Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Peter has an interesting post over at Moridura with a link to an interesting article on England's Europhobia. It reminded me of an issue that I've been chewing over for a while, and which I don't think I've ever seen a discussion of, namely the rather rigid notion of nationality that a lot of people in the UK seem to have.

This was in evidence in a recent Radio 4 show, Mark Steel's In Town, when the comedian visited Berwick upon Tweed. He asked the audience what they were, English or Scottish. There seemed to be a prevalence of Scots in the audience, but running through the show was the real truth, that people there do have a separate Berwick identity, part English (or perhaps more accurately Northumbrian), part Scots and with a good dollop of Berwick thrown in. This is hardly surprising given the geographic location and history of the town. (I wonder if similar examples could be found along the Welsh border...?)

Similarly a recent(ish) episode of Who Do You Think You Are? ended up in Alsace. Again, the big question was put to the locals: what are you, German or French? Implicit in the question again was the idea that they must be one thing or the other. To be without a strong, fixed sense of nationality was unthinkable. No grey areas are permitted!

It strikes me as a peculiarly (but by no means uniquely) English view of nationality, perhaps borne of a long history as an independent, unconquered and unoccupied nation, allied with an island mentality. When there are big cliffs and an expanse of sea between you and your neighbours it is perhaps natural to feel a stronger sense of "them and us".

What rescues most Scots from this aloofness is perhaps our long history of engagement with foreign powers, principally of course with France, and the fact that Scotland never really competed with other European countries in the way that England did. Or perhaps it's as simple as size. Scots know that Scotland is small - if we want to prosper we better work with others. We're scarcely going to bully anyone into agreeing with us, and there aren't enough of us to impose our values on others even if we wanted to.

Thinking of nationality from a typical European perspective, many countries lack a formidable natural border, or their borders have shifted frequently through the course of history, or their country was only unified in the 1800s, or their country was repeatedly occupied by a variety of powers over the preceding centuries. It's perhaps not surprising then that many of our European neighbours take a more nuanced view of what nationality means.

Go to SW Germany and the locals will pepper their local Badisch and Schwäbisch dialects with a fair few French words, first borrowed when Napoleon was occupying the area. Go to Alsace and marvel at the contortions involved in pronouncing the predominantly German place and family names in a French way. The reality in this area is that the people have absorbed influences from both sides. Are they uniquely French or German? Well not really, no, they're a bit of both. And that's not a bad thing, it's actually what makes them unique.

Elsewhere in Europe there are numerous other examples of this reality, that language, and therefore identity, is a continuum rather than a series of discrete homogeneous blocks neatly divided by borders on a map. Does a French Basque really have more in common with a Corsican, or a Parisian, than with the Spanish Basque living just a couple of kilometres over the border? Does an "Englishman" in Berwick share more with someone in Berkshire, than with someone a few miles over the border in Berwickshire?

What's this got to do with anything? Well firstly, I wonder if this rigid idea of nationality doesn't hold the UK back when it comes to understanding, and therefore participating in, the politics of the EU. When you view foreigners as utterly foreign, when you view any form of co-operation and integration purely and simply as a betrayal and a loss of sovereignty, then it's no wonder you get sidelined.

Secondly, perhaps Scotland can play a role in updating the prevailing view in England to better reflect the modern inter-dependent world. If England is forced to deal with an "other" right on its doorstep, to negotiate and agree on areas of co-operation and to come to a mutually advantageous conclusion, then perhaps that approach will carry forward to other neighbouring countries. That of course will require either confederalism or independence.


Gedguy said...

An interesting article and one which, on the whole, I would agree with. One little point is where you say: "English view of nationality, perhaps borne of a long history as an independent, unconquered and unoccupied nation"

That's not quite correct as England has been conquered several times in its history but, like the Chinese when they get conquered, they just call them English or, in the case of China, Chinese.
At the time of the Norman conquest England was a part of the Danish empire, later on in the Norman regime they were conquered again by the Angevins, Then after the Angevins, they were conquered by the Welsh (Tudor) and then, the last stage was when William of Orange came and landed in England with a force large enough to dispose of any catholic army that chose to come up against it.
A good question to ask in a pub is:
"When was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England?"
The answer is: "There has never been an Anglo-Saxon king of England.
English history, like their patron saint, is a figment of their imagination.
Apart from that I agree with you.

forfar-loon said...

Hi Gedguy, you make a fair point. Perhaps my sentence should then read: "English view of nationality, perhaps borne of a perceived long history as an independent, unconquered and unoccupied nation"