Both also manage to “mention the war”, albeit obliquely in terms of “wars against tyrants” in the one case, and “leading the fight against fascism” in the other. In recent weeks, others have attempted to use past military activity in a blunter, even offensive way, such as the suggestion by a former general that independence would be a betrayal of those Scottish soldiers who had died for the Union.
There is a more general point here. Many of those espousing the values of ‘Britishness’ – even when there isn’t a referendum on – have enormous difficulty in doing so without mentioning the war, or wars. I can understand their general difficulty in defining ‘Britishness’ (I have the same difficulty in defining ‘Welshness’, as it happens), but falling back on past military glories isn’t the easy and unifying answer which they seem to assume.
Rather than defining an inclusive something of which we can all be part, the inclusion of military actions as a part of the definition always sounds to me more like an attempt to impose their own definition on the rest of us. And for those of us of a less warlike bent, it is counter-productive; it serves to emphasis the gulf in perception. It’s very much an Establishment view of the UK’s history and of what it means to be British.
Perhaps the problem lies not in the nature of the definition being offered, but in the attempt to make any sort of definition at all. I cannot define what it means to be Welsh – of course there are a range of factors involved including geography, language, culture, and, yes, history – but I’m not sure it matters. If enough people consider themselves Welsh, then ‘Wales’ exists. The fact that all of those who consider themselves ‘Welsh’ mean something slightly different is, ultimately, neither here nor there.
So – why does anyone need a definition of ‘Britishness’ at all? It seems to me that the various attempts to come up with one reflect a growing sense of insecurity amongst those making the attempt. The world is changing around them – the UK is changing around them – in ways which are deeply discomforting to them. Old certainties are being challenged and found wanting. And instead of adapting, they are clinging to the past, and demanding that the rest of us do likewise.
But, in the words of a certain relevant song, “those days are passed now”. Whatever the result tomorrow, things will never be the same again. Those who want the UK, or whatever is left of it, to continue will need to start looking more to the future than the past.