Thursday, 28 September 2017

The long road to acceptance

A debate that I’ve often had with some independentistas over the years is about the nature of national identity.  For me, national identity is ultimately a subjective concept rather than an objective one.  There are objective realities which may affect the sense of identity felt by an individual, such as history, language, place of birth, place of residence, but the decision to ‘feel’ Welsh, English or whatever is an inherently subjective one.  Identity is also fluid and flexible; it can change over time and it means different things to different people.  Such an approach also allows of the possibility that people can feel multiple identities, such as Welsh, British, and European, all at the same time, and even in different proportions in different contexts.
Others reject that approach and demand that people accept the identity that they wish to give them.  In that vein, some Welsh independentistas demand that people choose between being Welsh or British – or even more strongly, demand that they accept that they are Welsh whether they want to be or not.  It’s a closed approach to the subject.  And it seems to me that it’s not only counter-productive, but it also denies the reality of life in Wales.  If people want to consider themselves both Welsh and British – which is where most people in Wales would probably place themselves today – who are we to tell them that they can’t have that option; they must choose one or the other?  Besides, for those of us who believe that sovereignty belongs to all of us rather than having been invested by god in the monarch, whether people feel a common sense of identity is merely an aid to any decision to take control of their own lives rather than a prerequisite.
One of the uglier aspects of the Brexit landscape in the UK is the way in which the cheerleaders for Brexit take a very black and white (pun not entirely unintended) view of identity and seek to impose that on the rest of us.  We’ve had Theresa May claiming that anyone who wants to be a citizen of the world is actually a citizen of nowhere, and last week, Boris Johnson decried the ‘split personality’ of young people who think that they can be European as well as, or even instead of, being British.  And Boris isn’t the only one who thinks that the UK can and should be the ‘greatest country in the world’; it seems to be a core belief for many of them.  Another aspect of this has been the branding as ‘traitors’ of anyone who doesn’t ‘get behind’ the decision to leave.
It’s a form of nationalism which I fear, with its inherent notions of superiority and exclusiveness.  I don’t particularly want to live in the ‘greatest’ country; I want to live in a confident and relaxed country which sees itself as just one part of the wider world community, and as an equal with other parts.  There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in past achievements as long as we also acknowledge past mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting ‘our’ side to do well in rugby or football, but when the people of a country start to believe that they are in any sense ‘better’ or ‘greater’ than everyone else, it becomes unhealthy and dangerous.  Yet it is precisely that belief which seems to be coming to the fore at present.
Life outside the EU – if that actually happens – is likely to be something of a revelation to those who take such a view, even if perversely, in the short term, it serves only to reinforce their view that ‘we’ must be better or the rest of them wouldn’t be out to get us.  The road away from painting a quarter of the world red on the map to an acceptance of the reality of the UK’s position in the world has been a long and tortuous one.  It still has a few twists and turns to come as the readjustment continues.  Life post-Brexit will be uncomfortable for those of us who take a rather more flexible view on identity, but it would probably turn out to be the last hurrah for the faded glory of the past.
But if there’s an element of hope and optimism to be found in the whole Brexit shambles it is that the outcome could yet be a humbled UK deciding to remain, followed in due course by the independence of the last remaining outposts of empire.  An England which could be at peace with itself, and accept a role as an equal partner, rather than trying to make its own rules and dominate others, would find it had rather more friends in the world than the UK seems to have – or even want – at the moment.


Anonymous said...

Surprisingly I suspect most people throughout the UK never consider their 'national identity'. Why should they. Certainly no English person does. It never crosses their mind. And I suspect the same is true for a lot of people in Wales, especially for those blessed with an English education.

'English nationalism' has never really been an issue. The history of the British Empire provides a confident backstory and the English (and until recently Scottish) education system provides reassurance that the future will always be bright.

How we would all wish the same for Wales and those that have to endure a 'Welsh education'.

John Dixon said...

"Surprisingly I suspect most people throughout the UK never consider their 'national identity'." Not sure what point you're trying to make there. If you mean that it's not something that people worry about a great deal, because it is just such a natural thing, then I'd agree. If you mean that they feel no sense of any form of national identity, then I'd say you're flying in the face of what people say when asked to state their nationality. It may not be a big deal to people, but that doesn't mean that they don't feel a sense of identity.

As far as your comments on education go, I am well aware by now that you believe that all the ills of Wales and the Welsh are the result of us being poor and thick a a result of having been eprived of a proper English education, but it's an obsession of yours based on unevidenced and repeated assertion and with which I have grown bored, so will not respond further here.

"'English nationalism' has never really been an issue. The history of the British Empire provides a confident backstory..." Yes,I think that illustrates the problem of English nationalism better than anything I could say.

Anonymous said...

I have never understood why some Welsh nationalists refuse to accept that people can consider their national identity to be both Welsh and British. It is an attitude every bit as absurd as that of those who refuse to consider the Welsh a nation and insist that we are all British, whether we like it or not.

John Dixon said...

I agree. But I suspect that both attitudes stem from essentially the same source - the idea that the 'natural' unit of human governance is the nation-state. Such a concept flies in the face of the objective reality of course - how many European states contain one single whole nation? But the 'nationalists' get round that: in the case of British nationalists by insisting that the nation is the same as the state, so we are all British, and in the case of Welsh nationalists by insisting that we are all Welsh and therefore 'must' become a state.

This is part of the reason why I prefer, these days, to use the term independentista instead; for me the right of any people living in a defined area to claim self-government depends not on the existence or otherwise of this elusive subjective entity called a nation but on the fact that sovereignty belongs to the people themselves. The feeling of national identity may strengthen the desire for independence, but it is not the sole foundation of, or justification for, that right.