‘We are a people obsessed with defining each other’s identities. Are you Muslim or are you Scottish? British or Pakistani? Such unhelpful categorisations ignore the reality of a multi-ethnic country. As an Asian Scot born in Glasgow to a father from Pakistan and a mother from Kenya, I went on to marry my wife, Gail, who is a White Scot born in England to an English father and Scottish mother. I would challenge anyone to accurately define the identity of our children. Are we really happy to simply reduce people to fractions?’
Humza Yousaf – Scottish First Minister for the SNP
Identity is a big concept. It encompasses more contradictions than one word should comfortably be asked to contain. Before going on to discuss the particular circumstances of British (and Scottish) identity as someone in favour of Scottish self-government and the idea of a non-ethnic, civic nationalism, I feel bound to explore its implications.
Luckily, someone I admire got there first.
Amin Maalouf is a writer, and thus a brother to all writers everywhere. He lives in Paris and is therefore a Parisian. He writes his novels in French. A French writer. He is a French and Arabic speaker, born in Lebanon, raised and educated as a Melkite Christian. The Melkite Church is affiliated to Greek Orthodoxy. He went to a Catholic Jesuit school. As I say, he’s a writer, like me. He has been living, like me, in the same European city for over 40 years. Unlike myself, however, Maalouf is sometimes asked, in more or less unhelpful tones, where he is really from.
His book-length essay, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (1988) begins with an irritated response to that impertinent question. ‘Am I half French and half Lebanese?’ he asks. ‘Of course not! Identity can’t be compartmentalized.’ It is the model of identity wrung from this irritated Parisian (whom, I’m sure, the former leader of the French anti-immigration party, Marion Anne Perrine ‘Marine’ Le Pen, would struggle to call a Frenchman), that I, as a Scot, find very helpful.
Maalouf’s argument when it comes to identity – who we are ‘at home’ or, indeed, who we are ‘in the world’ – is that we should be looking outside ourselves for connections, not inside ourselves for ‘essentials’. As an English speaker, I am affiliated to all other English speakers, as a playwright to all other playwrights, in every language. I can further ‘self-identify’ in a number of ways (a father, footballer, trainspotter, brain surgeon or Mormon), each affiliation qualifying my other affiliations. My associations, rather than some numinous idea of ‘self’, are what constitute my identity. It is our affiliations, the accidents of individual history, that do exactly the same for everyone else. The question of where anyone is ‘really from’, or who they ‘really are’ is as incoherent in this light as it is (usually) malevolent in intention.
Maalouf goes so far as to determine the measurable circumstances of individual freedom (another big word) by our practical ability to maintain and defend all of the identities with which our affiliations and associations align us. Under ‘normal’ liberal democratic circumstances, our complexity is a real thing, practically actionable in the scope for activity normally afforded us. There are circumstances, however, readily familiar to anyone who has been in a war zone, where this right to complexity is withdrawn. What informs the urgency of Maalouf’s argument is that spurious ideas about ‘identity’, about who we ‘really’ are, are often the occasion of murder and everything that leads up to it.
The experience of having left Beirut in 1976, at the start of the Lebanese Civil War, informs his argument. Writing in the 1990s during the ethnically driven wars in the former Yugoslavia, Maalouf describes circumstances in which identities can be stripped from individuals, and only one collective identity insisted on. As a Serbian doctor, for instance, the fact of being a doctor, and therefore a brother to all doctors everywhere, is an affiliation of no consequence with a gun against my head. On the basis of that now single, stripped-down Serbian identity, I can be murdered. Even worse, perhaps, I can be called upon to do murder. Handed a gun and told I have to kill my Croat neighbour before he kills me, my multiple identities are being refused me. It is only one of my identities that ‘really’ matters.
For Maalouf, then, to be asked who you really are is more than ‘not useful’. It is, in fact, a micro-aggression – an act of symbolic violence which strips from him, and from you and me, the freedom of our multiple identities.
To return to specifically Scottish and British territory, everyone is by now accustomed to a degree of multiplicity. So, for instance, non-ethnically Scottish residents of Scotland – Asian Scots, African Scots or English Scots – whether they support independence or not, are in their scope for political choice the new Scottish. That is, we are all now invisibly hyphenated, including Scottish Protestants, Scottish Catholics and Scottish Buddhists. Yet only certain hyphenations are ‘allowed’ or ‘agreed’ to make sense. When I was born, the term ‘Asian-Scottish’ sounded oxymoronic to many. It sounds ‘normal’ now. It remains to be seen whether the England football team under Gareth Southgate will normalise Black and English, with a hyphen in between them, or at any rate a sense of association by being contiguous, as in Black British.
