Some thoughts on “Britishness”

I miss being British. There, I’ve said it.

I miss being British. I was brought up British, not English. We in my family never really described ourselves as English. Although I was born in Lancashire I never felt particularly Lancastrian either. My family’s from all over so I didn’t grow up with the local traditions and dialect that I’m envious of in others.

I grew up believing that to be British meant to identify with and belong to the British Isles. I was brought up near Liverpool, with its large Irish community, and not far from the Welsh border. The place I grew up couldn’t have felt more different from Anglo-Saxon middle and southern England. My part of the world had influences from all over the UK, hence we were “British”.

But outside of England, I now know being “British” means something quite different. Almost everyone I know in Scotland sees the term “British” as suggesting a recognition and identification with the political construct of the British State. Since moving out of England I’ve also realised that many English people have an infuriating tendency to use the terms British and English interchangeably. This will not be news to my Scottish friends, but discussing this just now with my southern English husband has brought us close to falling out!

The conflation of these two concepts of Britishness and Englishness, which has become de rigeur among most UK politicians, has the effect of trampling over the rich diversity of these islands. We were told yesterday by Theresa May, channelling Margaret Thatcher, that we are “four nations, but one people”, but that’s simply not true. We are four nations and many more groups of people. Within England, regions like Cornwall and Yorkshire increasingly recognise their distinctiveness, and in Scotland we have huge variations between the cultural and linguistic heritage of different parts of the country.

Instead of celebrating this diversity, the British establishment increasingly seeks to suppress it. The largest group – the English – has fully adopted the label “British” and anyone from elsewhere in the UK who doesn’t identify with this anglicised view of Britishness is labelled a “nationalist”. I find this deeply depressing and as a result I’ve resolved to call myself “English”, although truth be told I still don’t feel it.

I want to see all the nations of these islands working together as equals. Even with all our differences, we do collectively have a different psyche from many of our European neighbours. Lots of people feel the same way, and many of them believe this means that the 300 year old political union (with its 100 year old addition) must continue in its current form or close to it. I disagree.

Sometimes a thing has to be dismantled in order to be repaired. I want to reclaim my British identity, but first the concept has to be separated from the stranglehold of the British State.  Left to its own devices the British establishment will never move out of its comfort zone so we have to make it change. Each nation of these islands must regain its sovereignty. Borders must be redefined where they naturally fall, and the locations of those natural borders are becoming clearer by the day.

Once that has happened, we can then build a new relationship between the peoples of these islands. And those of us who wish to be can be unapologetically British again.

How this northern English lass became a Scot

I moved to Scotland from North Yorkshire back in 2007 with my husband and one year old son after securing a job working for Highland Council. Here I attempt to recall my first impressions of Scotland as a place to live and how my connection with our new home developed over the years. I hope it may shed light on how some English people on both sides of the border may be feeling about Scotland and the prospect of independence.

It all started in August 2007 at the Thistle Stop Cafe near Fort Augustus. While I was busy with my son in the baby changing room, I received a phone call offering me my dream job. I’d had my fill of English local government and the endless quest to cut staff and salaries to the bone. The job was just for one year, but it was a lifelong dream of mine and my husband’s to live and work in the Highlands. We aimed to use the year to start and build up a business that could then sustain us.

Why the Highlands? I grew up in a very British, English family (father from Lancashire, mother from East Yorkshire) that loved Scotland the way most English people love Scotland: the love of the beautiful wild open spaces, the remoteness, shortbread, kilts and the soft West Highland accent. The love that declares that “real Scotland” doesn’t begin until you get north of Perth. So many childhood holidays were spent up here and I grew up loving Scotland too. My husband, from southern England, was less familiar with the country but just as fond of what he knew. He was keen on hill walking and climbing, and we both harboured a dream of buying a small croft somewhere out west, starting a B & B business and achieving some level of self sufficiency. So far so naive, and so very very English.

