Britishness is about pop and fish ‘n’ chips

KENNY FARQUHARSON identifies an emotive case for the Union that has so far eluded Unionist politicians


IN MANY interviews down the years, usually when rebutting suggestions of latent anti-Englishness within the SNP, Alex Salmond has been fond of describing himself as an anglophile.

This has always puzzled me, because I’ve seen little sign of it. Salmond’s cultural reference points, in as much as they can be discerned, contain nothing that suggests an abiding love of the green and pleasant land furth of the Tweed. His political hero, Charles Stewart Parnell, is an Irishman. His favourite poet, RS Thomas, is Welsh. His favourite singer, the wonderful Paul Robeson, is American. When Salmond was on Desert Island Discs his musical choices were, for the most part, predictably Caledonian. He holidays on Colonsay. His favourite book from last year was James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still.

True, Salmond loved his time as an MP in London, preferring it in many ways to being an MSP in Edinburgh. But I always put this down to his love of the clubbable atmosphere in the House of Commons and the relative absence of aggressive Scottish reporters, rather than the ability to amble around picturesque villages in Sussex and Cambridgeshire, or frequent the Royal Academy and National Theatre. But we must take the first minister at his word, so an anglophile he must be.

Maybe it’s just as well. Salmond’s deep appreciation of all things English may ultimately prove to be a political asset. Because it seems to me that the English may have more of an influence on the debate about Scotland’s future than any of us may have realised.

I came to this conclusion while watching BBC’s Newsnight last Monday, when most of the UK-networked section of the programme was devoted to the prospect of Scottish independence, and its potential consequences for England. I admit, I switched on with a heavy heart, expecting little in the way of enlightenment. I was wrong.

What surprised me was the tone struck by most of the English participants as they put the case for the survival of the United Kingdom. Frankly, it was a far more subtle and persuasive argument for the Union than I’ve ever heard from any Scottish Unionist politician. Instead of the usual scaremongering, number-bashing and constitutional nitpicking, what we were treated to was less an argument and more an emotional response, a very human reaction to a potentially momentous political event. One of the participants was Don Letts, the black British musician and film-maker who was a collaborator with The Clash and was influential in the marriage of punk and reggae that was one of the most interesting aspects of music in the late 1970s. He rejected a suggestion that a Scots breakaway would be a good thing for English identity. No thanks, he said. That was “a step backwards”. He was more comfortable being British.

And how was this Britishness defined? According to the English people in the audience it was predicated on common British values: tolerance; diversity; shared endeavour; unity; moderation; fair play; innovation; solidarity. All were presented as good reasons for the nations of these islands to stick together, to accentuate what we had in common rather than what divided us. The participants were clearly unsettled by the prospect of this commonality being lost. The idea saddened them.

I’ve never heard a Unionist argument this effective in 20 years of covering Scottish politics. Sometimes, it seems, you don’t know what you’ve got until you see it defined by someone else. This argument for the survival of Britain does, I believe, have real resonance for Scots. It rings true, and is far more effective than the usual politics of fear.

Gordon Brown, aided and abetted by Douglas Alexander, spent a lot of time trying to define a positive sense of modern Britishness and failed to come up with something this persuasive, and with such an emotional tug. They failed to convince because they concentrated unduly on the influence of great British institutions such as the National Health Service, the Welfare State and the shared experience of the Second World War. These have their place in the British mindmap, but they are tired memes whose power to move people is limited and diminishing.

Far more important, and much more resonant, and almost completely unexplored by Scottish politicians arguing the case for the Union, is the sense of Britishness that was on display on Newsnight last week. And that’s before we factor in the shared popular culture that Brown and Alexander simply didn’t have a feel for. More powerful than the NHS, Lancaster bombers, the monarchy and the British Legion, are alternative emblems such as Blue Peter, the Grand National, fish’n’chips and – most powerful of all – the cultural heft of half a century of distinctively British pop music.

The emotional power of this alternative definition of Britishness is a problem for the SNP. Because the Nationalists now make a very strict distinction between the ‘social’ Union (a good thing) and the ‘political’ Union (a bad thing). Increasingly, the fight for Scottish independence rests on the SNP’s ability to drive a wedge between these two aspects of Britishness, to persuade Scots they can have the social Union in all its warmth and richness, and still live in an politically independent Scotland.

That’s a tall order, because the referendum on independence is not going to be a coldly analytical argument about constitutions – it will be a tug-of-war of emotions, identities and loyalties. And the SNP cannot bring innate Scots patriotism into play without also allowing the innate sense of British belonging. Here’s to a fascinating voyage of self-discovery.

Kenny Farquharson is Deputy Editor of Scotland on Sunday, where this column was originally published. Follow Kenny on Twitter at @KennyFarq.

