Why Do I Not Want to be British?

As I wrote in my last post, I consider myself to be Scottish rather than British, and have done so for as long as I can remember. I do not really know why this should be the case, given that I grew up at a time when Scotland had no Parliament, and independence seemed like a distant dream of a few people. Yet even then Scotland retained enough of its own identity to be a nation, not merely a region of the United Kingdom, and I must have accepted this from quite an early age. England has always seemed a bit foreign to me, albeit less so than other countries where I have lived and worked; it was always Scotland that was my true home.

There are two reasons why my reluctance to identify myself as being British (except reluctantly for official purposes) has increased. The first might be considered trivial by some, but the second is much more serious.

I take a casual interest in history, and as a result have read quite a few books and watched a fair number of television documentaries on a variety of historical topics, many of which have dealt with events since the creation of the UK in 1707. Having a somewhat pedantic nature, I have repeatedly been irritated by the use of ‘England’ or ‘English’ when it is clear from the context that it is ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ which is meant. For example, there might be references to English warships in an account of the Napoleonic wars, or to England declaring war on Germany in 1914 or 1939. Where these are quotations of something said or written by someone from outside Britain, it is perhaps forgivable, because they would just have been following the example set by many English people in the past. Even modern authors sometimes use the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ as though they were synonyms and fully interchangeable. When I was abroad, if I had told someone that I was British, they might well have assumed that I was English.

In practice, the meaning of a word is not defined by any dictionary, but by how it is used by most people; dictionaries change to follow usage. I have a dictionary which defines a troop as a unit of cavalry or armoured vehicles; to my annoyance, the BBC and others now regularly use it as a synonym for a soldier. New dictionaries will no doubt include this new meaning. Thus, if many people treat ‘British’ as equivalent to ‘English’, I cannot bring myself to say that I am British. To me, this would be tantamount to accepting that Scotland was absorbed into England in 1707, and that Great Britain is really Greater England, an idea which I utterly reject.

The more serious reason is that I would be ashamed to call myself British. The first time I can remember feeling this way was in 1982 when I heard that the General Belgrano, a 44 year old light cruiser, had been sunk by a British nuclear submarine outside the exclusion zone declared by the British Government, with the loss of 323 lives. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Falklands Conflict, and accepting that there is an argument that the General Belgrano may have been a threat to British forces, it just did not seem right to me at the time.

However, that pales into insignificance compared with the invasion of Iraq, when Blair lied to Parliament to get approval for British participation in an illegal invasion which resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and which has left Iraq racked by violence which still claims hundreds of lives each month. Overthrowing a dictator may be a good thing, but sometimes the price is far too high. Yet Britain intervened in Libya (which is also still plagued by violent feuds between different factions), and might have done so in Syria if things had worked out a bit differently.

Then there are the revelations of killings and torture by British forces in Kenya during the struggle for independence. Perhaps Britain was not as bad as other colonial powers, but her record is far from spotless, even if one considers only what has happened in my lifetime.

If there ever was a reason to be proud of being British, it was the creation of a welfare state, including free medical care, at a time when Britain was exhausted and nearly bankrupt after the Second World War. From then until the Thatcher era, living standards increased, and serious poverty decreased along with inequality in the distribution of wealth, even under Tory governments. But the rot set in with Thatcher.

The inequality of wealth distribution is rising again, and did so just as fast under New Labour as under the Tories. Even during a financial crisis, the rich seem somehow to have got even richer, at the expense of everyone else. The government has bailed out irresponsible banks, failed to take action against dishonest bankers, but acted to protect bankers’ bonuses from EU regulation.

At the other end of the financial spectrum, benefits are being slashed, not merely for the comparatively few genuinely work-shy but for the disabled, the chronically or seriously ill, and for the people for whom there are simply no jobs available; people on benefits are faced with these being stopped if the DWP can find any excuse to impose sanctions. Some Remploy factories, the only places where some disabled people had any chance of employment, have been closed because they did not make a profit. Atos declares people who are terminally ill to be fit to work. Disabled people can be forced out of their specially adapted homes by the bedroom tax. Unemployed people are forced into workfare, while unelected Lords can claim £300 tax-free, plus expenses and subsidised food and drink, for an hour or two of work or just sitting on a comfortable seat.

