This continues where the previous post left off, more or less. A slightly shortened version should appear in The Herald on September 28.
Unionists have worked hard to give identity politics a bad name. They have not done too badly, either. Perhaps because they know where the arguments can lead, some in the Yes campaign have been content just to drop the issue. Even Nicola Sturgeon, deputy First Minister, is on record as conceding that “this debate isn’t about identity”.
Can that be true? If nothing else, it leaves all the politicians and journalists who talk proudly of being “Scottish and British” in an odd position. That claim too is a statement, perplexing as it may be, of identity. It is a recognition of Scottishness by people who would otherwise damn “narrow nationalism” as inherently racist, wedded to grievance and stuck in the past. Add a bit of British, though, and all is well.
Quite how that trick is managed is mysterious for some of us. According to the latest census findings, it also turns out to be an achievement reserved for a fairly small minority. Take away the politicians, scribblers and other institutional inmates from the “Scottish and British” category and a rare breed remains.
The 2011 census provides a number: 18%. In contrast, those who identify themselves as “Scottish only” account for fully 62% of the population. This is in a country in which 9% of the people are English born. As though to prove that identity is a complicated matter indeed, however, only 2% would call themselves “English only”.
So what do we know? That for the vast majority “Scottish and British” doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel right, as a description or a choice. It might help Westminster politicians in their efforts to dodge a few arguments, but close to two in three residents of Scotland reject the happy hybrid as a diversion. They are Scots. And they acknowledge an important little word: “only”.
They come from all over, it is pleasing to report. Fully 17% of the people of Scotland were not born here. Given that fact, those who stick by “Scottish and British” as an answer to the claim of independence should perhaps start to worry. Self-evidently, large numbers of people who were born elsewhere want no half-way house. They have made and claimed their identity, declining to tie themselves into Unionist knots.
That said, there are other mysteries represented by those census numbers. Why is the Yes campaign still at the bottom of the hill looking up when there is a ready-made majority – so you might have thought – represented by that 62%? Those of us who want independence should be home and dry. Where’s the inhibition? One answer, like it or not, surely has to be the campaign itself. Identity, the thing it has become impolite to discuss, is finding no expression in the usual arguments for independence.
It’s a tricky topic: no one pretends otherwise. Some people, from across the world, are asserting their identity through their hopes for what Scotland could become. Others find their answers in history. Many see a chance that has been denied to them in the countries of their birth. Some just like the place and the people. It isn’t petty chauvinism to say so.
Those of us who had no choice find those who choose “Scottish only” pretty fascinating. You could argue that anyone who wants independence is seeking to fashion a new identity by making a new country, but things are not quite so simple. I wouldn’t make a big deal of the fact that my family name derives from a bunch of hooligans in the debateable lands, but it’s a fact. Other facts in this Scotland can be traced to India or Ireland, Poland or England. Things get complicated.
They are resolved, though, by choices. Reports on the census note that 83% of the population of this country “felt some Scottish identity”. In England, the equivalent figure was 70%; in Wales 66%. It might be that the arguments over independence have concentrated minds here. If that’s true the Yes campaign would be boasting about its opinion poll numbers. No such noise has been detected.
Nicola Sturgeon made her remark in a specific context. Interviewed in August, she further asserted that Scotland’s identity was secure, that there was no “existential” threat. In other words, the deputy FM believes that “Scottish only” will survive no matter what transpires next September. I’m not so sure. With my glass half empty, as ever, I wonder about the consequences of a No vote.
Let’s be blunt. Despite every effort by Alex Salmond and the SNP to portray independence as a simple reordering of a few living arrangements within these islands, a challenge to the British state is at stake. That state – give it some credit – understands this full well. The scaremongering nonsense, the veiled threats and fantastic prophecies of penury and doom, has barely begun. What happens if that effort succeeds?
A British state that still contains strategic thinkers will not rest on its laurels. Scotland will be lucky if it is simply forgotten about for another generation, but I doubt such an outcome. The row over Trident alone has given Unionists fair warning. If they win in the referendum, Scotland will have to be secured, once and for all. The process of assimilation will resume.
Things achieved at Holyrood already gall Westminster politicians. They cannot forever tell their voters that Scots have a decent NHS or a civilised attitude towards higher education because of subsidy. If they believe it, English voters will demand, not unreasonably, that something is done. If Scots vote No, if the threat of independence is removed, the deals underpinning devolution will be at risk. Winners like their spoils.
If the Scots choose to remain British, why go on treating them as exceptions to every British rule? If Scots choose Britain, why should they remain exempt when another London coalition comes along? And how would those of us in the 62% then begin to regard ourselves?
The idea that a sense of identity is fixed is self-evidently nonsense. All our new Scots prove as much: you choose your place in the world. But Unionists offer a different choice. If there is a No vote only one honest, practical choice of identity will be available. You don’t need to wait for the next census to know how things will work out as new generations learn, consciously and unconsciously, how to be British. We might know, 62% of us, who we are and where we stand. Our children might be caused to see things differently.
Too many of those involved in the Yes campaign don’t want to talk about identity. They have heard the smears about grievance, chauvinism and racism often enough. They have become diffident, apologetic, happier to dream of a future yet to be won than a present in which obvious truths are being denied. We are Scots. That’s precisely why some of us want our independence back. The rest is sophistry, fine print and chatter.
As things stand, the census findings are a judgement on the Yes campaign. With 62% content to say “Scottish only” it ought to be impossible to lose. With just 18% identifying themselves as “Scottish and British” the Union ought to be in deep, permanent trouble at last. But that’s not what’s happening. The majority have still not paused to wonder what a No vote would entail. The campaign for independence is causing them to reject independence.
Prophecies of regret are futile. A free choice is at stake. Learning the hard way: a fine old Scottish tradition.