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