The NHS in England is being broken up and the pieces are being fed to companies, such as Serco, who will prioritise profits over patient care. In England, the legal obligation that the NHS provide free treatment has been removed, and it will probably not be long before anyone who does not have private health insurance will get only the most basic health care.

Of course there is a great deal of anger about this, but there has been a concerted campaign by the media to put the blame for many of Britain’s problems on immigrants who are supposedly flooding into the UK to take ‘our’ jobs, claim benefits or live a life of crime, and also on the supposed large number of benefit cheats, although these are actually a rather small percentage of claimants and cost the country far less than tax avoidance and evasion.

In terms of the UK, there is no real democratic cure for this, as the Tories, New Labour and the LibDems all offer essentially the same policies with slightly different rhetoric. As for UKIP, their purposes is to attract voters who are disillusioned with the other parties and to channel their resentment away from the bankers and speculators of the City of London and towards the EU which might impose effect regulation on the financial sector.

How could I be proud to be British, when I see what Britain has become? I know that Scots have played their part, for both good and ill, in Britain and in its former Empire. Quite a few of the current crop of politicians whom I do not respect (to put it mildly) are Scottish. However, I do not believe that an independent Scotland will participate in illegal invasions, pursue such vindictive policies towards the most vulnerable of its people, or be as right-wing and xenophobic as the UK seems destined to become.

I know that even if Scotland becomes independent I will still be, legally, be British as well as Scottish, but I would dearly love to be Scottish, not British.

PS. I strongly recommend this article about UKIP




What is the Referendum Really About?

The Scottish Secular Society, after consulting their members, have declared their support for independence.


I fully agree with their statement, except for one very minor quibble; in the last paragraph, they say “the referendum [is] not a choice between British and Scottish identities”. If this had been qualified, perhaps by the word ‘necessarily’ after ‘not’, I would not disagree with it. As it is, it provides the trigger for me to write about something which has been on my mind recently.

Various pundits on both sides of the debate have given their opinions as to what the referendum is really about, or in other words why so many people in Scotland wish to regain the independence that was lost over three centuries ago. Some of these are simplistic propaganda, such as the idea that Scots want independence because they hate the English. Others are of a more thoughtful, intellectual nature, but I might still not agree with them.

The fundamental difficulty with any such attempt to explain the independence movement is that opinions are personal; looking at a wide range of topics, it would be very difficult to find two people with essentially the same views on every one. In the independence debate, there are so many different issues involved that, if a large number of people intending to vote Yes were asked to list all the reasons why they support independence, and to rate the importance of each reason, they would give very varied answers.

Hence my one little quibble with the statement by the Scottish Secular Society. For some people, the issue of identity, Scottish versus British, will be an important factor in the their decision as to how they will vote. Of course, for many of these people their identity will have been decided long ago, and they will simply vote according to that identity, but there may well be some who regard themselves as both Scottish and British, and who do feel that, in deciding which way they will vote, they are indeed making a choice as to their identity.

A further complication is that there will be some people whose vote will, in effect, contradict their own idea of their national identity. Some who consider themselves to be Scottish will vote No, perhaps because they believe some of the unionist scare stories. Others will do so out of self-interest – I do not expect many Scottish Labour MPs will vote Yes to lose their current jobs.

On the other hand, I expect there will be people who have moved from England to Scotland, and who still consider themselves to be English/British, who will nevertheless vote Yes, because they believe that an independent, progressive Scotland will become a better place to live than the UK under the rule of a right-wing government, whether that is Tory, New Labour or even, just possibly in a few years time, UKIP. It is possible that some people in that situation might feel that a decision to vote Yes is also a decision to adopt a more Scottish identity.

Can I answer the question in the title? Yes, but only from a strictly personal point of view, and even then not fully.

