celebrate eccentricity. We like to do things that are pointless such as climbing Munros. We like collecting and we can be obsessive. But the combination of these traits can give rise to fine thinking just as it can give rise to follies. It was British scientists who invented the bouncing bomb and the D Day funnies. It is that combination of eccentricity and obsessiveness that leads us to invent so many things.  

A Scottish nationalist who denies his Britishness is denying not only what he shares with other people in the UK, he is denying the very words that come out of his mouth with which he makes the denial. It is Britishness that created the language with which most of the great Scottish thinkers and writers thought and wrote. A Scottish nationalist in denying his Britishness is therefore perversely denying himself. We only speak the language we do in Scotland because we are part of the UK. I can only with difficulty understand either of the languages of Scotland prior to the Union. That is a faraway place of which I know nothing and understand less.  If Scotland had not joined the UK we would now either be speaking Gaelic or a Scottish language that was as different from our own as Dutch is from German. To regret the Union is to regret that I am what I am and that I speak and think as I do. Rejecting Britishness is to reject me. I cannot even express this act of rejection without self-contradiction for I quite literally don’t have the words.

Britain is a great country which has contributed as much to the world as any other and more than most. It is our country.  This is the only argument we need to defeat the SNP. The world speaks our language and celebrates our culture. Yet some Scots would pitifully deny that any of this is theirs. They would do this because of an argument that doesn’t even recognise that it begs the question. They would do it because they can’t bear to share anything with the other parts of the UK, not even a shared country. I sometimes think that Scottish nationalists would prefer we didn’t even share a language with or nearest neighbour, because they can’t quite bear what it is called.   


  1. An interesting and brave attempt to define what makes us intrinsically British. Clearly there is such a thing as "Britishness". You notice that the moment you step off a plane in a foreign country, even one of our immediate next door neighbours, things are just different.

    But it gets difficult when it coems to define this. Yes, we celebrate heroic military blunders like the Charge of the Light Brigade or military setbacks with redeeming qualities (the little boats saving the army) like Dunkirk but in the context of wars we later won. We don't tend to celebrate the military disasters of the American War of Independence though. And for celebrating "close run things" like Waterloo we also celebrate overwhelming victories like Trafalgar.

    As for feeling more in common with Americans than with Germans. Is this just confusing the ease of having a common language ? I think I would feel more in common with a fellow middle aged German middle class professional than a similar American one who had a literal belief in the word of the Bible and who carried a gun.

    1. To be honest Effie, it just reads a bit forced to the rest of us. I don't need to philisophically contemplate where my roots are. Its just part of me.

      Its not a political decision, its not even particularly logical its just how it is. It's then constantly reinforced by a media system that tries to ignore what I feel inside.

      We have a large nation as a neighbour and their infantalistic sporting overbearing grates, whether its remembering 1966 or talking about the greatness of the EPL or how if it were not for London we'd all be running about naked.

      Every time at the Olympics someone says Team England when they mean Team GB....a part of the union dies. They cannot help themselves.

      I don't blame them but its just how it goes for people like me who have an identity and are constantly being told they have a different collective identity by people who's self same identity constantly slips out. They cannot even do it for themselves....The mask keeps slipping and it grates.....

      It's cool , you don't feel Scottish. I do and it oozes out of me. Whether thats my hard to understand accent, my dodgy temper, my inability to cope with the sun and my desire to see my overbearing big neighbour beaten at sport. None of which are written in parchment but none of which can be denied either. Why do you try to force this....Scotland has been almost constantly been on the edge of being rubbed out for 300+ years but still it remains....There is something here that resists...You won't change that.

    2. Scotland has been almost constantly on the edge of being rubbed out for 300+ years.

      Do have any facts to support this assertion Running Man?

  2. Heroic attempt but I'm with Shinsei. We're not the 51st state, more a larger and slightly lumpier version of the Netherlands. Bland food, ex-imperial, basically prot with a few Catholics, recently multi-cultural (look at our football teams), surprisingly large stock market, monarchy...they even play darts (and cricket a bit).

    1. (I say this as an admirer of the NL, and someone very happy with my British, English and slightly Scottish and Irish identity.)

