Saturday 6 May 2023

A King of all the Britons


I haven’t been following UK politics much lately. I think the British public has already decided that Labour will win the next General Election and that Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister. This may even be a good thing.

I am a Conservative, but I’m also a democrat. The Conservative Government has done a rotten job since 2019. Boris Johnson was a disappointment. We are worse off now than we were when he became Prime Minister. If this is not the time to give the other party a chance, when is it?

From a Scottish point of view, it will be helpful to have a Labour Government. Labour has the best chance of taking a significant number of seats from the SNP. So, I am reasonably relaxed about it.

I didn’t much like the way Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, but he has quietly been doing quite a good job. He will leave the country in a better place than when he began. The economy is improving and there is not even a hint of scandal or chaos under his leadership. This contrasts favourably with Boris Johnson.

I am pleased that Britain is a country in which someone like Rishi Sunak, Humza Yousaf and Sadiq Khan can reach the highest levels of politics. It is quite unusual in the world and to our credit. It is unimaginable that this could occur in most European countries. But this should not preclude people from saying things that they believe to be true even if the truth is controversial.

One of the biggest problems we have today is that we have arrived at a situation where people tell us that we have free speech, only then to tell us that we only have free speech when we agree with them. This prevents us arriving at truth.

Take the issue of a film describing the biological basis of what it is to be a woman being prevented from being shown at Edinburgh University. Take the example of Joanna Cherry being prevented from speaking about her reasonable fears that she a lesbian might be expected to sleep with a transwoman with a penis because s/he too thinks s/he is a lesbian. It is not transphobic to fear what s/he might do with that penis during lesbian sex and any lesbian ought to be allowed to disagree that this transwoman really is a lesbian.

Take also David Starkey saying:

You have a Prime Minister, I think a man of immense talent, of extraordinary skill, but really not fully grounded in our culture.

This statement is controversial. Reasonable people can disagree and say it is not true. But Starkey is also an immensely talented historian, and he ought to be allowed to express opinions, which he considers to be true without being called the worst word in the English language “racist”.

Rishi Sunak is highly educated. There is every reason to suppose that he knows our culture as well as anyone else and better than many. He will most likely have studied British history at school, he will have read the best of English literature and will understand our political traditions better than most voters. But the same could be said of a Japanese lecturer or a German lecturer who has studied British history and literature.

In the UK we have since 1945 developed the idea that being British or indeed being Scottish or Welsh has nothing whatsoever to do with where your parents came from or your ethnicity. It may not even have anything to do with citizenship.

A Polish citizen arrives in Scotland and lives here for a while. He may then be described as Scottish, particularly if he agrees with Scottish independence. He may deny that he is British (Scottish not British), even though it is the British Government that gives him leave to remain.

Someone else arrives on a small boat, or at an airport and starts living in London. Almost immediately we must say that he is British or if he wishes English. Failure to do so leaves us open to accusations of racism.

But the consequence of this is that anyone in the world just by reaching our shores and living here for a while becomes automatically British, or Scottish or English or whatever other identity he chooses. It turns out that the whole world is British.

We may or may not agree with this. If we don’t we are liable to be called racist. But no one else plays by these rules and we don’t either about ourselves. If a Scot moves to England, he does not become a new English person. If an English person moves to Scotland, he does not become Scottish, his accent precludes it as does his birth.

If Joe Biden’s ancestor moves to the United States in the 1840s, he is still Irish, not because he lives in Ireland but because of his ancestry. Yet we maintain that identity has nothing to do with ancestry while all the time we have a hereditary monarchy whose justification is based on genealogy.

The truth is that if my parents moved to Poland in the 1960s and I grew up in Poland, spoke fluent Poland and knew everything about Polish history and literature, there is zero chance that I could become Prime Minister of Poland, First Minister of Silesia or even be considered Polish by most Poles whether or not I was a Polish citizen. Polish citizens from Vietnam are called Vietnamese by nearly all Poles and also by themselves.

When Poland was partitioned Poles became citizens of Prussia, Austria and Russia. But they did not believe themselves to be Prussians, Austrians and Russians. They kept their identity, their language and their religion despite there being no Poland for them to be citizens of. So how can identity be merely a matter of where you live? If that had been the case, there would have been no Poland in 1918.

So too in most of Eastern Europe there are minorities who maintain their identity. There are Belarussian citizens who are Poles. There are Hungarian citizens who are Slovaks and there are Romanian citizens who are Germans. They base their identity on their language, heritage and ethnicity.

All around the world there are people who claim an identity, and ethnicity based on something other than their citizenship. Native Americans are different from other Americans because they descend from the people who lived in pre–Columbian America. Aboriginal Australians have that identity based on their descent from people who lived in Australia prior to Captain Cook.

But in Britain it is racist to make a distinction between someone whose family arrived yesterday and someone whose family has been in Britain since Stone Henge was built. But this is absurd and also untrue.

It is good that we consider Rishi Sunak English and British and Humza Yousaf Scottish (if he does not want to be British). But prior to 1945 there was a homogenous people in Britain who descended from Celts and Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans and this mongrel mixture was as much a people as Poles, or Slovaks or Native Americans, or Aboriginals.

Since 1945 large numbers of people have arrived in Britain from overseas. The nature of what it is to be British has changed. But let us at least retain our ability to speak the truth.

Charles III is king because despite various breaks he can trace his ancestry back to at least William the Conqueror and perhaps to the Saxon kings before that. Almost everyone whose family lived in the UK prior to 1945 will at least in part be descended from the Beaker people who lived here in the Bronze Age.

Most Scots descend from the Picts and then the Scoti who arrived in the dark ages from Ireland. But it is neither rude nor racist to point out that Humza Yousaf does not descend from these people. It doesn’t make him less Scottish. We are all mongrels with ancestors from almost everywhere.

But there is a distinction between Native Americans and those who came on the Mayflower and later. There is a distinction between the Māori people who arrived in New Zealand around 1300 and those who arrived sometime after 1800. They are all New Zealanders. But a Māori might point out to someone with the name Mackenzie that you are not fully grounded in our culture without it being considered rude, untrue or racist.