What does it mean to be British?

What does it mean to be British?

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)

An academic adrift? How to be an independent scholar

What does an academic do when s/he is not in the academy?

This a question that I ask myself nearly everyday. What does it mean to be an independent scholar?

It is a strange one, because being a scholar is sort of like ‘being a catholic’. That is, once a scholar, always…

I haven’t been a ‘proper’ academic since September 2012, when my position of honorary professor at the University of Aberdeen came to an end. I don’t have any affiliation to go on my CV or my tagline, it is sort of awkward to say that I ‘used to be’ somewhere.

My being institutionally adrift goes back further than that, though. In fact the last time I went into work as an academic was 22 June 2011, the day I was suspended from my academic position at Al-Maktoum College in Dundee. I remember the day well, of course, but not fondly.

I have been working as a full time academic for twenty years, since I was first appointed to the position of lecturer at King’s College London in 1991. It has really become second nature to me – it is the world I live and breath.

But my removal from an academic position two years ago, and my subsequent failure to find anything else in the mean time, does not mean that I have stopped being an academic.

After all, not having a contract of employment with a university or college (and a regular paycheck) does not mean that you stop thinking, and seeing the world from a scholarly viewpoint.


The trick is to put one foot in front of the other

It does not stop me from writing, and planning research. The lack of paycheck does of course stop me doing a lot of things that I would be able to do if I was employed as a professor. As I have no such source of income, I have to find other ways of earning money to support myself and my family, and this does often muddle up the concentration and focus (and free time) that is needed to do the academic writing I would like to do.

I have also had to spend the last two years dealing with the legal, emotional and other consequences of being treated brutally by my former employers. As various news clippings on the web show, I had to take the Al-Maktoum College to an employment tribunal because of the way they behaved (to me and to others). I lost this claim, but the legal battle is not over yet by far, and in the process I was myself branded as a liar by the judge who heard my claims.

Needless to say it has not been a good time during this period, and I have been in a position of being without employment and income, alienated and scapegoated by many of my former colleagues, and having to handle my own depression alongside my wife having post traumatic stress disorder as a consquence of the appaling behaviour of the Al Maktoum College.

I don’t want to labour this point, after all I don’t want to sound bitter… I would sum all that up with the simple words of the Bard:

I like to think that ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning’.

But not all independent academics are in my position. For some, being an academic outside of the constraints and limitations of an educational instutation is a lifestyle choice. I worked for many years in a private non-state college (Al-Maktoum) and I enjoyed the many elements of the small organisation that made it different from a large university. It had fluidity and room for the human (much of the time), whilst at the same time allowing opportunities to be developed and flourish.


Freedom, fluidity, and the safety of the institution

I have spent a lot of time also in the big ‘machines’ of universities, and simultaneously appreciated and hated the rigid bureacratisation that such machines require for functioning. It has only been when the fluidity of the small college degenerated into a disfunctional group of knee-jerk reactions, with Al-Maktoum’s most senior officers making ill informed off-the-cuff decisions for dubious reasons, that I have come to appreciate the protections that large scale universities offer within their impersonal machinery.

If a small college does not have a suitable structure of corporate governance, then it becomes no more than the sum of a few petty prejudices. Put that together with ignorance, malice and a large dose of bullying, and the structures of a large university seem much more appealing than the small environment of a private college.

But at the moment, I am on the outside of the academy because of circumstance and not because of choice.

I am very determined that my academic life will go on despite this, and regardless of where I go. Thankfully I have been commissioned by my publisher to revise my introductory book Religion the Basics, to have it republished in a third edition. My circumstances have made me unwell, and that has delayed this project, but I am excited about updating and improving this for a new generation of students in the field of religion and culture.

I wrote the book initially back in 2002 because I felt there was a strong need for students to come to the topic of religion with a new perspective, and to find some means to understand a whole new set of questions being asked by the scholars in the field.

I think this is just as important now as it was then. Everything has moved along a little. But the need to distinguish studies of religion from faith and theology, and to place the study of religion in relation to the study of culture, are both as equally relevant now as they were in those initial post 9/11 days.

Despite illness, lack of employment and many other things, I am also able to continue with making a mark in this area with my editing the journal Culture and Religion. I hope that others still find this useful and an important part of the professional development of the field. I have been making this journal happen for over ten years now (with the help of many others, in particular Steve Sutcliffe, Paul Tremlett, Stefanie Sinclair and the Routledge editorial team over the years) and have enjoyed much of it for most of the time. But I still feel as new to it as I did when the whole idea of the journal Culture and Religion came together in 1999, and there is a lot more that I would like to do with it.


A professor does need to profess to someone…

The one thing that I miss though – and I think this is the biggest problem for an academic outside of the academy – is teaching. I remember when I entered the process twenty years ago (after three years of PhD study and the years before that of undergraduate study and various life experiences), it came as a surprise to me how much I enjoyed student interaction and engagement.

It is not about the ‘standing in front of a classroom’. It is about meeting with minds, and of two way learning and engagement. I do not miss stacks of essays and exams to read through and grade, and all the pressures of quality assurance that can help and hinder the learning environment. But if you are a scholar then you are within an ocean of thought, that can often make you realise how inconsequential your own particular droplets of thinking are within this wider context.

And yet at the same time, as a teacher (as with a writer) you are not merely an atom or a repository, you are an agent of change. You can helps others to think about the world around them, to see relationships and ideas in new ways, and to think beyond your own limitations of thought and understanding. In doing so you also become changed (unlike an ‘agent’ in its classical sense), as your students themselves become agents of your change and development.

It is great fun, and without it I do not think I could have been a scholar – or at least I could not have been the scholar that I have so far become.

I am glad to have been standing on the sidelines of the UK REF (the Research Excellence Framework) this time around. I have watched and pitied the harsh institutional and managerial pressures that bear down on scholars from this system.

As someone who has managed, I can appreciate much of the machinery of the system that is required to make it work, and to use it as a means to govern universities as a whole, and help individuals and groups of scholars to grow and develop. But there is much pain that also comes out of this system. After seeing RAEs and REFs and other schemes running over the past 25 years I still cannot say that the benefits of such an approach to the management of research are worth the harm that the systems cause.


The State of Independence

So this is where I am at the moment. I am an academic who is still searching for a way back into the academic world, without any idea of how and where that will happen.

As an scholar who has spent his career trying to understand, and to teach about, the questions of diversity and multiculturalism I still have a lot of thinking to do around my subject. In particular, I am trying to work out what the past couple of years of being on the end of some pernicious discrimination can teach me about the questions and debates that go on around the world on multiculturalism, difference, and Islam. It was quite ironic that it was just after I finished co-writing a chapter on Religion and Controversy with a colleague (Paul Weller) that controversy and religion hit me personally in a nasty way.

I know there is a book to write about this, it will be challenging to me to write, and I hope it will be a challenging read for others.

That is why you can take the scholar out of the academy (sometimes quite literally), but you cannot take the academic out of the scholar.