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28 thoughts on “Britishness is about pop and fish ‘n’ chips

  1. For me, as an Englishman who believes in the union, it can be very hard to put into words exactly why. I truly believe that the UK nations are stronger together than apart, but I think really that Britishness lies more in the heart than in any reasons we may try to find to support it.

    The UK is a bit like a dysfunctional family, IMO. We may not always exactly see eye to eye and there will be times when we flat out disagree, but at heart we are family and if the chips are really down we pull together because we ARE family.

    Part of what makes us who we are, I believe, is the concept of ‘Britishness’, which has no equivalent I know of anywhere in the world. One might originally be from any of the UK nations or any other place in the world, yet still be British if that is where one’s heart lies. It is the ultimate beacon of tolerance, acceptance and the acknowledgement that we can be different in so many ways, yet still one in our hearts.

    Over-emotional bilge, a lot of you may think. But hopefully some of you might understand what I mean. I’m sure the Newsnight audience would 🙂

  2. “Increasingly, the fight for Scottish independence rests on the * ability * to persuade Scots they can have the social Union in all its warmth and richness, and still live in an politically independent Scotland.”

    Are you saying that this is not possible?

  3. Um, yes some of the programme was interesting puting forward the idea of the Union as the salad bowl as opposed to the melting pot (and there’s no mention of the fact that most Scots music tastes are heavily influenced by across the Atlantic, in a totaly diferent way to our countrymen down south). But at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to the economy more than any fondness to Coronation Street, The Clash or the works of Peter Saville.

  4. “And how was this Britishness defined? According to the English people in the audience it was predicated on common British values: tolerance; diversity; shared endeavour; unity; moderation; fair play; innovation; solidarity. All were presented as good reasons for the nations of these islands to stick together, to accentuate what we had in common rather than what divided us. The participants were clearly unsettled by the prospect of this commonality being lost. The idea saddened them.

    I’ve never heard a Unionist argument this effective in 20 years of covering Scottish politics.”

    Could this be because this is “not” the way that most Scots, even unionist ones, view the Union?

  5. David Cameron doesn’t show much solidarity.

    As fond of the Clash as I am, they don’t make me feel British in a political sense.

  6. A compelling argument Kenny. One about connectivity, commonality, and cooperation. Those grand values do not preclude the flourishing of national and regional ‘culture’ found in song, poetry, film, dance, language and dialect from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. In fact, folk culture in the nations and regions of Britain has positively blossomed under the Union, as have the cultural traditions of the many other diaspora who have made Britain their home.

    This is nothing new. The early days of the BBC recognised the importance of emotionally connecting the people of the Nations and regions of Britain (think Nightmail by John Greirson

    Do we want to live in a Scotland with only a Scottish 6 O’Clock News? I am satisfied with the regional news half hour when it comes to what’s happening here and I really do like to know what is going on in the rest of Britain. I don’t buy the idea that a Scottish 6 would look at the world from a Scottish ‘point of view’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) as there are so many Scots in BBC HQ London and guy few in Pacific Quay.

    Also, using the same logic, I could argue that I want the news to be filtered through a feminine perspective rather than a masculine one, that I want ‘her story’ not history, or that I want the working classes to dominate society as the ruling classes have done for so long.

    Ultimately, I enjoy the differences in national and regional cultures, the tensions even, found in the works of great writers like Dennis Potter whose creativity was charged and shaped by his Forest of Dean, border psyche. It was enough for him to express it through his art!

    In the end, my identity is not fixed in bloodline or place of birth. I like to think I’m much more interesting than that.

  7. I saw that programme too. I thought Don Letts was terrific. And the lady who spoke of Britishness as being comfortable with multiple identities struck a chord with me. I was sorry that Paxman didn’t pursue that point. A positive thing about the discussion was that it moved away from the crude cost-benefit analysis in which discussion has been too often couched.

    I’m English. I’ve an English accent, and I use English grammar and vocabulary. But I’ve lived in Scotland for 32 years, and feel I’ve made a contribution here. I love Scotland, and have loved it ever since I came for my job interview in Glasgow in 1978. Yet I love England; I can’t help being English — indeed, I’m glad that I am. I don’t want to choose, and I don’t see why I should; I’m deeply distressed at the prospect. It upsets me that I am being made to feel, for the first time, a foreigner in a country I love, and I’m distressed with the loose talk about (essentially) a divorce. Both England and Scotland would be diminished, it seems to me, if there was a separation.

    The problem with nationalist narratives — and it pops up again and again, whether in Scotland or (increasingly, and worryingly) in England — is that they emphasise blood and soil in a way which I find unnerving. Of course every nation is a historical construction, but what truly depressed me about Joan McAlpine’s comments on that programme was that she thought that applied only to Britain and not to Scotland. There’s some shaky history there, surely?

