Friday, 27 January 2012

27 January 2012

When I was at school, long, long ago, I studied a subject called English literature.

And when I was old enough to get my first passport, it was issued on behalf of a country called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The word England, or English, didn't appear anywhere.

How much simpler it would have been if I'd been born in France, or Germany: French literature, French passport; German literature, German passport.

As far as I know, there's no such thing as "British literature", and there's certainly no "United Kingdom literature".

(Of course, English is a language as well as a national and cultural identity -- which is why we can also study American literature, or African literature, written in the same language but from a very different cultural background.)

So do labels matter? I suspect they do, because they help us describe who we are, who we feel ourselves to be. And surely that's an important part of the newly-invigorated debate over Scottish independence.

I've yet to meet a Scot who doesn't bristle indignantly when some ignorant foreigner describes them as "English". To be Scottish, or indeed Welsh or Irish, is, in part, to be not-English -- and perhaps we not-Scots need to recognise that more than we sometimes do.

Incidentally, while we're on the subject of national identities, I'm reminded of how the author and Anglican priest William Inge, who served as dean of St Paul's a century ago, defined what constitutes a nation: it is, he said, "a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours."

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, is going to great lengths these days to say that he's not an England-hater. Far from it, he says: he wants Scotland to be a good neighbour to England instead of a surly tenant -- and a confident, independent Scotland would help England to become equally confident, equally independent.

For now, all the opinion polls suggest that he has not yet convinced a majority of Scots that going it alone would be in their best interests. If he held an independence referendum tomorrow, he'd probably lose. Indeed, there seem to be more people in England than in Scotland who would be happy to see the two nations cut the ties that bind them.

If we look around the world, we can find other examples of countries that have split up, and we can choose which one to focus on, depending on what point we want to prove.

Czechoslovakia? The "velvet divorce" of 1993 -- Generally speaking, a success.

Ethiopia? The independence of Eritrea, also in 1993 -- Not a success at all, leading to continued conflict over borders and thousands of deaths.

Serbia/Kosovo? The unilateral declaration of Kosovan independence, 2008 -- a highly controversial example, of course, as it was done without the agreement, indeed, against the furious opposition, of Serbia. Not how it would happen if Scotland were to vote for independence.

But here's one aspect of the debate that perhaps hasn't yet received as much attention as it should. If the Scots want to feel more Scottish, and the English want to feel more English, where does that leave the people who insist that they really do feel British, rather than Scottish, English, Welsh, or Irish?

What about the child of immigrants from Cyprus, born here, English as first language, UK passport -- British, yes, but English?

Or the grand-child of immigrants from Jamaica, or India -- British, yes, but English?
(Declaration of interest: I am myself the child of refugees.)

National identity is tricky in a world of mass migration -- but it's going to be a fascinating debate.

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