I remember it well: It was in a 2008 debate on whether we should establish a ‘Britishness day’, when many of us were crammed into Westminster Hall to consider this question of great national importance. It was about the same time as Gordon Brown’s much mocked ‘British jobs for British workers’ and there were, therefore, many ongoing debates about what Britishness was supposed to mean and how it could be celebrated. During that debate I said that, (as we move towards independence) ‘all vestiges of Britishness may go and I don’t know what Britishness is’.
Pretty unremarkable, but these comments are now starring in any number of unionist productions, publications and columns (including Spectator blog posts) as the worst example of ‘Nat’ duplicity.
I was, in fact, in good company that day because—such was the general confusion about what ‘Britishness’ meant—the day that emerged as the favourite for this ‘Britishness day’ was the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Now, this is indeed a supremely important day in history – but unfortunately not in ‘British’ history. The signing of the Magna Carta was in 1215, some 500 years before the idea of cultural Britishness even existed. The idea was quietly dropped.
It seems typical of the debate about Britishness. As an identity it truly is a peculiar construct, and one that is extremely difficult to define.
For Michael Portillo it is simply ‘anti-fanaticism’. For nearly everyone else it’s about institutions such as royalty or things such as fish and chips.
While it is a curious social construct, Britishness is absolutely essential to the UK state. It was a necessary invention to ensure that a cultural sense of togetherness could incorporate the divergent ‘British’ nations with their own indigenous cultures. Because it came from the year zero of political union, cultural Britishness has become entwined with shared heritage and historic landmarks such as World War 2 and the founding of the NHS. This is a view of Britishness best summed up by Danny Boyle at the Olympic opening ceremony, when he so superbly almost re-defined the idea of a ‘heritage’ Britishness. This is an identity that is in grave peril in Scotland (and in trouble in England) if you look at the recent social attitudes surveys.
As we move towards independence it is right, then, that we in Scotland also reassess our relationship with ‘Britishness’ and find a positive place for it in a multi-cultural, diverse independent Scotland. In 2011, I attempted to do this by building on work that former MSP and columnist Andrew Wilson had done some 10 years earlier. He looked at how, in an independent Scotland, Britishness could be developed and enhanced by the two nations coming together as equal partners to build joint institutions. Like him, I came to the view that Britishness was such an important part of our historic experience that, instead of letting it disappear, we should continue to use it to help us inform our future independent journey and cherish its contribution to our national life.
At the time I got quite a bit of stick from people within the independence movement, who said that the whole point of independence was to rid us of ‘Britishness’. Since then we have passed resolutions at SNP conferences, warmly welcomed and applauded a lecture given by Professor James Mitchell who said in it that Britishness is ‘no threat to Scots’ and, I would go so far as to say, the independence movement has embraced a debate about Britishness that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
You would think that unionists would welcome all of this. Not a bit of it. Instead, they just see it as something sinister and cynical. Instead of engaging in debate, they trawl around for quotes they can use out of context and they seem determined only to indulge in pointless point scoring. I make absolutely no apologies for revisiting some of my the views I hold on Britishness (or any other issue) and am glad that we SNP members are individually and collectively prepared to properly re-examine and re-asses our views.
As for nationalism, I really couldn’t care less about it, whether the Scottish or British variety. I believe in inter-dependence, international solidarity and social democracy. I just happen to believe that the people who live and work in Scotland would make a better go of running our country if we had the normal powers of independence. Let’s turn the unionist caricature of a ‘nationalist’ on its head and positively define and apply it. If we are to be ‘nationalists’ let’s make it about all the things we can do and can achieve. Let’s unleash the positive ‘inner Nat’.
Surely my friends in the No campaign can engage in this incredible debate without the silly insults, misrepresentations, George Orwell references and charges of doublespeak. I have my doubts, though. They have a campaign to win.
Pete Wishart is the SNP Member of Parliament for Perth and North Perthshire
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.