    1. I’m sorry, but as a supporter of independence I have to say I find the “blood and soil” reference in the previous comment pretty offensive. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about history will know perfectly well that particular phrase was one used frequently by the Nazis.

      Labour supporters and MPs seem to think its ok just to throw around cheap accusations of Nazism / Fascism at the SNP and I think this insults all people who fought in World War II against this evil and those who went through the Holocaust. Scottish Nationalism as a civic form of nationalism about making our nation a normal independent country has always been and always will be inclusive to people of all backgrounds and races.

      1. I believe it was Alex Salmond who said of Ulster that “They are the blood of our blood, bone of our bone.”.

        Do you think his comments were offensive too?

        1. The “blood and bone” quote, although using similar words, comes from a totally different source from the Nazi “blood and soil” ideology.

          The “blood and bone” quote comes from a poem by Alexander Gray,

          This is my country,
          The land that begat me.
          These windy spaces
          Are surely my own.
          And those who toil here
          In the sweat of their faces
          Are flesh of my flesh,
          And bone of my bone

          This quote can be found inscribed in the wall of the Scottish Parliament, a building commissioned by a Labour Scottish Executive.

          Just changing one word in the quote totally changes the whole meaning and context which it applies to. I’m prepared to concede that your Labour colleague may have used the wrong quote on this occasion, I’m sure he would not, however unwittingly have wanted to accuse the SNP of being connected in any way to Nazism, in a similar way to Ian Davidson MP did recently.

          1. It is also important to understand the context in which the comment was made – I did post the article but it was not published. Essentially Alex Salmond was being asked to justify providing emergency water supplies to Northern Ireland when they were having difficulties. He said – rightly – that Scotland has more family connections with Northern Ireland than with any other country but that he would have done the same for anyone. He also used the opportunity to say that the events provided further proof that it would be wrong to privatise water,

    2. The thing is Jeremy that you are very clearly NOT comfortable with multiple identities. If you were, you would not feel distressed at the prospect of Scotland becoming independent and you would not feel that it would make you a foreigner. So I am afraid it is your obsession with your identity that is the problem here.

      1. Surely it is the nationalists who are not comfortable with multiple identities? “Scottish NOT British” and all that? The idea that someone cant be Scottish and British at the same time?

        1. No John it is not. People can be whatever they want to be and people are a combination of all kinds of things these days. That’s what multi-culturalism is all about. I would quote you Humza Yousaf the SNP MSP

          “As an Asian Scot born in Glasgow to a father from Pakistan and a mother from Kenya, I went on to marry my wife, Gail, who is a White Scot born in England to an English father and Scottish mother. I would challenge anyone to accurately define the identity of any children we may have in the future.”

          That’s why I think it is quite sad that Jeremy feels he has to “choose” between being Scottish and English. The truth is that he doesn’t. Scotland becoming indepedndent won’t actually make any difference to his identity as an individual. What it will do is change the political arrangements in force in these islands.

          1. But the point is that the independence movement as presently expressed by the SNP forces him to choose. As I said, you cant be Scottish AND British, apparently. So presumably you cant be Scottish AND English. The idea of Britishness doesnt require that choice. It allows you to be both.

            I would add that I think a more accurate description of the identity of Humza Yousaf’s children would be “British” a charactisation of that mix of cultures specific to the British isles. But the SNP dont want anyone to be British. We are “BritNats” – to be despised and hated. To say, as you attempt to, that all independence will do is change the political arrangements and people can still be what they want to be is disingenuous at best.

          2. After independence Scotland will still be physically part of The British Isles just not sharing a political union, nationality doesn’t change so you can still feel British as that’s a reflection of our social ties across Britain and not a political ID.

          3. How can you still be British? As I said, it seems to be common for nationalists to claim that you cant be Scottish AND British.

          4. You’d still be British same as Norwegians, Swedish, Danes and Finns are Scandinavian collectively.

          5. Try telling someone from southern Ireland that they are really still British, in the same way Norwegians, Danes, Swedes and Finns are still scandanavian and see what reaction you will get!

  8. The basic point here is that Kenny is just plain wrong when he says that institutions like the NHS and welfare state are tired memes whose power to move people is limited and diminishing. Instead the unionists should be appealing to a shared sense of Britishness epitomised by fish and chips, pop music and Monty Python.

    If I was going to be cynical about it I would be crossing my fingers and hoping that Labour does take up this theme. Because nothing could be more counter-productive.

    If I was his teacher I would make Kenny Farquarson write out 1000 times “remember that the voters are not completely stupid”. They know that elections and governance are about things like the NHS, the welfare state and all the other publicly funded and delivered services which make life bearable or unbearable depending on how they are funded and delivered. And equally they know what elections and governance are not about.

