Ed Miliband’s speech last week, in which he grappled with questions of Britishness, identity and Unionism, was a worthy effort. By which you will grasp that it was also, in the end, not quite good enough. The Labour leader spoke as though he had only recently appreciated — or had brought to his attention — that national identity on these islands is often a matter of choice and that — insert obligatory Whitman reference here, please — many people have multiple, layered identities that may, at times, even seem to contradict one another. Gosh, you think?
And, alas, he foundered in the Q&A when he told one inquisitor:
‘People can be Scottish and British, it’s OK. And if they feel primarily Scottish that’s fine too. But if they leave the UK they won’t be British any more: it stands to reason.’
First, define your terms laddie. If British means a United Kingdom passport and dispatching MPs to Westminster then, for sure, Miliband has a point. And of course, historically, Britishness often has been defined by institutions. Indeed the Labour Party has elevated the NHS to sacred status, cultivating the idea that a health-care system (of average quality) should be considered next to the monarchy in the pantheon of Great Great British Institutions. (Irony Alert: Alex Salmond seeks independence to ‘defend’ the NHS from ‘Tory cuts’.)
Even so, how many of these British institutions retain the authority — the grandeur even — or the respect they once commanded? If a contemporary sense of Britishness depends on institutions then the concept is in trouble. Which is one reason why it may be more sensible to think of Britishness as a cultural concept these days.
And if Britishness is a persuasion or a sensibility then surely it will endure even if the institutions that once guaranteed it wither away? A sensibility is necessarily a hard thing to define but then, hell, that’s long been true of Englishness too.
Granted there is a suspicion that Salmond’s talk of a ‘social union’ is a useful tactical ploy designed to reassure Scots that for everything to change much must remain the same. Salmond’s commitment to the concept is, I think, sincere; it is not shared by every member of his party. Nevertheless it has some merit even if, as far as his opponents are concerned, it is further evidence of the First Minister’s fondness for playing a game of Heads I Win, Tails You’re Chibbed.
But that too is the nature of identity on these islands. Britishness — however it is defined — is shared by all (including those who might choose to reject the term). As a sensibility it is, as Nick Cohen tweeted yesterday, rather like the Hotel California: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Comparisons with Scandinavia are not especially useful since the British state is a rather more solid thing. But that merely highlights how difficult it is to leave Britain behind and how, in the end, the constitutional arrangements are not necessarily the best and certainly far from the only means of defining what it means to be British.
Does Britishness require a United Kingdom? This is an open question. I’m not sure it really does. Scotland and England may be different places but they are scarcely foreign to one another. Similarly, as I’ve said before, your views on all these things may be known from your answer to another not-as-simple-as-it-sounds-question: Is (southern) Ireland a truly foreign country?
I hazard that it is not. Ireland remains a contributor to and beneficiary of a broader brand of “Britishness”. Even those who have left contribute to Britishness even if they do not always recognise or value their contribution. You can’t just switch these things off. In the things that matter more than badges and parliaments and passports, most things will remain much the same as they were before. Why wouldn’t they?
I suspect that Miliband, to the extent he has spent much time thinking about these things, basically takes the standard English view. Namely that Britain is England plus a couple of other bits. This is a viable proposition and a widely-shared one but it’s not the view from everywhere and certainly not from here.
Miliband’s view of nationality is rigid. Different state equals different nationality. Again, though I think it mistaken, this is a popular view. But does this mean the converse might be true: that different nations require separate states? Perhaps, though the history of the United Kingdom does not necessarily support that conclusion.
I appreciate that the SNP are a vexing bunch as far as Westminster politicians are concerned and not just because Cameron, Clegg and Miliband really have no desire to get bogged down in Caledonia stern and wild. No, they confuse because they seem to insist that Scotland and England should be separate states because they are separate nations but then, even as they stress the importance of these differences, the nationalists pivot to say that, after independence we’ll all be chums again and, actually, the English and Scots will be brothers the world over and all that.
Nevertheless, there you have it. These multiple identities — to say nothing of the struggle between hearts and heads — are a vital part of this game. Miliband appears to have a dim awareness of this but, worthy though his attempt to understand it may be, he’s yet to show he really understands the game.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.