Friday, September 19, 2014

On being British

The day of the Scottish referendum is a good time to say a few words about being British. Which is something I'm not.  I sometimes say I'm English, and sometimes half English and half Swedish. But never British.  Half English and half Swedish is an ungainly expression, so I think in future I'll say “both English and Swedish”.  The other day I caught myself calling Luleå my home town.  A surprising thing to say, perhaps, seeing as the longest I have ever spent there is six weeks when I was 17. But though I was brought up in the south of England, there's no one place we lived more than a few years. Consequently no place in England I can think of as my home town.  I spent more than half my life in York. But you can't call a place your home town if you didn't get there till you were 23. Whereas Luleå is the one place that has been in my life ever since I can remember. I still have my mother’s sister Kerstin there and my cousin Tolle, and we visit every other year or so.  By contrast, when I go to either Bristol or Brighton (which I haven't done for a long time, and maybe never again) I don't feel as if I'm going home, and I have no connections there. 

Luleå: my home town in the north of Sweden
But I've drifted from the Scottish referendum. I just need to comment that it was a disappointing result.  A vote for an independent Scotland would have shaken politics up a bit. Whether it would have shaken English politics up in a good way is a question worth pondering. Maybe it would have boosted English nationalism which has always been a right wing phenomenon. Unlike Scottish nationalism which has a wholesome social democratic flavour. Taken all in all, nationalism has been and remains the bane of world politics and if I could abolish it I would. A foolish and unhistorical thing to say, but there I've said it.

But back to Scotland. The question has to be asked, and would have been asked loudly had the vote been for independence: independence from whom and from what? Who would have governed Scotland, the government in Edinburgh or the multinational corporations? Escaping from under the neoliberal Tory yoke suggests a hopeful answer to that question; but the soon to resign Alex Salmond’s support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States (TTIP) suggests a bad answer. 

The TTIP deal hands sovereignty to multinationals, but according to Salmond “For Scotland, given that the United States is our largest individual trading partner outside the UK, this agreement will be especially good news”. 

Feeling English

This essay, I am beginning to see, is a ramshackle affair. Because now I am going to tack back to the beginning and say something about feeling English and not British. And I just want to address those who, for fear of being suspected of Ukippery or racism, would be shy of saying they feel English.  Whilst England is a place, Britain and British to me are political expressions and suggest the Empire.  My father was a big believer in the British Empire and its unique civilising mission in world history, and was always intensely proud to call himself British. But that’s not for me. English is Shakespeare, Milton, the Lollards, the Levellers, William Blake’s Jerusalem (which requires a separate essay but I'll spare you it on this occasion), Thomas Paine, the Luddites (another essay), the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  When I say I'm English, that’s what I associate myself with.

Finally, these ramblings have been an exercise in displacement activity, since what's really important, and what's stopped me writing on this blog for the past month, is the Islamic State. I still haven’t yet worked out what to say about it - and until I do, I don't really feel like writing about anything else. But the Scottish referendum handed me an excuse for this riff on Britishness.