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We’re all nationalists now – but what nation?

We’re all nationalists now – such seems the evidence of a new poll on national identity. It seems that ‘Britain’ as an identity is in rapid decline in comparison to Englishness, Welshness and Scottishness. So what could Britain mean if it survives?

I’ll admit to a bit of a love/hate relationship with polling, especially where the questions are not focussed around something current and about which there is debate (and therefore a good chance of views and opinions being formed in advance). And yes, I do mean that I love/hate the poll even more when the question is more ‘interpretable’ and less likely to form the basis of a pre-forme view. This is because it simultaneously can tell us both more and less. It can tell us more because it is more inclined to elicit a subconscious response which can cut through received prejudice and avoid ‘predictable’ answers. On the other hand, it means the response requires much, much more interpretation. My main ‘hate’ is that people hear the results of these impressionistic polls and take them to be ‘true’ rather than a starting-point for a sort-of social psychoanalysis.

Which is why I found the British Futures think tank report entitled This Sceptred Isle so interesting. It is a poll to identify the sources of national pride across the UK and to gather some sort of sense of what kind of attitude we have to our nationhood. Much is not massively surprising but that does not mean it is insignificant – and there is no question that there are some stark differences between Scotland and England (less between Scotland and Wales).

The big differences are in areas such as our relationship with the big symbols of state such as  Monarchy (80 per cent of English are proud against 17 not, compared to 41 and 55 per cent respectively in Scotland) and the Union Flag (78 per cent of English are proud, only 56 per cent of Scots). Other differences are a little harder to form a judgement on – Scots are more proud of the Edinburgh Festival (84 per cent) than the English are of Glastonbury (51 per cent) – but is this really a telling comparison? And we’re a tiny bit more proud of the haggis than the English are of the Yorkshire Pudding (68 per cent to 67 per cent) while both are prouder than the Welsh are of their Laver Bread (43 per cent). And this is what I mean about polls – how many English people, if asked to talk for an hour about national pride, would actually mention Yorkshire pudding unprompted? We have a poem about haggis to stimulate us, but while my knowledge of Laver Bread is limited, perhaps it’s just not that nice and the Welsh result doesn’t tell us much about their national pride and identity. And the fact that England is more proud of its sporting teams (68 per cent) than Scotland (65 per cent) and way behind the Welsh (90 per cent) has got more to do with recent success than national identity (that 65 per cent of Scots remain proud of their sporting teams might be regarded as miraculous in itself all things considered). Likewise, one might be surprised to see the big lead the English have in pride in the pubs (74 per cent to Scotland’s 51), but this could either be the conditioning of the questions (England’s pubs are more part of its cultural identity than are Scotland’s to our identity) or it could be years and years of negative publicity about drinking habits in Scotland.

So while people might argue indefinitely over what some of these mean, there are two broad indicators which interest me. The first is the little group of indicators around civic national identity. It is encouraging (to me at least) that one way or the other on almost every measure one might take to be a measure of ‘openness’ of social definition of nationhood, Scotland does a bit better than England on most of these measures – we are more likely to identify country symbols such as the national flags as being unlinked to racism (24 to 10 per cent), more linked to modernity and diversity (that one 26 per cent of the English see the St George Cross is associated with a modern, diverse country compared to 58 per cent of Scots for the Saltire), more linked to democracy and tolerance (48 to 33 per cent) and so on. And we are slightly less likely to view either hesitance or race as factors for indicating nationality.

The other is harder to tease out – I have looked at this poll for that very reason and I can’t draw a conclusion. Is there anything to suggest that Scotland is more socially democratic, more left-wing than other parts of the UK (or more specifically England, since Wales profiles a bit more like Scotland). And one questions threw me on this one. In England 78 per cent of respondents claim to be proud of the NHS comported to only 69 per cent in Scotland (and 59 per cent in Wales). This seems strange – are the Welsh actually a quarter less proud of collectivist provision of social services than the English? And if so why do they keep voting for the parties most likely to uphold this principle? I suspect this is where this poll falls down a bit – in England there is very much a current sense that the NHS is under threat and may not survive as a universal service; in Scotland and Wales it is seen much more as an eternal part of our social landscape. Is that the reason? To be honest, there isn’t really enough data in this poll to tell us much about pride in that strand of political opinion across countries – we definitely look a bit more liberal-left (race and tolerance etc.) but there is less evidence of being more collectivist-left.

But there is one overwhelming message from this and it has changed enormously since my childhood – no-one is British anymore. Or at least, no-one really sees themselves as mainly British – in fact, only eight per cent of the UK population sees themselves are more British than anything else and another six per cent see themselves as exclusively British. And there are some differences about what that means in political terms (again, Scotland tends to be slightly more ‘civic’ in its nationalism than England) and some big difference in what it means in identity terms (England is twice as likely to identify itself with big institutions of state like the Monarchy).

There is something important to take from this for the current Scottish constitutional debate. The first and most important point for me is that anyone who thinks its possible to ‘get back to Britain’ has missed their decade. Britain as an identifiable and unifying set of shared understandings is declining rapidly. The period between the war and now (perhaps from Empire to now) had a genuine British identity, much as if we were a unitary state. Now it is very clear that we view ourselves as a union of different countries. And our understanding of the nature of some of those nations is a bit different (or at least we think or want to claim it is).

So the big message for me is that the entire constitutional debate in Scotland is based on a blatantly incorrect dichotomy – it’s not nationalists versus unionists because we’re all nationalists one way or the other. No one is suggesting dissolving the UK as a nation state, so we are left with one of three options. Either we have Scotland alone, Scotland as one nation in a political federation of four different nations or we have to recreate Britain as a nation. Each of these has different implications – there are differences in identity between these countries that goes beyond haggis-versus-Yorkshire-pudding. And we’re not debating on these terms. People claim that unionists ‘must make a positive case for the union’ but it seems to me that the case for Britain goes beyond that – if Scotland’s long-term future is as part of the United Kingdom it is time to think about what sort of a nation is that? If England has developed its own identity, is the aim to merge those identities (Scotland and England) or find a way to live with the differences?

Which shows up in one remaining question, one where some have suggested there is a less-than-civic element to Scotland. The question is about what makes people ‘Scottish’ and the response shows that 73 per cent of Scots think that being born here is an important part of being Scottish. This is seen as possibly a problem, a kind of in-built chauvinism. But that seems unfair to me – we have no structural way of ‘becoming Scottish’ so how else would people expect to define us? It is counterintuitive to suggest that anyone that wants to can just ‘claim’ Scottishness. The nationalists have a clear take on how that might be resolved. Perhaps the unionist side might open some interesting doors if it was to debate that question.

Robin McAlpine