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Viewpoint: What now for Britishness?

Two men holding flags aloft over Edinburgh - union jack and Saltire Image copyright Rex Features

Despite the No vote in Scotland's referendum, there are still questions to be resolved about British identity, writes Richard Weight.

The UK will never be the same again.

The Union has held together - just, but almost half of the Scottish electorate have said they no longer wish to belong to the UK, on a record turnout of 84.6%.

That has long-term consequences for the way the country functions and - just as important - how its people see themselves.

Oil revenues will still flow south to the British treasury, nuclear submarines will still dock on the Clyde, institutions like the BBC and the NHS will not be broken up.

There will be no passport control at Berwick and the Queen will continue to enjoy summers at Balmoral without feeling she is just an honoured guest.

However, a "devolution revolution" is now certain, giving the Scottish Parliament tax-raising powers and with them, a degree of fiscal autonomy that will enable the Scots to shape their future as never before in the democratic age.

This is likely to be the implementation of the Scots' left of centre vision of a "fairer society" that will go far beyond free university tuition.

Can Scotland afford it? That is beside the point in identity politics and the Union's future will not be secured by fiscal frighteners alone.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Scotland's founding first minister, Donald Dewar, and the Queen at the 1999 opening of the Scottish parliament

Many Scots found the unionist parties' bombardment of scare stories about rising prices and job losses deeply patronising.

The metaphor of Anglo-Scottish marriage has become a tired one but some will say that the tone of the "No" campaign can be characterised not as "we're better together" but "you're nothing without us".

It's often said - recently by Irvine Welsh - that one cause of Scottish discontent has been the arrogant tendency for the English to see Britain as virtually synonymous with their own country.

Far from being a recent phenomenon, resentment about English arrogance kick-started the nationalist movement just after World War Two.

Patriotic unity in the face of Nazi onslaught was one of the high points of the Union and the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 added to the pantheon of British institutions to which the Scots gave their allegiance.

But just a year later, the Scottish Covenant movement was started, calling for Home Rule with a separate parliament under the Crown. By 1950, almost two million Scots - two-thirds of the electorate - had signed a petition in support of Home Rule.

When new postboxes appeared on the accession of the Queen in 1952 with the initials EIIR (when she was only Elizabeth I of Scotland), some of them were set alight. Winston Churchill was so angry that he declared: "If I think of the greatness and splendour of Scotland and her wonderful part in the history not only of this island but of the whole world, I really think they ought to keep their silliest people in order."

But Churchill was concerned enough to set up a royal commission on the Union that reported in 1954.

Known as the Balfour Report after its chairman, it achieved little except to implement a modest increase in the powers of the Scottish Office.

But Balfour offered a warning that politicians should heed today: "A harmonious relationship does not depend only upon efficient administration."

He said there was in Scotland an "emotional dissatisfaction" due to the "thoughtlessness, lack of tact and disregard of sentiment" of the English, with the result that:

The Treaty of 1707 is no longer remembered as the voluntary union of two proud people each with their own distinctive cultural characteristics and traditions but rather as the absorption of Scotland by England.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Scottish fans invade the pitch after their team beats England at Wembley, 1977

Over the next 20 years larger trends eroded the economic and cultural bonds that had forged Britishness in the 18th and 19th Centuries, gradually alchemising discontent into political nationalism.

Protestant Christianity, with which Britons of all classes from the Gorbals to Guildford had indentified themselves, was eroded by secularisation - a trend that accelerated in the 1960s (by 2007, 69% of Britons never attended a religious service, up from 26% in 1964).

Only in Northern Ireland did it remain intact.

The monarchy (still today the constitutional guarantor of Protestantism) remained popular enough for the Scottish National Party to be happy to keep the Crown.

But by the time the Queen opened the Scottish Parliament in 1999, royalism had become a matter of respectful indifference for most Scots rather than love of an institution which fired their hearts and bound them to the English.

During a Silver Jubilee address to parliament, the Queen urged the Scots to remember "the benefits which union has conferred".

The fact that she did not comment officially during the 2014 campaign may testify to her awareness of the relative fragility of monarchism north of the border.

The end of empire also removed much of the Union's appeal, for empire not only enriched Scotland - it also provided the Scots with professional opportunities around the world and a global status that bound them to their larger neighbour.

This loss was compounded by the decline of Scotland's industrial base and by Margaret Thatcher's painful restructuring of the British economy in the 1980s.

Roadtesting the poll tax on the Scots was the final straw, completing the decimation of the Tory vote in Scotland in 1992.

Despite Thatcher's worship of Adam Smith, monetarism hastened the reformation of Scottish identity - from the 18th Century idea of being entrepreneurial "North Britons" into that of being a fairer people than the more conservative English. (This was a bit cheeky - given that the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 only applied to England and Wales - because of opposition from Scottish Protestants and Catholics, it was not adopted north of the border until 1980.)

From this fertile ground the Scottish National Party grew. Founded in 1934 by intellectuals like the fiercely anti-English, republican poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, it gained little traction until the mid 1970s.

As the bonds of Britishness frayed, North Sea oil came ashore, enabling the SNP to reassure many who feared the cost of separation that "black gold" would lubricate the engines of independence.

Privately, the British government admitted as much - when the subject was discussed at the Queen's weekly audience with Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1973, it was placed on the agenda as "Scottish oil".