I think of the main reasons why I intend voting Yes as falling into three categories which I label as emotional, financial and political, perhaps more for neatness than accuracy.

The emotional category is that I identify myself as Scottish, and not British (except very reluctantly, for official purposes; I might discuss the reasons for this in a future post.) Therefore I want my country, Scotland, to be run by a government elected by its own people.

The financial category is that Scotland will benefit economically from independence, for a number of reasons which will be familiar by now to anyone who is likely to be reading this blog.

The political category is that, whereas the UK has never been truly democratic, an independent Scotland will become more democratic, with a codified Constitution developed by ourselves, and this will lead to the development of a better, less unequal society. As a similarly-sized country, we can try to emulate the Nordic countries. We can get rid of nuclear weapons from our country and have a Defence Force which is not used for aggression.

If I were asked about the relative importance to me of these three categories, I would not be able to answer with any confidence. The most that I could say is that all three are important, but they are different, and I do not know how I could quantify their importance to allow me to rank them – and that is without considering all the arguments which make up each category.

However, I can say that I have listed the categories in chronological order. The emotional argument (patriotism, you could call it) has been there for a very long time, certainly since my late teens. The financial arguments came next, perhaps encouraged by North Sea oil which made it clear that Scotland could easily afford to be independent. The political arguments have built up as my disillusionment with UK politics has deepened, starting with Thatcher, being maintained by New Labour, and intensifying with the current Coalition.

If I do not feel able to list, in order of importance, the main reasons why I support independence, then obviously I cannot say why people in general will choose to vote Yes or No. When some pundit on television, or writing in a newspaper, claims to have some insight into what has led us to having a referendum, or why the debate is going the way that it is, I will treat those claims with a very large pinch of salt.

My opinions, as expressed in this blog, are just opinions; feel free to be just as sceptical of them as I am of the opinions of newspaper columnists and the like.


A Free Press Revisited

First, I would like to apologise to anyone who might have wished to comment on my posts so far for my failure to include a comments form with each post. This blog started because I found myself going over and over some the arguments relating to independence, effectively composing possible articles in my head, while out walking with my dog. I thought I might as well get them out of my head by turning them into actual blog posts; if anyone found them interesting or in any way useful, that would be a bonus. There was never any intention of competing with any of the well-established pro-independence blogs, or even of being witty or entertaining. That is why I have not tried to customise my blog or introduce graphics; I would rather keep it simple. Unfortunately, that means I have not really put much effort into understanding how WordPress works.

A reader called Brenda tried to post a comment on the last post, “How would you define a free press? I don’t think a multinationally owned tabloid or an entirely capitalist owned press fulfills that term.”

I agree entirely with the second sentence, and so perhaps I would define a free press as something which should ideally exist, but which is in practice well-nigh impossible, except possibly for small-scale, community publications. If the press is not regulated by the state, then the press will almost certainly be used to advance the views of its owners, who are likely to be right wing capitalists. As long as they do this in a reasonably honest way, then this is not a threat to democracy. If the press deceive the public in order to promote their owners’ political agenda, then there is a case to be made for the state intervention, at least in the most blatant cases. But there is a fine line between the state preventing the press from lying on behalf of its owners, and the state controlling the press for its own purposes.

There is a particular difficulty in the case of a state broadcaster such as the BBC which may be coerced into slanting news in a way that suits the government. Who could regulate them?

There is also a question as to how important the press is going to be in the future. Increasingly, the future of printed newspapers and magazines is threatened by the Internet, but some kind of news-gathering organisations will have continue, and what they report will still influence the opinions of the people and hence how they vote. The Internet can expose lies, but it is part of the problem as well, given that there are many sites which are even less trustworthy than a tabloid newspaper. My guess is that any attempted regulation of the Internet will be either completely ineffective (largely because the Internet is not confined by national borders) or something quite totalitarian; I do not think that there is any intermediate option.

As I said in the previous post, this is a topic where I have questions but do not claim to have good answers.