The psychology and politics of identity

We need to discover and articulate the benefits of “Britishness”, writes GERRY KEEGAN


“Scots and people from the rest of the UK share the purpose – that Britain has something to say to the rest of the world about the values of freedom, democracy and the dignity of the people that you stand up for. So at a time when people can talk about football and devolution and money, it is important that we also remember the values that we share in common”.

I’m not sure many will remember these words from Gordon Brown when he spoke at the Veteran’s Day ceremony on 27 June 2006.

But both he and Scottish Labour were not to know then just how important they would become five years later as we find ourselves in a Scotland soon to be presented with a referendum on independence.

His words formed the narrative to Labour’s one nation social policy called “Britishness”. Our SNP rival’s prefer to use the term “Unionist”. They are much the same thing.

Britishness is the term used to refer to the common culture and national identity of the British people. It is associated with what it means to be British, as opposed to being French, German, or even Scottish!

Britishness has political undertones in that Gordon hoped it would become associated with patriotism, “one-nation” nationalism and British unionism.

However, what attributes, attitudes and values go to make up this common culture and national identity we call Britishness are difficult to identify. This is because of such things as devolution with the establishment of separate national parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the diverse multi-culturalism found within the United Kingdom.

These we must discover and laud in a Scottish context.

Another problem for Britishness is that a person’s social identity is established from the bottom up, not the top down.

This author sees himself first as a Glaswegian. Glasgow is part of Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom. He is also a particular type of Glaswegian, who has developed attributes, attitudes and values on the basis of his upbringing and the subcultures to which he belonged and belongs. Identity has spatio-temporal significance.

But it is to this Britishness that we are now forced to turn. We must drill down into it to discover its strengths. We must discover what it gives to us, and what we give to it identity-wise. We must discover what we would lose from it if independence were to become a reality.

We must talk up the validity of getting the best of all worlds. We can be both Scottish and British simultaneously, as we have been for hundreds of years. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

We can’t all be Glaswegians though!

Gerry Keegan is a psychologist, author and researcher. He is a member of Rutherglen & Hamilton West CLP, and a founder member of the ‘Scottish Labour for Scotland’ Facebook group.

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11 thoughts on “The psychology and politics of identity

  1. I smart at the way the term “unionist” is bandied about by nationalists. The SNP has been very clever in utilising this term as a pejorative to force the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour under the one umbrella. Labour, both in Scotland and in the UK, failed to address this – or indeed even notice – and as a result we were seen as being a party of British interests. This was one contributory factor for Scottish Labour’s abysmal performance at the ballot box.

    Like the author, I am a Glaswegian. I consider myself to be Scottish first, and British a very distant second. Importantly, I feel that I have much more in common with a Glaswegian SNP voter than I do with a Middle England Tory. The fact that scores of thousands of Labour votes transferred to the SNP in May suggests that I am not alone in being of this mindset. The SNP’s shortbread tin nationalism is no yardstick against which I measure my own “Scottishness”, and nor should Labour feel compelled to do so either. Scottish Labour will make itself a viable party of government in Holyrood not by illustrating the benefits of being British, but by adopting the progressive policies that Scotland as a country needs, and that the Scottish electorate wants.

    The author is correct to state that Labour can be both Scottish and British simultaneously; the weighting of this combination, however, must be Scottish first, and British second.

  2. British and Unionist are not the same thing. They never have been. Britain is a geographical area consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales. The British Isles includes Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the various smaller islands. Everyone who lives in this area is British if they choose to be, and always will be, unless the British Isles drift apart or sink into the ocean or something.

    The Union is a different thing – an ad hoc political construct from hundreds of years ago. I am British because I live in Britain, but I am not a Unionist because I no longer support the Union of the Crowns. That’s what it comes down to.

    An independent Scotland will still be located in the British Isles, barring an act of god or some serious vandalism. I’ll still be a Briton after independence, and so will you and everybody else around here, except we’ll live in an independent Scotland with it’s own(real) Parliament,answerable only to us.

  3. Bob my old fruit. We all have British passports, not Unionist ones!

    1. he’s right, my passport is from the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. I identify geographically as British and politically as Scottish. None of us will lose our British identity or history with Independence. We can and will be happy to continue celebrating our joint endeavours while governing ourselves.

  4. Unionism has brought Scotland under the economic heel of another Tory government.

    That has nothing to do with being British which as a social concept will remain eternal.

  5. Observer – it was the SNP who went through the Lobby with the Tories and brought us Maggie Thatcher. The Nationalists vicariously destroyed Scottish mining, steel and shipbuilding industries!

    The SNP also intend destroying our British identity.

    1. You may be correct in your denunciation of the SNP in 1979 but frankly I was a lassie then at school so I don’t really remember that much about it.

      I certainly grew up hating Maggie Thatcher for good reason & now vote SNP because New Labour were far too much like her for my liking.

      I don’t have a British political identity. I have lived for a long time in London & as far as I can see we have separate political identities. Which is cool, it doesn’t affect the social union that exists in Britain.

  6. I have lived for a long time in London past tense, to clarify that somewhat strangled post.

  7. I see you didn’t post my last comment here. It wasn’t rude or abusive so I’m wondering why not?

    1. Rose, we don’t monitor comments constantly – we dip in every now and again, meaning there will be inevitable delays to comment publication.

  8. I agree with Gerry that the things that keep us together are greater than the things that pull us apart, on a concrete level as well as hopes dreams and aspirations..Where would we be with out our NHS,educational system, benefits system, parliament(s), culture, telly, X factor, Corrie, Enders, Radio 4, BBC news.
    What of those of us who belong to no tribes? Mixed heritage? Refugees? But we/they can say they/we are British?
    The US and Canada have reaped the rewards of federalism, the benefit of the whole, while there are those who would divide us permanently, no going back, but yet talk about ‘Europe’.
    ” Nationalism then. The (*Nazis) provided millions of people with new security and hope for a better future.They stimulated nationalistic feelings, and with enormous success:it was the ‘we’ feeling of being (*German) in the face of a hostile world. The (*Jews) were blamed for everything and were branded as the (*German)peoples greatest enemy”
    ” and now. The powerful “we” feeling and exaggerated self esteem give many a sense of security.Scapegoats are sought for present day problems within national borders and beyond.Minorities are often targets.”
    (*Substitute Nationality of you choice)

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