Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Identity Politics

It’s an odd time to be Scottish and living in England. There’s an election taking place on Thursday that may change my nationality—or at least my sense of nationality. That’s a disturbing notion. People kill and get killed when their nationality is called into question. But it’s only now, in the shadow cast by the likelihood of a Yes vote in favor Scottish independence and the break-up of a 300-year old union, that I’ve begun to take this election seriously.

I was born in Scotland, and grew up in the austere Scottish countryside. The Scottish landscape is a fundamental part of who I am, and I feel biologically linked to it. In other words, Scotland is an inextricable part of me.

I went to the local village school, and then to the school in the nearest big town (which really wasn’t big except in the staggering ability of its inhabitants to interest themselves in the lives of each other). To walk down the main street was to encounter dozens of people I knew and who knew me. I didn’t know it then, but this is what a community is: it’s life on a human scale with everyone feeling a sense of ownership of the place they live in.

But at the time, I loathed it.

The idea that I knew everyone and that they knew me was a sort of prison. Escape was a matter of the utmost urgency. Of course, I now see this as my inability to live in my own skin. I was a work-in-progress, and unable to withstand the intrusive scrutiny of others. And so, as soon as I was able, I did what thousands of Scots had done before me, I packed a bag and left. I didn’t leave for just anywhere, though: I left for London, where I’ve lived ever since, revelling in the sense of anonymity that the UK’s capital offers, and thrilled by the discovery that, like any great megacity, London is mostly unknowable and inexhaustible in its attractions.

Up until now, life in modern Britain has meant that I can retain my Scottishness without ever having that allegiance tested. No one has ever asked me to defend or reconsider my status as a Scottish Brit. I support Scotland in sporting events; especially if it’s against England—and I recognize the unfairness with which England, the bigger nation, has throughout history used its military and political power to keep Scotland in its place. Even today, Scots are faced with the undemocratic reality of being governed by a political party who have only one Scottish MP.

In the last few days before polling, and as a Yes vote becomes more likely, big powerful forces—leaders of the main UK political parties, banks, and industries, and other wielders of power—have launched finely tuned, media savvy scaremongering PR campaigns in favor of a No vote. It’s hard to think of anything more likely to push undecided voters into the Yes camp.

If I lived in Scotland and had the right to vote, I might feel differently, but I’m in the No camp. To be in the No camp is to be aligned with some reactionary and unsavory forces—banks, big business, the Orange Order, and Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-EU UKIP party. Even Henry Kissinger is against Scottish independence.

But my support for the No vote is based on an instinct that, despite all its faults and myriad shortcomings, modern Britain stands as a successful example of four interdependent states living in relative harmony in the twenty-first century—and this despite a slaughter-filled past going back to beyond the dark ages, and the still raw wound of the Northern Ireland “troubles.”

As the former British Prime Minster Gordon Brown argues in a long article in support of maintaining the UK: “ … we redefined the idea of citizenship from one based just on civil and political rights in one nation to one based on civil political social and economic rights shared across nations. Even today no other group of nations—neither the EU, nor the states that make up the USA—has evolved such a sophisticated form of citizenship.” I also fear an England without a Scotland to remind it that it has responsibilities and needs to consider others on occasion. Scotland and the other two states in the Union are a constant reminder to the far larger England that it cannot act like the imperial power it once was. Without Scotland, and its role as sort of counterbalance to English power and self-confidence, I see only the rise of Little Englander-ism, and the growth of far right parties advocating isolationism and withdrawal from the EU.

No matter what happens on Thursday, I can’t imagine ever not feeling Scottish. But more than this, I take pride in belonging to a funny little island grouping on the edge of Europe—with all its faults—that stands as an exemplar of peaceful co-existence, tolerance, and democracy.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Politics

Comments [1]

I'm having a hard time understanding how Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland "are a constant reminder to the far larger England that it cannot act like the imperial power it once was". Would England have an even stronger nagging feeling to "consider others" had Ireland remained a subject? Canada? The U.S.? To the contrary, it would seem that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are a reminder that they are the last remaining subjects of an imperial power. Despite Gordon Brown's idealistic evocation of Adam Smith, it's a matter of political and bureaucratic necessity, not enlightened humanism — all empires, especially colonial ones, have complicated citizenship regimes. I'm having an even harder time understanding your claim that the UK stands as an exemplar of democracy, particularly because you live in such close proximity to the most undemocratic municipality in the land: The Corporation of the City of London. And for all the democratic reforms Brown mentions in his Guardian article, more than a decade of Labour rule couldn't get the job done (nor could any of the previous Labour governments). If anything, Scottish independence should put UK structural reforms back to the front burner of the political debate. It seems entirely plausible that independence would result in a more democratic polity on both sides of the border.
Patrick St. John

Jobs | June 14