Well the year came and went, I really loved the job and was delighted when the council made it permanent. We bought the one house we could afford – a shockingly bad steading conversion that really needed gutting and starting again, but in a beautiful remote location near a loch. It was one heck of a steep learning curve. We found that Scotland didn’t just have a different legal system in a quirky, slightly stubborn kind of a way (in England we tended to think that Scotland is really just like England in most ways but different enough to cause mild annoyance and extra difficulties). No it’s different, full stop. High street solicitors sell houses. You don’t exchange contracts & complete, you conclude the missives. You suggest a date for concluding the missives when you make your offer. You frequently end up in a sealed bids situation because everything is priced “offers over” (becoming more common now south of the border, but almost unheard of in my neck of the woods 10 years ago). And that’s before you even start on the wider legal system if you’re unlucky enough to need it. No magistrates courts, but sheriffs courts. A bizarrely titled person called a Procurator Fiscal. Now I understood why my Postgraduate Diploma in Law, gained when I was flirting with the idea of a career change, was not valid in Scotland!

This was 2008, a year after the SNP had won the Scottish elections to form a minority Government in Holyrood. I was confused by Scottish politics. I wasn’t sure of the role of the Holyrood parliament, except that it was an extra layer of government in between Westminster and the front line (something that had been rejected in England a few years earlier). I was vaguely aware there had been a changing of the guard from Labour to the SNP. My English mum couldn’t stand Alex Salmond. I wasn’t at all keen on the brash new minister for health with a weird fishy sounding name, Sturgeon or something. I was aware of complaints from those around me about the SNP’s centralising agenda, and a feeling that even the most intangible concepts of history and cultural heritage were being boiled down to their economic value. These are mere scraps of memory, completely ill informed, and without going back to research what was going on with SNP policy at the time I couldn’t tell you whether any of it was true. The point is I was poorly informed about Scottish politics and not all that interested.

I was interested in how it affected me personally though. The steady reduction in prescription charges from £5 to £3 to zero was welcome. The GP’s surgery that was recommended to us was like something from another era, run by a married couple who took as long as they needed with their patients. Yes sometimes this meant a wait of half an hour or more, especially if they had been called out on an emergency home visit, but you knew if you needed that time yourself one day you would get it. The experience of having my second child in Scotland was hugely positive. Suffering for a second time from postnatal depression I found the support I received from my health visitor and other health professionals second to none. There was nothing I can think of that didn’t seem to work better here than down south.

When writing this piece it took a good while to dredge out of my memory my political viewpoint at that time. My first vote in Scotland was the general election of 2010. I voted for Danny Alexander of the Liberal Democrats and was actually pleased when they formed a coalition with the Tories. I felt that the Tories would be competent (yes, really!) and the Lib Dems would bring a social conscience to temper their worst excesses. Actually I think we are now discovering that the second of these was true, if limited in its effect. Then we had the Scottish elections and the AV referendum in 2011. As I had always supported the Lib Dem position on proportional representation I voted Yes to AV, figuring that any change was better than none. Amazingly I can’t actually remember who I voted for in the Scottish Parliament elections but it was either Lib Dem, Greens or the SNP. I know I was mighty confused by the d’Hondt system and really didn’t understand the distinction between the constituency and the list. I also wasn’t particularly bothered who formed the Government.

By 2012 austerity had arrived in Scotland. The local government cuts that I thought I’d escaped from had followed me north. Jobs were under threat and my own job was feeling less and less secure. So when the opportunity arose to work for a private company in Wales I took it. I didn’t want to leave Scotland but this was a chance too good to miss so we decided to give it a go for a couple of years.

After a while the job was working out well so we bought a house in Wales and rented out our Scottish home while we decided what we were going to do long term. As time went on I was more and more glad that we hadn’t sold up. I could go into all the reasons why I didn’t like living in Wales but it’s not relevant as the only actual problem with Wales was that it wasn’t “home”. Without me even noticing at the time Scotland had become my home, and it took us moving away for me to realise it.

