What does the narrow victory for preserving the Union tell us about the shifting forms of national identity in modern Britain?by David Goodhart / September 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
It has been widely noted that aside from its many tactical and leadership errors the “No” campaign struggled to find much meaning in the idea of Britishness. Although Britain continues to exist (just!) as a state and a set of institutions—the armed forces, the BBC and so on—fewer and fewer people regard it as a national home, it has become functional rather than emotional. For many years now the Scots and Welsh have placed their Scottish and Welsh identities before their British one, and the English have in recent years followed suit.
In the Scottish referendum the biggest supporters of independence were 25-39 year olds (56/44 for “Yes”) and the biggest opponents were men and women over 65 (64/36 for “No”). For the latter group growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Britishness had been their national identity, sitting alongside or intertwined with Scottishness.
But that is now true for a dwindling number of older people in Britain. And despite the brief revival of a benign idea of Britain as painted by Danny Boyle in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony the idea of Britishness as a primary source of allegiance is unlikely to be revived.
The more interesting question is how much did the SNP and Yes campaign benefit from this emptying of Britishness and flourishing of Scottishness in recent years? The argument is complicated by the fact that though national feeling remains deeply rooted in modern life, even in rich and liberal countries like England and Scotland, modern liberalism is unhappy with the language of nationalism. It does not like its supposed narrowness and moral particularism, hence the SNP’s repudiation of its Hugh MacDiarmid ethnic nationalist past and its stress on an open, civic national story.
This repudiation allowed the SNP to attract Scotland’s centre-left intelligentsia which in the main thinks of itself as anti-national or post-national. “I’m not a nationalist,” said Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian and backer of the Yes cause. What he means is that he is not a chauvinistic nationalist. For, of course, standing behind the arguments about social justice and more appropriate forms of self-government there is an idea of “the Scottish people” and their distinct history, language and institutions—perhaps even characteristics. Notions of being “better” than the English have been largely suppressed by modern, liberal nationalism but if the Scots were not a distinct people…