Guestpost: Pete Wishart on Britishness and Independence post-Miliband

What is it about Labour leaders and Britishness? Remember Gordon Brown’s embarrassing attempt to redefine it?

Well, this week it was bettered by an excruciating Ed Miliband. Even at his most convoluted, Gordon Brown never tried to deny me my right to an identity. But this is exactly what Ed Miliband seemed to suggest when he said that the referendum would be a choice between Scottishness and Britishness.

Not only is this ridiculous, it is geographically impossible.  That is, unless Ed Miliband intends to take his party’s obsession with “separation” to a new level by building a channel across the border after independence.

Look Ed, it’s quite simple – I am British because I live in the northern part of the island of Great or Greater Britain. I am British in the same way that someone from Stockholm is Scandinavian and in the same way that you are also British because you live in the Southern part of this island.  It’s basic geography and it is astounding you are unaware of that.  You also have absolutely no right to tell me what I can call myself after independence, when I will, of course, still be both Scottish and British.

To be charitable, what Ed, in his confusion, was perhaps trying to suggest, is that I would no longer be “culturally” British because I would be changing my nationality from UK to Scottish.

This is a basic failure to understand what independence is striving to achieve. What independence will mean is that Scotland will leave the UK state with the return of currently reserved powers to the Scottish Parliament.  The referendum on independence will be – or at least ought to be – about where power should reside.  It has absolutely nothing to do with Britishness or Britain, just as the UK state also has nothing to do with Britishness.

Given their confusion over all of this, let’s see if we can help our Unionist friends with some basic Britishness.

First of all, cultural Britishness is a good thing.  It is a necessary social construct designed to describe the joint relationship of all the peoples and nations of these islands. With political union within the UK it meant a certain thing; with independence, it will mean something different.  Britishness is a fluid concept – effectively meaningless but also immensely important.  It can mean just about anything and that is why it is so difficult to define, hence Ed and Gordon’s excruciating attempts.

Secondly, and just as importantly, Britishness is also what we have shared together on these islands.  It is everything from the industrial revolution, to standing together in the world wars, to the welfare state to our fantastic rock and pop bands. All of this is as much mine as the most battle hardened unionist from the southern shires, and none of this can be un-invented. This is the social union part of Britishness and it is this that we will always share.

I actually believe that Britishness will be improved with independence because we can put a new energy into our British cultural and social ties. For example, maybe we can persuade Ireland to participate more fully in a larger idea of British isles’ “Britishness”. We will be building these relationships from a shared position of equality and mutual respect.

Ed Miliband, like so many other unionists, is becoming increasingly obsessed with identity, flags and nationality, and in being so, is seeking to deny us our geography and our shared culture and heritage.  If this is the territory upon which the unionists want to fight the campaign, then, I’m afraid, they’ll be fighting with themselves.


19 thoughts on “Guestpost: Pete Wishart on Britishness and Independence post-Miliband

  1. Ed Miliband must be a smart guy. He went to Oxford, Harvard, was the Treasury’s chief economic adviser under Gordon Brown… but look at this nonsense he comes out with on what it means to be English

  2. Now here was me thinking that the UK – United Kingdom was Scotland and England, the Union of the Crowns and nowt to do wi politiks and no Kings or Princes (at least no known decendents as Ireland had many “Kings” including a Bruce ( Oor’ Rabs brither, no the twa eithe brithers sold for English gold and the gibbet when caught in good old Galloway) and Wales was weil a Principality. The British Isles awe o’ us including Eire and GB weil-ex Eire or am a just confused because all a get is English BBC an apart frae being forelock tuggers (like far too mony Scots) they haveny a bloody clue.

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  4. Congratulations Ed…you’ve reduced the concept of Britishness to nothing more than a simple MacGuffin.

  5. I can remember having a similar discussion amongst friends, including one who was English, during the 1990 World Cup.

    We were all narked because he wanted Scotland to get beaten in the same manner we wanted England to get beaten.

    Being the balanced individuals we all weren’t, it led to a discussion about nationality regarding Scottishness, Englishness, Britishness, cultural imperialism etc.

    Facile and vacuous individuals that we undoubtedly were, our discussions all boiled down to our ‘Scottishness’ being defined as being anti-English football commentators and anti-Thatcher.

    Britishness was all the good stuff we could agree on and Englishness ended up as a discussion on English football hooligans – we got all smug and morally superior with Mick (English friend) over the contrasting Italian attitudes to both sets of ‘British’ fans.

    Deep and meaningful I know. Worryingly, I don’t seem to have progressed much further than that since.

    Neither does it seem has Ed Milliband.