If there is now a sense of a non-ethnically based ‘civic Scottishness’ (a largely, if not entirely settled question), then can a similar state of ‘civic Englishness’ be deemed to exist, or even be possible? Is Englishness doomed to a ghetto of white ethnic exclusivity? And how does any of this square with what it means to be British, or wanting for Scotland to be independent? Is it ‘Britain’ or indeed England that ‘separatists’ like me want to separate from? And how does the experience of inward and outward migration, ancestral or otherwise, nuance the question? In this narrow and immediate, and at the same time broad and historical context, what is the strategy for British self-reinvention that can, as so often before, change just enough to keep everything exactly the same as the stories tell us it used to be? Once Scotland has left? Or Northern Ireland? What exactly is left of a British sense of self-worth? Is there still any such thing? Can it be reinvented?
Pageantry and Empire 2.0
Circumstantially, then, I was born right here in Glasgow, Scotland, in the tenth year of the reign of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I am a white, heterosexual, male writer in (mostly) English. When I was born, Scotland, like Wales and Northern Ireland, was securely and unthinkingly a Home Nation of the British Empire. My grandparents’ Unionism was entirely consistent, for them, with a sniffy superiority to the English. Everyone knew it was the Scottish Sergeant Major who really ran the regiment, no matter what the English officers might think.
Now, as the reign of one British monarch slides with an outward show of seamlessness into the reign of another, the Imperial imagery of my grandparents’ youth has made a sudden and strange return. I am finding that demands and counter demands are being made upon me in the name of my identity. Something like coercion is in the air.
Pageantry is being used to coerce agreement as to who ‘we’ are. There was, for example, a repeated emphasis on the Scottishness of the late Queen (and thus ‘our’ Britishness as Scots). More than one commentator wondered aloud whether Her Majesty, as one last unifying act, purposefully died in Scotland in order to afford the opportunity for some specifically tartan pageantry to outdo the separatist Scottish National Party.
Whatever interpretation gets projected onto her as an individual, perhaps we can all agree that Queen Elizabeth II represented an emotional and personal as well as a symbolic and political connection to the Britain of the Second World War – to that anchor of British self-imagination when the Empire ‘stood alone’ against the Nazis. And that, with her passing, this personal connection to that identity-defining cultural ‘memory’ has been severed.
The ‘soft power’ of pageantry and ritual – redolent of the days when Britannia ruled the waves that crashed between the imperial possessions upon which the sun would never set – changes in function when we consider that many at home and abroad consider Britain to have played ‘a blinder’ in its use of the monarchy to cover the retreat from Empire and greatness. In the words of Elizabeth II herself, ‘I am sure that this, my coronation, is not a symbol of a power and a splendour that are gone, but a declaration of our hopes for the future.’ But whatever the monarchical theatre of what has been touted as a British genius for ‘self-re-invention’, such display conflicts with a recognition that these are emblems of a denial of decline, which can only arrest to a slow crawl but not reverse the long descent from global power. This hollowness becomes all the more desperate when hooked to the tetchy and glum personality of her eldest son
All that seems to be left now is a shrill insistence on a simplified identity as a United Kingdom which has come to fit the Britain of 2023 a good deal less comfortably than in the coronation year of 1953. The divisions between us turn out to be emphasised by the very insistence with which they are denied. The Union Jacks, for example, that so assertively and symmetrically festooned the Mall on the occasion of the late Queen’s funeral mean notoriously different things depending on where in these islands (let alone in the former Empire) you happen to be sitting when you see them on your newsfeed. Rather than creating a singular sense of identity for Britons of all affiliations, there are those in my own wee corner of the world who refer to the Union Flag as ‘The Butcher’s Apron’ in reference to the 1746 Battle of Culloden and its aftermath. Now more than ever, it feels like someone is shouting at me, and I’m sure at many others, insisting, ‘This is who you are!’
The Multicultural Turn
What, then, of that other ‘progressive’ narrative of Britishness, which for the moment let us call ‘multiculturalism’? Isn’t that narrative of absorption of the ‘other’ into civic Britishness also under threat from the fracturing of our island story? What is one to make, for example, of the royal unveiling in 2022 of a statue inside Waterloo Station commemorating the first wave of post-war immigrants known as ‘The Windrush Pioneers’. The National Windrush Monument’s imagery is derived from extremely evocative photographs by Howard Grey of that moment of arrival (as movingly displayed elsewhere on WritersMosaic), and depicts an emblematic family of Caribbean origin made up of individuals of African ancestry, and thus obviously excluding many of that ‘diverse generation’ of immigrants in its representation. I suspect that the cultural memories of the Windrush generation amount to an altogether more complex history than can be represented by any monumentalism, even if it acts as a distraction from the persecution of those very same people from the moment of stepping off the train up until the Windrush scandal of the very recent past.
