Paul Ward, Professor of Modern British History and author of Britishness since 1870 (London, 2004), considers the role of history in understanding the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014.
I’m terribly disappointed by the outcome of the Scottish referendum. I hoped for Scottish independence as a way of changing a too conservative and complacent United Kingdom in which too much power rests with traditional elites from wealthy, privileged backgrounds and which the Labour Party has historically accepted as ‘the British way’.
In the last days of the campaign I did think that a Yes vote was possible. The Yes campaign was exciting and radical and the British Establishment combined to try to suffocate it. It is an amazing achievement that 45% or so of Scottish voters, despite this barrage of ‘Better Together’ propaganda, voted for an independent Scotland. But as a historian of Britishness and other national identities, I did think that the outcome would be a No vote.
My research across the last 20 years has been about the way in which the United Kingdom has allowed the negotiation of multiple identities within its borders – that it has been possible to be Scottish, Welsh and English within the UK. That, at the top of society, being united gave elites in Scotland the chance to be imperial rulers, and that politicians from Scotland and Wales (Lloyd George for example) had the opportunity to play a global role based on Britain’s imperial past. For others, there were advantages to being British and united offered by the success of radicalism, which culminated in the British National Health Service – a rallying cry for Yes campaigners in Scotland was that English Tories were privatising the NHS and that independence would save it.
Britishness is able to absorb but not assimilate, because this inclusive view of Britishness seeks to allow space for the expression and affiliation to a never-ending range of identities. Sam Selwyn, a Trinidadian novelist of South Asian descent, utilised the phrase “black British” to describe all non-white Britons, and while the term’s use is disputed, particularly among those young black people alienated by police and state racism, it has also been taken up with pride by a range of prominent figures. The adoption of the description “British Muslim” also signifies integration with a sense of difference. It is also clear that many, probably the majority, of people see that cultural contact between different ethnic groups in the UK leads to cultural trading rather than cultural contamination. Most white Britons do not feel swamped by “foreign” cultures, but embrace them in a huge variety of ways. In many northern cities for example the traditional galas are now joined in the civic calendar by Asian-inspired melas and Afro-Caribbean carnivals. The Notting Hill Carnival, held annually in London in August, is the largest street festival in Europe. As it is possible to be a British woman, so it is possible to be black-British, Chinese British, as it has been possible for most in Wales to be British and Welsh. Of course there are tensions and conflicts – the Irish revolution of 1916-21, the Troubles, racist murders and violence all show that it’s not always easy living in Britain, and more than four out of ten Scots want out, but the UK and Britishness are flexible enough to accommodate much of the debate and discussion about living in the UK.
This is what I’ve explored in my books, Britishness since 1870, Unionism in the United Kingdom, 1918-1974 and Huw T. Edwards: British Labour and Welsh Socialism (available from all good booksellers). As a citizen, I want radical social and political change and I’m optimistic that it can happen, but as a historian I know that radical change isn’t easy to achieve and that to achieve change you need to understand what you are up against. I’ve argued, based on historical research, that Britishness is a remarkably resilient identity. The Scottish referendum, which I so hoped would break up Britain, showed that a historical approach to national identities is essential.
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