Monday, 22 February 2021

National identity doesn't have to be a zero-sum game


As Bella Caledonia pointed out yesterday, last week was a busy one for the self-styled ‘saviours of the union’ as they fight their battle to prevent the break-up of the UK, although the highlight wasn’t so much the slew of articles full of grim warnings as the resignation, after just two weeks in the post, of the man Johnson had appointed to lead the government’s work on the matter. If they can’t even maintain a united approach in Downing Street, their chances of success look slim. Part of the problem is a lack of clarity about what it is that they’re trying to maintain and what the best way of doing that is.

The PM, always a lover of grandiose and impractical follies, seems to be determined to press ahead with a tunnel linking the UK mainland to Northern Ireland, with one option being a four-tunnel approach with a splendid roundabout under the Isle of Man, as though the solution is better physical links. (Apparently, some people also believe that this will 'solve' the problems of the Northern Ireland protocol, because those silly Europeans will never think to impose checks at the end of a tunnel.) Perhaps they’ve seen the pictures of another roundabout under the Faroes, although I wonder whether they’ve thought about asking the Manx whether they want to become an English-Scottish-Irish hub; it is, perhaps, an inconvenient and ironic fact that the island enjoys rather more self-government than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and unlike the devolved administrations, the Isle of Man would be able to say ‘no’ to such a scheme.

Others in the governing cult seem to believe that plastering the union flag on anything and everything, including vaccines, will somehow make all Scots and Welsh feel more British and patriotic. It underlines, in a way, how shallow is the idea of Britishness and British patriotism; it often seems as though that particular style of patriotism is more about symbols than substance. A truly ‘patriotic’ government would ensure that none of its people went hungry, that none were excluded or left behind, that we had functioning and properly funded services. Yet for ‘patriots’ like Johnson, it’s more about declaring loyalty to a flag, to the monarchy and to the armed forces. It’s a very narrow definition of what it means to be a patriot, and part of the reason why the union is failing is precisely because increasing numbers of people, particularly in Scotland, are coming to realise both how narrow it is, and that there are alternative and more modern views. Trying to put that genie back in the bottle by imposing a uniform definition of patriotism and national identity is likely to be counter-productive, but it seems to be all that they have.

Three months ago, Johnson said that devolution had been a disaster, and he’s been trying to row back his words ever since. Last week, he said that it hadn’t, after all, been an ‘overall disaster’, the problem, it seems is that the devolved administrations haven’t used their powers in the way he would have wished. He hasn’t – yet – gone quite as far as one of his party’s members in Wales, who argued last month that the Senedd should be abolished because there is no chance of it ever electing a Tory majority, although one can’t help but wonder if that isn’t what Johnson actually thinks. Abolishing Welsh democracy because the Welsh elect the ‘wrong’ people is not an approach which any democrat would propose, but it looks entirely natural from a perspective in which god vested all power in the English monarch.

One of last week’s flurry of articles was one from a former senior adviser to David Cameron in the Financial Times. It’s behind a paywall, but there’s a summary here on Nation.Cymru. It calls for a revised devolution settlement which recognises that all sovereignty belongs to Westminster and cuts back on the extent to which the devolved administrations can follow different paths. But above all, it highlights the question of identity and demands the reassertion of a British identity, without, apparently, really defining what that is. It is that question of identity – or more precisely, the extent to which different identities should be ‘permitted’ political expression – which is at the heart of the question. There is no doubt that people who self-identify as British see their identity as being in some way threatened by way in which growing numbers of people in Wales and Scotland see their identity as being Welsh or Scottish. And that seems to be a major part of the momentum behind the anti-Senedd forces: they seem to genuinely fear that the Senedd is going to somehow impose a Welsh identity upon them, a fear which often emerges in their views on the Welsh language. Given that imposing identity, culture, and language is exactly the way in which Britishness was established in the first place, it’s easy enough to see why British nationalists would assume that everyone else would operate the same way.

It doesn’t need to be that way, though. It’s true that there are independentistas who attempt to insist that people choose between being Welsh or being British. It’s impossible, they argue, to be both. Given that large numbers of people in Wales do consider themselves to be a bit of both, telling them that they can’t has always seemed an unproductive approach to me. On the other side, it seems that British nationalists are insisting that we must all fit their definition of national identity, and that the extent to which we can be ‘different’ should be tightly limited, and mostly expressed in the field of culture rather than politics. The problem with this approach to politics is that it treats identity as a zero-sum game; we must all make a firm choice, not a vague one, and one side must emerge as the winner. In trying to eliminate the possibility that nationality (other than in the strict legal definition for purposes such as passports issued by a state) can be much more subtle than that, the approach is inherently divisive. Had British nationalism been more accommodating both of difference and of political expression of that difference over the past three decades, they might have had a better chance of saving their precious union. It is a common refrain from the unionist side that independence is all about identity politics, but they don’t even seem to realise that identity politics is even more at the heart of their own project. The result is that they are doubling down on their demand for conformity even at this late stage. It will prove to be their undoing.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Brit nationalism is all about assimilation and homogeneity with exceptions allowed for stuff like national sports teams, although there are some seriously defective wallies who'd like to unify those too ! It seems that we have a mass of people who derive some kind of security from this kind of merged identity mostly found within the AngloBrit demographic but with significant chunks of compliant Welshies( loving honours, ceremony, bowing and scraping and all that muck!). Sadly far too many of our BAME communities aspire to "succeed" by integrating into that identity also, which is surprising given the AngloBrit track record of behaviours towards them.

Bit like those dogs that get beaten but still love their owners !.