Why now? Why that royal unveiling now? It can’t be just guilt. Is there not a co-option going on, a degree of catch up and goodwill hunting by the state through the inclusion of the once oppositional categories and vocabularies of multiculturalism into the official narrative of Britishness? It is the individual stories behind the individual faces in the photographs that are worth hearing. It is from the individual stories that a general historical narrative can and must be reconstructed. The rebranding of post-war immigrants as pioneers, with the ironic echoes of white men setting out in wagon trains to civilise the West in the USA in the nineteenth century, strikes me as of a piece with recent tentative attempts to re-remember the Empire itself as a multicultural project.
Much re-packaging of British history is already laughably fraudulent. The sole admissible history of the British involvement in slavery has been about the abolition of that trade, and it is left to genuinely oppositional voices and hands to topple a slave-trader’s statue that commemorates a rather different version of historical memory into Bristol Harbour. As this very British battle in our so-called Culture Wars continues, I fully expect to see outposts of the Atlantic slave trade rebranded as a tourism opportunity.
Attempts to impose a single British identity, whether a progressive, multicultural version or in regression to the nursery costume cupboard of royal flummery, seem to me to be rooted in historical amnesia and denial. The progressive and the throwback versions of Britishness are two sides of a single imposition, an insistence on a collective identity predicated on a particularly skewed account of ‘greatness’ that has co-opted the language of dissent and difference, of identity as a multiplicity, into a single, insular story.
England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are the original colonies of Britain, and are the last to be gaslit. In the Home Nations, as can be seen in the gaslighting politics pioneered by Home Secretaries Theresa May, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, any identity more complex than that assumed by the defence of a dying empire is to be criminalised, or at least have its legitimacy taken away. According to Theresa May, ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’
Despite recent assertions of continuity, the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ formed in 1922 simply does not believe in its own set of impostures any longer. The invention of what historian David Edgerton has called the ‘popular idea’ of Britishness in the 1940s is unlikely to long survive the Queen as its prime exemplar in the UK and beyond. It seems to me extremely unlikely that King Charles can preside over anything like as settled a sense of selfhood on this Atlantic archipelago, let alone in the wider Commonwealth of Nations. The world will continue to re-invent itself despite all the efforts of ‘Britain’ to arrest or steer it.
To return, then, to the ‘Scottish Question’ – the final irony of the current administration of Brexitland is that it was really a ‘British Question’ all along, and it is in defence of an idea of Britishness that the United Kingdom is coming to an end. Scotland did not vote for Brexit. The breakup has been ongoing. Devolution, made possible by shared membership of all four nations in the EU, is unsustainable without a European constitutional identity to replace the hollowed-out shell of ‘Britishness’. What we in Scotland call ‘muscular Unionism’ (in echo of nineteenth-century ‘muscular Christianity’) overlooks an actual nation in favour of one that only exists, and can only exist, as fantasy. No EU eventually means no UK either.
Presented with the widest political open goal in a generation, His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition have pledged to ‘make Brexit work’ and thrown in their lot with the ‘take back control’ Tories. The Labour party feels it has no option but to subscribe to a ‘progressive’ Britishness to take back control of a disintegrating cohesion and economy, when no such thing can logically exist in the context of a determined Scottish or Irish nationalism, let alone for English ethno-nationalists. There is, even now in our politics, ‘no alternative’, no road other than this road to nowhere – so, we will decorate it with statues of the Windrush Pioneers. Of course it can only get it wrong, riding roughshod over the differences of other people.
The British Question, whether Britain likes it or not, is really whether we have already reached the practical limits of devolution within the post imperial framework. Are we already past the point of no return? Is the only next constitutional step one that must take us to a place where Britain ceases to exist entirely, vanishing in a puff of post-Elizabethan logic? Can any ‘British’ government post-Brexit genuinely ‘de-centre’ one of the most centralized states in Europe? Is it possible for any British Government of left or right to recognise that a key driver of Scottish nationalism is precisely Britain’s failure as a multinational project? Scotland did not vote for Brexit. Or is that recognition, as I suspect, a step that ‘Britain’ cannot take, except at the cost of a constitutional disintegration that most voters in England are not remotely prepared for, or even aware of?
A more or less chaotic break-up of Britain, and consequent wholesale reinvention of what it means to belong here, may turn out to be a necessary pre-condition for a set of polities whose very fragmentation, whose very multiplicity and diversity might make them worth living in. Perhaps the final break-up of Britain – and the final end of Empire for whose ghost it stands – is the best thing that could happen to all of us who live on these islands, no matter our affiliations, or where we ‘really’ come from. It may be the precondition for a re-discovery of who we are now, all of us who are here, and who we have the creativity to become. Until then, the Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has my support in challenging anyone ‘to accurately define the identity of our children.’
Photo by Hermann Rodrigues