After the eternal navel-gazing of Hackgate, I was delighted to find a real discussion kicked off by Pete Wishart’s article on Britishness in Newsnet Scotland. His open queries came immediately under sustained attack from people whose position seems more like Irish nationalists a century ago than modern Scots. However, over the weekend Newsnet Scotland saw fit to publish a further article on the matter by Paul Kavanaugh that broadens discussion to cultural groups around Europe and how they do not carry the same baggage that “British” still seems to. And, simply because such a range of opinions exists, isn’t it time we Scots sorted ourselves out on this?
I am with Pete and Paul. Despite great respect for Wallace, England is not foreign to me, any more than Ireland or Wales or, for that matter, Orkney, despite each having a culture distinct from my own lowland Scots. I’m delighted to surprise Welsh friends with tales of their ‘Old North’. After the Welsh Gododdin succumbed, this area was English until Malcolm II knocked heads at Carham in 1058, whereupon our Southern cousins soon got too distracted by French-speaking Vikings to ever get it back. Add in a half millennium of our close ties with Flanders, the Hanseatic ports and much of Scandinavia and you start to put our culture on a much broader basis than a London-dominated state that painted a fifth of the world map pink. Yet the word to describe it is ‘British’.
We Scots never really embraced English jingoism. But then, post-Carham, we were never threatened by ‘real’ foreigners, the way the English were by the Armada or Napoleon. And, once the bad taste of Darien was washed away, first, by post-1707 prosperity, then the agricultural and industrial revolutions in which all four ‘British’ nations joined with enthusiasm, the idea of anything other than ‘British’ to describe the team that went on to build the world’s most successful empire would be ludicrous.
If colonial ventures are not to your taste, the manner in which the British stood their ground in two world wars—even when the sacrifice was huge and the post-Dunkirk future hopeless—gives us shared heritage and pride it would be churlish to ignore. Had we nothing else, that we never gave in and faced down Fascism should give us common pride and bonds lasting generations.
I am proud to be an internationalist, with longstanding German, Belgian, American and even Macaoese friends. But, fond of them as I am, none are brothers or sisters in the way those who inhabit these islands are. In Galway and Cork I feel more at home than in the middle of a Gaelic conversation in Stornoway; Cardigan Bay delights me as much as views of Fidra or the Bass; the sleepy lanes of rural Norfolk are even cosier than the back roads of Lothian that I love. Our common culture, as mundane as a good cup of tea or Monty Python humour or the great pop culture Pete refers to, seems obvious to me. If there are barriers to appreciating Yeats or Dylan Thomas, I fail to see them. If I like Vaughan Williams over MacMillan, does that make me English? Or if Capercaillie opens my country’s culture to me while Irish folk leaves me cold, does that make me a xenophobe?
The richness that all of us bring to these islands is surely a matter of celebration and pride. Sweden once dominated Scandinavia as Spain once occupied all of Portugal. but Greig and Sibelius, Munch and Nokia, not to mention Telemark skiing and saunas are just some of the contributions their neighbours have made to not just Scandinavian culture but to the world. With its centuries of broad links with the wider world and its history of amicable, active ties with Celtic brethren, Scotland, which has contributed so much to ‘British’ culture to date, has a pivotal role to play in its future—once we sort out this ‘last colony’ anachronism among some of our more benighted English cousins.