If a nation’s health is reflected by its ability to generate pleasant, graceful and inclusive rituals to celebrate its high days and holidays, then the United Kingdom is in deep trouble, and Scotland is in a state of transition bordering on chaos. It’s not only that the efforts to devise an effective ceremony for the official opening of the Scottish Parliament have been fraught with difficulty; although the struggle to balance the traditional flavour of a British royal occasion with several conflicting strands of Scottish culture (heraldic, aristocratic, democratic) and a general commitment to a bright, Nordic-style civic modernity did represent a particularly fascinating study in the awkward, symbolic politics of transition. It’s more that every time we British gather together these days to celebrate some grand public occasion, we seem hardly to know whether to laugh ironically or burst into tears of nostalgia.
The last time I saw the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, for instance – that once mighty and supremely confident expression of the British imperial military tradition – it seemed to be suffering an identity-related nervous breakdown. Towards the end of the show, the marchers formed themselves into a Union flag, then dissolved into a saltire, then kept switching between the two in a frenzy of political even-handedness; and that was only after the dramatised action sequence in which the Royal Marines were saved from defeat by a William Wallace-type figure straight out of Braveheart, who, in a truly surreal moment, abseiled down from above and threw himself into battle on their side.
In England, big royal occasions such as the funeral of Diana and the wedding of Prince Edward are increasingly stripped of the trappings of a traditional British state event, which the royals, in their modernising mood, seem to see as too militaristic and old-fashioned. Diana’s funeral, in particular, carried the powerful, startling and slightly exotic atmosphere of an English state event in the age before the Union and before Protestantism, a lush Shakespearean world of scattered flowers, angry earls, flamboyant Anglo-Catholicism and wild popular emotion. In Edward and Sophie’s wedding it was possible to trace the same rejection of the old imperial style along with a slightly desperate combination of populist modernity and kitsch English medieval heritage.
And, of course, there is a body of Scottish nationalist thought that has a straightforward explanation for this growing sense of cultural confusion and uncertainty. For some theorists of nationalism, the British identity was always a forged and “artificial” one, imposed by an elite for its own commercial and military ends, never embraced by the people and bound eventually to be brought down by the forces of popular democracy. They see the UK much as UK Independence Party supporters see the European Union, as an elitist project that was never able to inspire a real popular patriotism and which is now reaching the end of its usefulness. If the UK project was essentially bound together by the triple forces of Protestantism, empire and war against Continental powers, they argue, then its day is obviously done. The wars are a thing of the past; the empire has gone; and as for Protestantism, there must be few cases in history when a tradition and the word that describes it have lost so much status in so short a time. When I was born in Scotland in the 1950s, liberal Protestantism was still a proud religious and intellectual tradition, famous for its emphasis on education and its egalitarian instincts; 40 years on, the term “Protestant” is a byword for nothing much but fierce anti-Catholic bigotry and the worst excesses of Ulster unionism. I doubt whether there will be many English couples, in a generation’s time, who will choose to celebrate their weddings with the kind of Victorian Protestant hymns still favoured by the royal family; and even fewer Scots will be able, like me, to sing along with every one of them (we were brought up in the same church music tradition).
According to this interpretation of history, the iron rule of national identity politics is now coming into play: that where cultural cohesion and confidence begin to falter, political and institutional decay cannot be far behind. Almost a third of Scots under 35 now say that they do not feel British at all, not even as a subsidiary or second identity. The English, too, have suddenly taken to sporting the flag of St George at football matches, rather than the Union flag.
There is also the abject failure, so far, of the present government’s attempts to articulate a new British identity for the new century. Hopelessly superficial and London-centred, the “Cool Britannia” project has done no justice at all to the radical potential for new kinds of community within the rich network of nations and cultures in these islands. And above all, there is the effective collapse of the old Conservative and Unionist Party, for the past 200 years the guardians par excellence of the UK political settlement. Admittedly, the Tories are not defunct, either north or south of the border. But David McLetchie’s group of Tories in the Scottish Parliament – instinctively a modern centre-right party, business-friendly, Europe-friendly and happy to work with new Scottish institutions – seems increasingly to inhabit a different political planet, and certainly a different country, from William Hague’s southern Tories, still muttering in their bunker about the loss of past glories and the threat of sinister European forces, to the pearl of Westminster sovereignty.