    If the best that the No campaign can come up with is you will never be able to eat fish and chips or listen to radio 1 again if the neo-fascist SNP get their way so vote no then this is going to be even easier than I thought because that line of argument is literally laughable.

  9. Thanks for the comments. Paul: I’m sorry if I insulted anyone — I don’t want to. You’ll observe that I find such crackpot obsessions a worrying feature of certain trends in *English* nationalism in particular, and I think you’d agree with me about that. If what is meant by ‘civic nationalism’ was made clearer then my worries might be assuaged.

    Indy: I clearly didn’t express myself well. Sometimes I feel Scottish (I’ve lived here longer than anywhere), sometimes I feel English (that’s where I’m from). I like being able to feel both, and indeed I have always been quite comfortable about feeling both. I thought this insight was worth sharing; maybe I’m wrong.

    1. But if you feel both Scottish and English why do you feel you would have to choose between the two identities? Why can’t you just go on feeling both Scottish and English?

      1. Because you cant be in an independent Scotland. You cant be British (the best description for someone who is both Scottish and English, or indeed any other combination in whatever proprtion you like). You wont be allowed to be British anymore – you can either be Scottish, or a foreigner.

        When the American colonies declared independence in 1776, they didnt say “dont worry, you can still be English if you want to” to those of its population (estimated at about 30%) who still wanted to. No – they were forced out (both by legal means and by social exclusion) of the country and many fled north to Canada, and others back the to GB. Thats what indepdndence is all about, otherwise all you’re really asking for is a few monre powers for Holyrood.

        1. OMG. Well, you are almost getting there. What we are asking for is not just a few more powers for Holyrood – independence would mean all the powers currently exercised by Westminster being transferred to Holyrood.

          The suggestion that independence is all about ethnic cleansing is just hysterical nonsense.

        2. Where did I say it was about ethnic cleansing?How typical to put words into peoples mouths.

          My pointm which you didnt answer is that once Scotland is independent, you wont be British. If you want to be british, you will have to move back to, er, Britain!

    2. Hi Jeremy, point taken, thanks for clarifying, there is always a risk involved when quotes are very similar especially when it is such emotive language under discussion.

      One of the things I’ve always found interesting in the whole discussion is that many unionists in Scotland would describe themselves as both Scottish and British, however I hardly ever hear any English people saying they are “British and English”, perhaps this is because to most people in England, British and English are the same thing, mostly they just say British, but increasingly some people do say English.

      Certainly in different countries of Europe I have been to and spoken to people, they make no distinction whatsoever between British and English, in fact I have lost count of the number of times I have been called “Anglais” while visiting France.

      For some people who have both English and Scottish backgrounds, I think an English / Scottish or Scottish / English identity is probably far more fitting than saying “British”. To me, when people use the word “British” it suggests some kind of hierarchy i.e. British is the main national identity, and Scottish is just a secondary regional identity, at least when people say “Scottish / English” it puts the 2 identities on an equal footing.

      Sometimes the only times you ever see people in England expressing their English identity is during a World Cup or European football championship, and unfortunately in many cases both the Union Jack and the St George’s Cross has been hijacked by the far right. I think the left and the vast majority of ordinary English people should try and reclaim their St George’s Cross and make it inclusive to all people in their country of all races and backgrounds. In Scotland the (very small) far right are hardly ever seen using the Saltire, you really only ever see them using the Union Jack.

      It would be good if one day, people of an ethnic minority background in England could be comfortable with describing themselves as English, in the same way that we have Asian-Scots who are as Scottish as everyone else here. This may take time to reach this situation, but I do think it would be better in the long term and I think it is possible, but it might take a big step change such as Scottish independence to be the catalyst to make this happen. The end result will be an England more comfortable with its own identity, and much improved relations between the nations in these islands.

  10. Thanks for the courteous response, Paul. To be honest, sometimes I feel primarily Glaswegian, but that is a whole different matter! Maybe I’ve been changed by living in Scotland so long (I like to think it’s been good for me), but I for one very definitely don’t equate Britishness and Englishness, and it annoys me hugely when that happens. That’s why I liked the contribution from Don Letts so much.

    Britishness, surely, has been work in progress at least since 1707 – and I imagine it will go on being work in progress (just as Englishness or Scottishness is; after all, the ‘nation-state’ is notoriously a comparatively recent invention). I see nothing wrong with having a different relationship between England and Scotland — or between Northern England and Southern England, for that matter, which is an equally complex but perhaps less salient issue. Devolution, or even ‘devo-max’ a la John Major, could deliver that. But does that have to require people to choose their passports, or to mean that the national conversations diverge? I rather like it that, when in England, I can hear on Radio 4 James Naughtie questioning Gordon Brown.

    But I reckon I have made my contribution and won’t be changing anyone’s minds — so I’m off!

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