    2. I agree, although the Religion thing, apart from NI the UK is one of the least religious countries on Earth. Ironic then that it has a state Church & mandatory prayer in schools, perhaps the 2 are linked? This is another sharp difference with the USA.

    3. True. I was thinking historically - I doubt NL is very religious now.

  3. Really enjoyed this blog and agree with pretty much all of it. To nitpick a bit: the Serbs, too, celebrate defeat. Their national day, 28 June, is the day of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 - which they lost to the Turks. In 1989 they made a film of their re-enactment if the battle (in which motor cars featured...). British food is very much better than it was 40 years ago. You can hardly move in Edinburgh for restaurants, some excellent and many others very good. I once asked when we last had peasants in Britain, and an expert colleague said it was in the mid-C17th. I was surprised it was as late.

  4. Really enjoyed this blog and agree with pretty much all of it. To nitpick a bit: the Serbs, too, celebrate defeat. Their national day, 28 June, is the day of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 - which they lost to the Turks. In 1989 they made a film of their re-enactment if the battle (in which motor cars featured...). British food is very much better than it was 40 years ago. You can hardly move in Edinburgh for restaurants, some excellent and many others very good. I once asked when we last had peasants in Britain, and an expert colleague said it was in the mid-C17th. I was surprised it was as late.

  5. Pretty much all of the Nationalists' views on nationality/country are legally wrong. According to the British Nationality Act 1981, if one is born here of British parents, one is automatically British. There are no ifs nor buts. Being 'Scottish' has precisely no standing in law.

    Also, Scotland and England liquidated themselves in 1707 - the pertinent text from the Acts of Union stating: 'That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England shall...forever after be United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain...' Thus, to think of Scotland as a country is also factually wrong. It's more accurate to call Scotland a region, or, at a stretch, a nation (although not, crucially, a nation state).

    I think this stuff really ought to be taught in schools - it might help us produce fewer people who are confused about their nationality.

    Incidentally, climbing Munros is not pointless! You should try it, Effie - it's great fun.

    1. That stuff was tried in schools before and historically the usage of the term 'North Britain' unsurprisingly did not work.

      Suppression of Gaelic(modern and historica) and the attempted destruction of the clan system were also tried. The problem is that people just won't easily let it be killed.

      Your argument reminds me of the Celtic and Aberdeen fans fevorously trying to deny that Rangers is a football club. They have technical quotes of why their arguments are correct, however the physical and philisophical arguments just override the dry legalities....

      If its there and people recognises it as such then it exists.... Neither you nor Effie can change what people think.

      Thats why you got humped at the the GE....You thought people would vote Tory or Labour just to save the union. While there may be some in some more cosmopolitan areas or areas where there are a lot of local English ties or people might hold their nose in a council election and give their STV to the other half. They will need more than a dislike of independence to actually X the other side.

    2. I know of no one who is confused by their nationality outside of a handful of Unionists who grip onto the British thing. Like its the last lifeboat in town.

      Just wanting the rest of us to feel British whether we're English ,Scottish, Irish or Welsh won't make it so. Sorry with most folk our upbringing leaves too deep an imprint.

      Just ask Rod Stewart, an ardent Unionist but somehow just can't let go of the influence of his Scottish father....It's beyond politics and if you try to extinguish it people push back as it undermines their very existance(in their minds).

  6. Scotland did not liquidate itself. It entered a union. It is now questioning that union.

  7. Madness.

    National identity is a personal thing. It's not prescribed by words on a passport or legal entities in the archives of Whitehall.

    You cannopt force an identity on anyone, by law or otherwise.

    Personally, I'm quite happy that you think this argument might work in stopping Scottish independence, because it has never worked before.

    You carry on though. As you were.

  8. There were native born Scottish serfs until 1799

  9. I read an interesting piece in this months Prospect. A LONDON BUBBLE
    Does it matter that England no longer resembles its capital?

  10. Notions of nationality are human constructs, not immutable realities, thus they can be changed by humans.

  11. Oh dear Effie, still barking I see. Your knowledge of geography is particularly poor. The UK is not, has not nor will ever be A country.