Meanwhile in the political world, austerity was really starting to bite and I was beginning to take an interest. I had always had a strong interest in social justice, in fact this was my main reason for gaining a postgraduate law diploma a few years previously. (I actually started that diploma with worthy intentions of working for a law centre and helping people fight the system, before realising far too late that I couldn’t afford to complete the training on the kinds of training salaries offered by the third sector or high street firms.) So I began taking a deeper interest in the worrying developments in areas such as welfare reform and immigration control, and at the same time I became aware of political events in Scotland and began to follow Scottish friends’ social media posts on the subject.

It became apparent very quickly that the media in Wales and the wider UK was not reflecting the reality of the independence campaign in Scotland, which was largely about the desire for a fairer and more decent country. Looking back over my posts at the time I can see that I was initially looking at things as an interested bystander, willing the Scots to make the right decision and hoping that the debate would have a positive influence on politics elsewhere in the UK. For example, take this comment on an article I shared from February 2014:

“Everyone currently outside the main debate – English, Welsh and Irish alike – should read this excellent summary. Please do read it. As an English person who loves Scotland (and in my heart it will always be home) I am with them all the way. I hope they make the right decision for Scotland, and for the right reasons.”

So much of what was being said in the mainstream media about the independence case just didn’t ring true. People were being told that voting for independence would bring austerity max and the SNP-led Scottish government was being criticised heavily on a daily basis. But as someone who had been driven to leave their public sector job to move south to the relative safety of the private sector, I’d been struck to find the public sector in Wales in an even more parlous state. I began to see how much Scotland had been protected from the worst effects of Tory imposed austerity and I was hugely frustrated by the number of people in Scotland who seemed totally oblivious to this.

It was especially galling to watch and hear the Labour party being so critical of the Scottish government, and the economic case for independence, when I was living in Labour-run Wales which had everything wrong with it that they complained about in Scotland and then some! Except that in Labour-run Wales it was more correctly ascribed to austerity being handed down from Westminster. And as Scotland had been catching up on the austerity front, the rest of the UK had most certainly not been standing still. Welsh local government cuts were off the scale in comparison!

I started to see and feel so much optimism coming out of Scotland that I desperately wanted to be a part of it. I looked on in envy as I saw friends organising local “town hall” events and campaigning for independence. By late 2013 it was already patently obvious that the independence debate in Scotland was not going to ignite a UK-wide desire for change as I had initially hoped it would, and as a family we started to think seriously about going home. When my mother very sadly died from cancer I knew that it was now or never: life is there to be lived and I felt I was treading water. I somehow managed to get my bosses to agree to me working from home in Scotland, the Welsh house went on the market and we made preparations to return north. We made a few visits back to Scotland that year before making the move permanently and how things had changed! The atmosphere was amazing. Politics was everywhere – open, inclusive, hopeful politics. People like me wanted change and I found myself fitting right in. We finally moved back to Scotland in mid 2014, I got stuck right into campaigning and, of course, voted Yes on September 18th.

I’ve never looked back. The change the referendum brought to Scotland was positive and permanent. Since the referendum I’ve joined the SNP and become ever more vocal and active in support of independence. Knowing from experience how things are elsewhere in the UK, I’m still so frustrated when people don’t realise how much the Scottish government is shielding them from the worst effects of the Westminster Tories. Too many Scots don’t seem to know how fortunate we are and that in time, without fundamental constitutional change, we will run out of options.

I am so proud of this country. I’m proud to call it my home and to have been made so welcome. After nearly 10 years living here I feel I’m starting to get under its skin. Yes it’s wild, beautiful, rugged, and romantic, as every Scot knows. But it’s so much more than that. It’s edgy, it’s irreverent, it’s inventive, it has a wicked sense of humour (in every sense). And it’s been stifled for far too long by a political union that’s no longer working. Scotland is now a part of me, I’m a part of Scotland, and I’m determined to see this through.