Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Emblems and Britishness

At the weekend, it was announced that Paul McCartney had added his voice to the list of ‘slebs’ urging the Scots to reject Independence on 18th September.  I’ve never really understood the desire of politicians to garner the support of slebs; I suppose star backing may influence some people, but it adds little to the substance of any debate.  Whatever, McCartney is as entitled to hold and express an opinion on the matters of the day as I am, even if that opinion seems, as others have pointed out, to be at variance with views expressed in another context.
What interested me more was the comment by the historian Tom Holland, who with Dan Snow is behind the “Let’s Stay Together” campaign.  He said, “Who better to appreciate the costs of a fractious break-up than Paul McCartney.  To this day, the Beatles serve as emblems of Britain at its most joyous, creative and generous”.
Leaving aside the question of whether the Beatles have always been seen in that light – I seem to remember that the Establishment did not look so kindly upon them in the 1960s, but that’s just showing my age – it tells us more about Holland and Snow’s conception of ‘Britain’ that it does about the arguments for and against Scottish independence.  And it underlines, yet again, the difficulty of defining nationality and national characteristics.  If I don’t see the Beatles as being in any way an ‘emblem’ for ‘Britain’ as a whole, does that make me un-British?  (And note that asking that question has nothing to do with liking the music or not.)
At a legal level, nationality is very easy to define.  My passport defines me as a ‘British Citizen’ – which is at least a step forward from being a subject of Her Britannic Majesty which is the way my very first passport defined me – but that’s actually just short-hand for ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.  But being British (or perhaps Ukanian would be a more accurate description) by law isn’t the end of the matter for any of us.
Ultimately the most important aspect of nationality is the subjective one.  We’re Welsh, British, or English because we choose to be, not because the law says so, and not because any of those things are so clearly defined that we can objectively be placed into one or other category.  And there’s nothing stopping people from identifying with more than one of those categories – indeed, very many people in Wales do indeed see themselves as both Welsh and British; two different but overlapping nationalities which don’t have to be in conflict.  Whilst one can point to some common factors such as geography, place of birth, history, and language as indicators of the circumstances which give rise to a feeling of national identity, there are probably as many different definitions of the word ‘Welsh’ as there are people who consider themselves such.
Where problems often arise is when people attempt to project their own definition of national characteristics and that which constitutes nationality onto others, as if there is an objective definition; which brings us back to Holland, as well as to those who are always banging on about ‘British’ values.  Clearly, feelings of nationality will play a part in the outcome of the vote on September 18th, which is both natural and inevitable.  But somehow, I don’t think that telling the Scots that the Beatles are an emblem of all that’s best about the union will hold much sway.  The only surprising thing is that anyone should think that it would.


Anonymous said...

Good post. But sadly no time to comment owing to a trip to Venice.

In Venice I will describe myself as British to any that enquire. And I will espouse the values of Britishnes at all times. As for where I live I will say Wales.

No confusion there I hope!

John Dixon said...

"... the values of Britishness..."

I'm glad we're clear about that, but if you can define said values in a way which is uniquely 'British', you'll surprise me yet.