  12. Oh Effie. Where does one start?
    You're on the Titanic singing with the orchestra whilst Scotland's already organising the lifeboats.
    It is not an identity issue. No-one cares whether we're called by any particular reference. It is a Governance issue not an identity one. We share this island but want to run our own affairs, it's that simple. Sometimes our interests will align sometimes not. The issue is that we Scots make the decisions that affect the people that live here. People living elsewhere can make the decisions that suit them best. Brexit being the current issue. Scotland voted Bremain. We are not leaving the EU, get with it, the indyref deal has changed. Wake up. HELLO IS ANYONE THERE?

  13. do you include colonialism and foreign policy in the middle east as britishness ?

  14. Two thousand, six hundred and thirty-three words which, in summary, says ‘Britain is great, Scotland is not, get over it’. To continue: The English language is an awkward thing full of slithy tothes which mean what you say but may not say what you mean, thus a country, a state, a sovereign state, a nation, nationhood, nationality etc., will mean different things to different people even if Wikipedia gives definitions. And boundaries, notions of nationhood, etc., change, sometimes by force (lines drawn on a map without regard to geographic or ethnic realities), sometimes democratically. Change does happen, indeed one of the constants in our lives, along with death and taxes, is change and this country, these countries, are changing whether we like it or not – perhaps having some control over the changes wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

    The Internet tells us that Great Britain is not a country; it’s a landmass. It is known as ‘Great’ because it is the largest island in the British Isles, and houses the countries of England, Scotland and Wales within its shores.

    The Internet also tells us that name Britain derives from the Roman word Britannia, but there are two conflicting arguments about why the ‘Great’ was stuck on the front of it. The first is that the Normans used it to distinguish Britain from its similar sounding, but much smaller French neighbour, Brittany. The second reason is due to the ego of a certain King James I (or VI of Scotland), who wanted to make it abundantly clear that he wasn’t just the king of the old Roman Britain (which only included England and some of Wales), but of the entire island; thus he referred to himself as King of Great Britain.

    None of this is necessarily a problem; The Olympic TeamGB included athletes not from the GB – after all its just a label What seems to cause confusion is that people’s desire for greater control over their destiny and democratic accountability is being conflated with various labels and, perhaps, ‘national’ isn’t best label to apply to those desires. Liberation perhaps?

    Then there is the issue of change management and, here, the SNPBad meme may be invoked because while have greater democratic accountability is a laudable aim, some change will be inevitable (new passports, currency perhaps), and reassuring the people of Scotland that any changes are understood and manageable might not be a Bad thing – a much better thing than the complete lack of planning of the Brexiteers.

  15. So some people in Scotland are upset that Scottish strawberries are now being labelled as British, in the same way English strawberries are labelled? Oh dear, treating English and Scottish produce the same and labelling them with the same flag. How awful! One person even said this was "casual racism"! Lol, how petty.

  16. The reason it was changed in the first place according to Tesco is that English customers objected to the Saltire on them...So they changed the flag to UK flag. Petty ? or is it different for our neighbours

    1. People complained because although strawberries grown in Scotland were labelled "Scottish" and carried the Saltire strawberries grown in England were labelled "British" and carried the Union Jack.

      I assume customers in England would have preferred English-grown strawberries to have been labelled as English, but Tesco had their own ideas.

    2. How do you know why English people complained? Or is that just your reason for complaining?

    3. Even if it is "just my reason for complaining" isn't that a legitimate reason?

      Why should I have to see the bloody Scottish flag every time I go into my local supermarket? Why should I put up with seeing "Scottish" this and "Scottish" that on everything, especially when the English flag is nigh-on invisible?

      People in England complained about the fact the British flag was used on English-grown produce (as said by Tesco themselves in tweets that have subsequently been deleted) while the Saltire was used for Scottish-grown produce. That disparity was what caused English people to complain; Tesco's choice to remove the Scottish flag rather than use the English flag alongside it is ultimately theirs alone.

      Oh, and if your comment was intended as a "gotcha!" in an attempt to "expose" me as a "xenophobic racist little Englander", then it has failed. Sorry mate.