  6. For the life of me, I can`t see where all this emphasis on what we will call each other is taking the debate. How on earth are these arguments going to drive forward the process of informing ordinary individuals of the kind of facts which will enable them to make a decision which reflects their real needs, hopes and ambitions.
    This stooshie, for me, is no more than the unionists trying to take the debate up a cul-de-sac of unthinking,sentimental mince with the clear intention of trying to prevent people from focussing on aspects of the real debate which would make genuine differences to ordinary folks` lives. I`d even say that to engage with them in the way Pete has here lends the whole wool-pulling exercise a credibility it frankly doesn`t merit.
    In my opinion, Ed Milliband made a far more powerful statement in the C4 News interview after the speech when he told Krishnan Guru-Murthy that England would be worse off “economically” if Scotland voted for independence.
    This must`ve come as quite a shock to all those who still trot out the “Subsidy-Junkie” argument and, as far as I`m aware, it`s the first time any such high-ranking unionist has made such an admission so I tend to think that all these tweets,blogs and comments would have been more useful if they focussed on this one short statement rather than being diverted up this debating dead-end street.

  7. “But this is exactly what Ed Miliband seemed to suggest when he said that the referendum would be a choice between Scottishness and Britishness.”

    Worse was to come in terms of contradictions. He went on to speak about “Englishness”!!

  8. Surely the most important point, which both Pete and Kevin have both expressed even though they disagree, is that WE each decide who and what we are. Pete says he is British, and after independence that will not change. Kevin is not British, and that will also not change after independence.

    The only problem is Ed Miliband deciding FOR us. No Ed, you don’t get to decide.

  9. I am becoming more and more amazed, and confused, by all this rush to confirm our “Britishness.” I too am half Scots and half Orcadian, and most Orcadians do not consider themselves Scots. I may say I do not consider myself British, and cannot imagine any circumstances this side of hell in which I would. But where has this suddenly come from? What’s at the back of it? Does it ever occur to those behind the sudden love of the queen, being British, and god knows what will be next, that when you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing to anyone.As to buying British band’s music, I have a wide and eclectic collection of music, French, Brazilian, South African, Italian, for starters. Doesn’t make me French, Brazilian etc. I am a SCOT.

  10. I am Scottish and, because I am partly from Orkney – also Scandinavian in outlook/geography.

    But British? No chance. Disassociation from British Empire and British militarism are two (of many reasons) why I support Independence.

    But each to their own. This referendum will not be fought on the questions of identity but on building a modern democracy fit for purpose, the economic possibilities in self-government, and questions of social justice.

    Kevin Williamson

    • I agree but finding this debate over identity fascinating – making me think about the things I have accepted tacitly for a long time and question them. Like you don’t see myself as British, never have but then I’m big on posting British bands and choons and buying their music and going to their festivals so I do share that culture. But is it a culture or simply convenience? If the Union wasn’t there, what would happen to all that cross-mix of musical taste, style etc? Nothing, it would still happen. Just as separate political systems and independence from each other hasn’t prevented the US/Brit cultural link up.

      Just so long as we can still get the Wire and the Good Wife and Mad Men, great…

  11. Here’s the killer question back to Echo: are the Manx not British? Or the Channel Islanders?

  12. Leave Ireland out of this. And learn some history. The term “British” comes from the Romans. “Britannia” was the lands occupied by the Britons. Roughly, England and Wales today.

    Scotland was Caledonia, and Ireland was Hibernia.

    In more recent times England and Wales already united in a Union, became united with Scotland to form Greater Britain.

    Scotland is not British, and is arguably not really Greater British either.

    Ireland is unquestionably not British, no matter what a bunch of bowler hat wearing Irish descendants of English settlers in Scotland might say.

    • This was an odd remark from Pete, I agree. I think what he means by British is English-speaking shared commonality. Which doesn’t quite trip off the tongue… and far be it for me to explain for him…

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  14. I totally agree Pete and blogged as much on Labourlist and Labour hame in response to Margaret Curran’s article. Doesn’t it seem incongrous that Ed should lead on the notion of his own cultural background – celebrating its fluidity, its richness, the myriad of influences which make up his cultural belongong – and yet not be able to extrapolate the concept to the necessary breadth to accomodate any construct of Scottish-Britishness ? This is quite apart from the fact that it is not in his gift or that of any politician to decide or define cultural identity – we each do that for ourselves from a unique amalgam of our own personal experiences and sense of belonging. It’s not for Ed to decide who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ . For me , the issue is that culture and politics do not align to any great degree and certainly not to the extent that would be useful to a politician trying to craft a political message based on cultural division. How I feel about my cultural identity is really none of Ed Milliband’s business no matter whether I support his party or not and his ham-fisted efforts at classification are only likely to aggrieve potential supporters. IMO Cultural belonging has always transcended politics and always will and it is simply wrong to imagine that any past, present or future political change including Independence will weaken those aspects of cultural identity that have salience because they arise from someone’s sense of cultural and linguistic identity.

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