So far, so neat, then; except that this tidy line of argument about the likely fate of our “British” identity and institutions depends on a series of assumptions about issues of national identity of which social democrats should beware. In particular, people whose first concern lies with democratic and humanitarian values should be sceptical of arguments that assign intrinsic moral qualities to particular identities and therefore encourage a dangerous complacency about the nationalisms they favour and an oppressive dismissiveness about those feelings of nationhood that they regard as reactionary or inauthentic. The idea that there is some kind of moral or aesthetic hierarchy of national identities is now accepted – implicitly or explicitly – by almost everyone, from Prince Edward planning his “modern” wedding to the average MSP of any party, casually playing the Scottish patriotic card on the debating floor at the Mound. To put it bluntly, Scottish and Irish nationalism are now fashionable and acceptable, whereas British nationalism is dead in the water as a style item.
But the fact is that all national identities are, in the positive sense, “forged” or constructed at some stage in history; and all of them acquire, with time, accretions of affection and loyalty on the one hand and enmity on the other.
As far as most Scots are concerned, the British state has forfeited loyalty and affection through its imperialism, its elitism, its frequent ruthless defence of mercantile capitalism and its trashing of the welfare state ideal under Margaret Thatcher. But it has won and consolidated loyalty and affection through its long tradition of parliamentary democracy and radical activism, particularly in the labour movement; through the genuine, if now largely discredited, idealism and courage that underpinned some of its imperial adventures; through its occasional stands against fascism and dictatorship; and through the construction of the welfare state in the postwar years.
In other words, it is simply wrong to suggest that there is no genuine emotional content to the sense of British identity that over 70 per cent of Scots say they still retain to some degree; in fact, after almost 300 years of full incorporating union, during which Scots have been heavily complicit in every adventure the British state has undertaken, it would probably be far easier to take Scotland out of Britain, in a strictly political sense, than to take the Britishness out of Scotland. Even in Ireland, where the facts of religious and economic oppression under British rule were far less ambiguous, the idea that “Britishness” can be stereotyped as a simple moral negative and wiped out of the culture has been heavily revised over the past 20 years; and in Scotland, the rejection of the “British” dimension of our identity would be many times more self-mutilating.
Sometimes the manifestation of that continuing British identity is straightforwardly unpleasant; it reveals itself in the instinctive snobbery, the implicit assumption that a superior and more serious political world exists elsewhere, with which many Scottish commentators have greeted the new Scottish Parliament. And sometimes the British dimension of Scotland is so deeply taken for granted that it seems to exist somewhere below the horizon of consciousness; the current generation of under-30s, for example, hardly seems aware of the British-based institutions – NHS, social security system, London-based broadcasting networks – that still form part of the bedrock of their lives.
But there are also times when the Britishness of Scotland appears in a much more serious form. You don’t have to walk for long around smaller Scottish cities such as Perth and Inverness, with their colossal war memorials, to understand the fierce complexity – the conflicting passions of pride and anger – that marks our continuing relationship with the British armed forces; and you don’t have to spend much time around the British trade union movement to recognise that there can, on occasions, be a straightforwardly reactionary dimension to the current trend to equate radicalism with Scottish self-determination. At its best, a feeling for issues of national identity and self-expression is a powerful adjunct to a sophisticated understanding of how economic and political power works. But in a political age when socialism has become the analysis that dares not speak its name, and when there has been a systematic dumbing-down in popular understanding of how economic power shapes lives, the politics of national identity can too easily become a dim-witted substitute for the politics of real solidarity with people facing the same economic pressures and problems. Witness the recent attempt by some Scottish politicians to argue that Scotland should be able to spend as much as it likes on attracting inward investment, without any effort at UK or European level to balance Scotland’s needs against those of other struggling regions.
What this complex history means, finally, is that the precise institutional arrangements that we finally reach between the nations of these islands are much less important than the capacity we show, within those institutions, for genuinely respecting the complexity of our cultural inheritance. There is still a tendency, in matters of national belonging, to regard pluralism or dualism of identity as an untidiness to be suppressed, rather than a positive quality to be celebrated.
“You’ve got a problem, then, haven’t you,” one senior Scottish nationalist once said to me when I told him that I definitely felt myself to be both Scottish and British. Yet we need only glance across the Irish Sea to understand that, so far from posing a problem, the capacity to recognise and respect the presence of different strands of belonging and affinity, both within the individual and within the community, may often be the only effective key to a society at peace with itself. If Scotland goes forward now on the crude assumption that all things distinctively Scottish are positive, and all things British are bad and retrograde, then we will be mirroring one of the most bitter mistakes of early 20th-century Irish nationalism and doing damage to a large part of ourselves and our history. And after a century so scarred by the confusion of pure national identity with perfect moral virtue, that is one mistake we can surely learn to avoid.
Joyce McMillan is the chief theatre critic of “The Scotsman”, and a political columnist. She was a member of the government’s Consultative Steering Group on the procedures of the new Scottish Parliament, and of the working group which advised on the parliament’s opening ceremony