Why the British may one day learn to be more like the Scandinavians

published on medium.com, 11 August 2014

(A version of this blog is available on my podcast, to listen click through here)

Who (what) am I?

I have always struggled to have a clear idea of my national identity. I was born in Wales, grew up in England and Wales, and I have spent much of my adult life in Scotland. Because of this, it has always felt more convenient to think of myself as ‘British’ rather than anything more specific.

I may soon find myself with a problem. It is possible that the national identity of ‘Britishness’ will change in the aftermath of the 18 September 2014 referendum. If the majority of the people of Scotland vote ‘yes’ for independence, then which passport will I decide to have? I could keep my UK passport and so become a foreign national in the place where I live, or otherwise I could take a Scottish passport. Maybe I will be able to hold both. Whatever happens, I don’t know which I will choose.

Will I no longer be British if I don’t have a British passport?

Nationality is more than a matter of identity. Or to put this otherwise, identity is more than a matter of nationality. Sometimes the two overlap quite easily, and we have a passport that states clearly who we think we are. For someone whose family has lived in Scotland for generations then it may be an exciting prospect to have a Scottish passport, when they become available. Likewise, perhaps one day we will see the issuing of English, Welsh, Yorkshire, or Cornish passports? Who knows?

Regardless of how the independence vote goes in September, I believe that we are learning a new aspect of our collective identities. That is, what does it mean to be British?

British as a default nationality

For those living in Scotland, Wales, and England, ‘Britishness’ is their default nationality. And for those like me whose lives and families have spanned the borders of each separate country, it has been a ‘national’ identity that encompasses several aspects of their diversity.

As a nationality it is rather troublesome, not least because the sovereign nation of the United Kingdom is made up of both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not all UK citizens are British, not least, of course, those in the Six Counties who consider themselves Irish (over half a million).

And the legal identity of being a ‘British subject’ has been used historically in many different ways, including until 1949, any resident of the British Empire. It is still in use for a very limited and dwindling number of individuals who once lived under British colonial rule, in places such as (what is now) the Republic of Ireland (until 1949), the former Malayan colonies of Penang and Malacca (which are now part of Malaysia), and Hong Kong.

Indeed, the historian Duncan Bell has shown how just over a century ago, the idea of ‘Greater Britain’ brought together a range of thinkers around the idea of politically united state, including Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the United Kingdom.

All this notwithstanding, the term ‘British citizen’ now technically refers to a citizen of the United Kingdom – that is, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and England.

That will, of course, change if Scotland becomes independent. Citizens of Scotland will become Scottish citizens (but may still remain British citizens if the remaining UK government chooses to allow such dual citizenship with Scotland).

Being British without being British?

So if Scotland becomes independent, and I trade in my UK passport for a Scottish one, will I stop being British? Or more broadly, will Scotland stop being British if/when it becomes independent?

This is where Britishness becomes something more than about citizenship and passports. Just as it is possible to have a UK passport and be a ‘British citizen’ without being ‘British’ (i.e., being an Irish citizen of the UK in Northern Ireland), the identity of being ‘British’ goes further than the technicalities of citizenship.

The idea of Britishness has a history, it was at one point ‘invented’ (as so many such terms tend to be), making use of historical (largely Greek and Roman) sources to give legitimacy and roots to the concept.

Britishness and the idea of Britain have been shaped in large part by power, particularly the power of England in relation to the smaller nations of Scotland and Wales, and the forced marriages that took place over the centuries to create the entity that is now the United Kingdom. The sense of Britishness largely came into being with the Act of Union in 1707, when the separate kingdoms of England (including Wales) and Scotland became united as the Kingdom of Great Britain. It was later embedded into a national identity when a further union occurred in 1800, to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

And not least, the idea of Britishness emerged from defining the nation, culture, and place in a global context – the empire that was British, rather than specifically English. The Britishness of the empire became the default form of identity of the political configuration that grew out of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’s global dominance in the nineteenth century. (Which became the present UK in 1922, when Ireland became independent.)

Britishness and the idea of Britishness have also continued to change and be developed. The former Education Secretary Michael Gove may have found it easy to talk of ‘British values’ in the schools of England and Wales. This notwithstanding, in the nineteenth century such ‘British values’ were quite distinct from anything we might feel appropriate today.

And whilst the term Britishness has always needed to encompass a diversity of peoples, for most people (UKIP and BNP supporters notwithstanding) the idea of twenty-first century British identity is rooted in a multicultural and religiously diverse context that has changed almost beyond recognition in the last fifty years.

That change has now happened, as I have argued in the Huffington Post. The idea of a ‘racially homogenous’ British identity does not match any reality. Britishness is now mixed up and heterogeneous.

Is Britain the new Scandinavia?

If Scottish voters choose independence, Scotland will move out of the United Kingdom, but will not move geographically out of the British Isles. The culture of Scotland will not change dramatically from what it was before.

Scottish culture has for centuries been a distinctive (and often leading and progressive) branch of British culture. However we may define Scots culture, it shares much with its immediate neighbours to the south, whilst also having strong elements of difference.

In short, it may happen that Scots in an independent nation may trade in their British passports for Scottish ones. But they will not lose their British culture and identities.

The most useful analogy is probably to look across the North Sea to the distinct national identities of the Scandinavians. The political histories of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have been linked in various ways, but they have survived into present day collective identities of difference, under the identity of being Scandinavian. This is not a national identity, and unlike Britishness it has never been a basis for such nationality.

But if the people of the various British countries (Wales, England, and Scotland) can see themselves mirrored in their three near neighbours of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, then the collective identity of being British is not so different from how the people of those countries have lived with being Scandinavian without necessarily being a single political (or national) entity.

Like the UK, the boundaries of Scandinavia have been contested. Finland was once part of Sweden, but is not considered to be Scandinavian in the proper sense. Iceland, the Faroes, and Greenland all have close cultural and historical ties with Scandinavia, but are more properly considered as part of the group of ‘Nordic countries’ rather than as Scandinavian. Scandinavia has seen a single currency, and sporadic attempts at political union, but has broadly settled into three independent nations sharing a common (more regional and broadly cultural) identity.

This gives me some answers the issue of my identity. I may eventually hold a Scottish passport, based on longevity of residence in Scotland. I may see my ‘roots’ as being primarily English, since both my parents originated from the south east of England. I also have a deep affectual relationship with Wales, where I lived for much of my childhood.

And because I come from the family of nations that make up the British Isles, I have no problem with thinking of myself also as British. That does not need to be a national identity, but rather something that describes much more than what is printed on my passport.

It will be interesting to see how well the rest of the English learn to live with the idea that Britishness is not something that comes from a political union within the British Isles, but is an identity freely chosen by its diverse people.

The term ‘Great Britain’ may have resonances of an enforced union, led by the dominant England as it expanded its political influence.

But that does not prevent the idea of ‘being British’ having a less politically charged nuance, describing a family of equals rather than serving as the template for a local and global empire.

When that happens, it is likely that the idea of being British – in its diverse, multicultural, and progressive sense – will be attractive to most of the inhabitants of this small group of islands.

(Photo by Stuart Anthony, ‘Flags’, reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0)

What does it mean to be British?

by Malory Nye time to read: 6 min
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