Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 6: Culture


The last of the usual arguments for the continuation of the union considered in this series of articles is to do with the culture of these islands. It is true that, in the widest sense of culture and human knowledge the world has gained much from the efforts of the peoples of these islands, particularly in the field of science and understanding. The problem, though, is that the nationalist proponents of this argument usually fall back on two major things (it's a bit of an oversimplification, but not that much of one) – Shakespeare and the English language. The importance of Shakespeare and his contribution to English culture should not be underestimated, but he was writing at a time before the UK existed. He was a product of England (into which Wales had already been incorporated) rather than of Britain, and the continued emphasis on him as some sort of ‘British’ icon is both historically inaccurate and dismissive of the work of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish writers. Indeed, more generally the emphasis on English language culture as ‘the’ culture of the British Isles ignores the parallel cultures of those speaking the other native languages of Britain. What they present as ‘British’ culture looks, all too often, as simply rebadged English culture. And they don’t even realise that.

It’s true that the English language (or as many increasingly call it, American) has come to dominate the world for many purposes, not least trade. But that didn’t come about because ‘we’ generously ‘gave’ it to the world; it came about because it was imposed on conquered peoples in colonised territories by force. And the same goes for those parts of the UK where other languages were universally spoken before English was imposed. Whilst being a native speaker of what has become the most widely spoken commercial language certainly bestows many advantages, that doesn’t make the language in some way ‘superior’ to others. Assuming that we should take pride in the outcome whilst ignoring the process is an unrealistic ask of those within these islands who still use other native, and historically persecuted, languages, to identify just one group.

It would be possible to develop a view of ‘British’ culture which was more inclusive and less jingoistic, and which recognised that ‘British’ culture is neither homogeneous nor the same thing as English culture. But that would mean, in effect, that the Anglo-British defenders of the union would have to change their view of what the UK is rather than simply demand that we all accept and buy into their view. It’s an impossible ask. If I were looking for a strong argument for the union, I wouldn’t try and base it on the imposition of English culture.

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