Hugh MacDiarmid 1892-1978

Image copyright PA
Image caption Poet and Scottish nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid
  • Poet, cultural and political commentator, Hugh McDiarmid was one of the most significant and controversial figures in 20th Century Scottish literature
  • Born Christopher Murray Grieve in border town of Langholm; served in WW1 before returning to Scotland to work as journalist
  • Published his most famous poem, "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle" in 1925
  • Founding member of the National Party of Scotland - forerunner to the SNP; in 1964, stood as Communist Party candidate against the then prime minister, Sir Alex Douglas-Home

BBC: Hugh MacDiarmid


For most of its existence the SNP hadn't gained more than 5% of the Scottish vote but it won 30% in October 1974.

Playing the "race card" also helped.

A post-imperial espousal of "civic nationalism" gained the SNP support from many Asian Scots, the main ethnic minority north of the border.

This distinguishes it from other nationalist parties like UKIP whose appeal rests partly on white English antipathy to multiculturalism and to a European Union that many Scots support as an alternative to the Union with England and Wales.

Yet Home Rule still appeared ridiculous to most English people in the 1970s and 80s.

The devolution referendum offered by the Labour government of Jim Callaghan in 1979 ended in defeat with 33% of Scots for and 31% against (and a third not voting).

A Labour amendment that ruled 40% of the entire electorate had to vote Yes provoked SNP complaints that the goalposts had been moved.

What characterised Scottish discontent with the English was the broken goalposts of Wembley Stadium in 1977, when a jubilant Tartan Army celebrated victory over the England football team by invading and trashing the pitch.

Hence the fact that when the Scottish Parliament finally came, it came as a bit of a shock south of the border.

In 1997, the Scots voted by three to one in favour of a parliament - 74.3% of the votes cast on a turnout of 60.4%.

From the time that the Scottish Office was set up in 1885, until it was replaced by the Scottish Parliament in 1999, devolution had largely been a strategic tool of the British Establishment to dent the appeal of independence.

And in all that time it has merely led to the incremental increase of Scottish and Welsh autonomy, and with it the creation of a lopsided British polity.

That's because it is not a straightforward question of money and power but of the long term decline of Britishness as a national identity.

According to a study by Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1997, the numbers of people whose Britishness was described by themselves as weak or non-existent had risen from a minority in each country to 66% of Scots, 43% of the Welsh and 26% of the English.

A decade later, another survey (cited by Varun Uberoi and Iain McLean in Britishness: A Role for the State?) found that the number had risen to 47% in England.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Home rule campaigner, 1952
Image copyright AP
Image caption North Sea oil first started to flow ashore in 1975
Image copyright PA
Image caption Scotland's Stone of Scone was returned to the country in 1996

Today's unionist elite face a problem their predecessors did not - the revival of a distinct English identity.

It's been reawakened by resentment about Scottish powers that English MPs do not have over English affairs, by subsidies piped north through the Barnett Formula, and by a belated awareness that Britain and England are not the same thing (the fact that England football fans only began flying the George Cross rather than the Union Jack in 1996 is an obvious example of this).

Empire, the Nazis and God are not coming back to rescue British national identity - nor will generic pieties about our love of "fair play".

Among those who still feel British there is a generation gap over what constitutes Britishness.

According to a YouGov poll in 2005 - (cited by Peter Kellner in What Britishness Means to the British) - Britons over 55 were much more likely than under-35s to think that parliamentary democracy was "very important" to being British (60% to 39%).

The same was true of British justice (63% to 37%) and their belief in a "sense of fairness" as a national characteristic (63% to 43%).


History of Britannia

Image copyright Thinkstock
  • Roman frieze discovered in 1980 shows female warrior labelled "Britannia", writhing in agony under the heel of the Roman emperor
  • Figure appeared on coins issued under emperor Hadrian, as a more regal-looking female figure, similar in appearance to the goddess Minerva
  • Pageants featuring the character of Britannia "under the shape of a fair and beautiful nymph" were held in early 17th Century to celebrate James VI of Scotland's ascent to the English throne
  • British coins begin to feature the figure of Britannia from 1672 onwards; this continued until 2008

One practical answer to the erosion of Britishness all round might be "Home Rule All Round", starting with another royal commission to examine the state of the Union.

The federal reconstitution of the UK, with parliaments for all four nations and a British one sitting at Westminster, was first mooted by radical Liberals in the 1880s as part of William Gladstone's aborted solution to "the Irish Question".

Ironically, the young Winston Churchill was a supporter of federalism in the 1900s before his later contempt for the "silliest" Scots in the 1950s.

Many Conservative MPs now favour this solution too.

The Labour Party is not keen, fearing that a Conservative-dominated English parliament will erode its power base at Westminster by stealth as surely as Scottish independence would have done so at a stroke.

Their preferred option of English regional assemblies, tried by Tony Blair in the 1990s, remains an unpopular non-starter.

Labour's opposition to Home Rule All Round is ironic because it was one of the Liberal policies that the party adopted when it replaced the Liberals as the main progressive party in Britain in the interwar period.

Home Rule All Round was party policy from 1929 until 1945, when Labour leaders abandoned it as they eyed the prize of a landslide victory and a centralised state with which to implement their "New Jerusalem".

The ghost of Thatcher may hover over the rise of Scottish nationalism but it is the ghost of Gladstone who now hovers over the future of the Union.

There is no simple solution to the erosion of Britishness.

National identities are forms of culture that, like rock formations, take centuries to evolve.

History teaches that the demand for Scottish independence has never entirely disappeared since the Union was founded in 1707.

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders now scrambling to say thank you to the Scots with parcels of gold and power should take note. The story of the United Kingdom is not over, but neither is the story of Scottish nationalism.

Richard Weight is a historian and broadcaster and the author of Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000

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