Posts tagged ‘Britishness’

March 22, 2019

Remember that you are an Englishman and consequently have won first prize in the lottery of life. English/British/Scottish – discuss

Remember that you are an Englishman and consequently have won first prize in the lottery of life. (Cecil Rhodes)

That modest opinion may well have been shared by the majority of his kin folk but beneath it flowed an undercurrent of resentment that the message wasn’t being shouted loudly enough so the rest of the world could better appreciate it – and, importantly, the rest of Britain.

“Most English people have observed, with discomfort if not alarm, the persistent and united effort made by the Press of this country to stamp out the use of the words ‘England’ and ‘English,’ substituting for them ‘Britain’ and ‘British.’

Such was a claim which to most Scots was surely arresting in its absurdity. It was made in The Era, a British newspaper, in 1937. It claimed this was an attempt to –

‘obliterate the conception of England as a separate entity; to make the English masses, and the world at large, regard the four people of the British Isles as identical in character, temperament, and spiritual gifts.”

While it is undoubtedly true that a definition of Englishness is difficult to pin down, not unconnected with the fudging of English with British since the Act of Union, much of the populations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales might scratch their heads when England complains of having its identity obliterated knowing the three smaller nations are the ones who have suffered greatest from this phenomenon. The four parts of the UK have lost their distinctiveness – some today even argue there are not four parts to the UK but one single entity. The writer back in the thirties is not so daft or politically devious but still he fails to recognise that when England and English became shorthand for Britain and British all those centuries ago the blurring of distinctions began but England’s greater population kept England at the forefront of the Union and perceptions of it while all but obliterating the unique identities of the three other parts of the Unions.

Blame for the confusion of identities within the Union, according to the writer in The Era, lies with the press and the BBC. His points to the BBC’s celebration of St Andrew’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, St David’s Day but not St George’s Day. I don’t know if the BBC mentioned Burns’ Night in the thirties but that could have been added to his list. I don’t know, either, if there is a Shakespeare Night or morning or afternoon, perhaps there should be. However, Shakespeare does get wall-to-wall coverage in programmes across the BBC so perhaps a Shakespeare afternoon wouldn’t be noticed, is not necessary or would be overload. What really got the author’s dander up was seeing Shakespeare described as a British poet. Gadzooks!

He’s right about Shakespeare. He was English. And pre-Union. At the same time that bad boy of literature, Lord Byron, is invariably referred to as an English poet although he is very much British – having a Scottish mother, was brought up in Scotland and retained his Scottish accent till the end of his days. Double gadzooks! Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes stories is frequently described as English and do we complain? – well, aye, but no-one takes any notice. Worst of all in the commentator’s view was seeing a picture of York Minister in a newspaper with the caption, “This Britain.” Welcome to our world, matey.

Not only England, but every Englishman is an island.
(Novalis, German poet d.1801)

Back to our author who complains that the ‘non-English peoples of Britain’ – ‘these peoples’ he calls us – that’s Scots, Irish and Welsh (whose population, he points out, make up less than Greater London) ‘have been given equitable representation in the English Parliament’ which begs the question – what parliament? English post-Unions? Surely an English parliament doesn’t exist? But it’s as we suspected – Westminster is or isn’t a British or English parliament? And then there’s his use of ‘given’? – the largesse of England towards non-English bits of – uhm, Britain is underwhelming.

The writer ties himself in a right Gordian knot – that has definitely no Aberdeenshire associations – when he writes that one of the four entities making up Britain, let us call it England, has and deserves to have the whip hand and the right to distribute ‘rights’ as it sees fit (and presumably withdraw them as it seems fit.)

In his defence the writer is clearly in support of Home Rule for the non-English parts of the Union for he says that if any wanted Home Rule ‘there would be no opposition from England’ – to which I say, if only.

The political independence lost by Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to England, he claims, has been amply compensated by the economic advantages provided by being in the UK and being raised to a position within the world that would be impossible without being tied to England. You have to admire his gall if not his ignorance of the intellects, discoveries and influence of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish over time – many simply classified as, uhm – English. Where is Voltaire when you need him? Ah, here he is –

We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.
(Voltaire)

If we were ever in any doubt that England is the leading entity in the Union our correspondent is on hand to sort us out – ‘if tomorrow Scotland, Ireland and Wales became as independent as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the prestige of England would not be lowered at all in the eyes of the world.’ His England, he claims, suffered 82% of the casualties in the First World War. His reference to casualties is as vague as it is nonsense, plucked out of the air for impact. Untangling English from Scottish, Welsh or Irish casualties who might have lived in England or been in English regiments and were counted as English is a mine field. Sheer fiction.

It is an anathema to the writer that the traditions and culture of the entities of the Union have had their differences flattened out. He deplores that the English, descended from peasants, have been ‘callously and blindly robbed of their ancient rights, not only by the Land Enclosure Acts, but by the whole monetary policy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’ He’s right you know. Finally he’s got a point.

An Englishman has all the qualities of a poker except its occasional warmth.

(Daniel O’Connell)

And so the debate over the Union, definitions of what comprises Britain and Britishness rumbles on. It began even before the Union was set up and has been defined by England and her interests. For many of us here in Scotland we have grown up in a Britain that is dominated by England and Englishness that are as alien to us as they are to people from other nations. Even the very language we use in Scotland is unacceptable as British and ridiculed if introduced into conversations in England (where we tend to speak a different version of the language spoken at home because we adapt to accommodate the English population of Britain) e.g. listen to SNP MPs rather self-consciously incorporate words that are part of our everyday speech when they debate in parliament and are greeted with smiles and cheers. Why should they be? They wouldn’t be in Scotland which last time I looked was part of Britain. I don’t think many in the Commons laugh at their use any more except possibly Scottish Tories who appear embarrassed by anything that is distinctly Scottish. In previous times it was different and Scottish MPs were frequently and cruelly mocked for the use of Scotticisms in the ‘English parliament.’

The Scotsman newspaper (surely an oxymoron) is a platform for pro-Union views which often touches on Scottishness/ Englishness/Britishness. In an edition in 1947 it was claimed that few English people think of themselves as British only English and for them the Union wasn’t important. The concept of ‘we’ as in we together who make up Britain had little meaning for them. The did not have a sense of being at one with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What they understood as ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’ was and still is England. They had no notion on what went on elsewhere in the other entities of the UK and presumably imagined people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales lived lives identical to theirs in England.

By contrast Scots have always understood the difference between Britain/England/Scotland and have had to endure the virtual suppression of Scotland as a partner in the Union. That struggle has not really succeeded and Scotland as a distinctive entity with her own character and needs that became invisible in 1707 is scarcely visible in today’s British press, BBC, Sky, ITN where Scottish events and news don’t figure and at Westminster English MPs outnumber Scots by 10 :1. Scotland’s influence in Britain is virtually nil. Not sure why I included ‘virtually’ – omit as you see fit.  Today there are only 74 Scottish MPs who will always be outvoted by England’s 541 MPs who naturally put the interests of England ahead of Scotland’s. When English people talk of the English parliament of Westminster they are spot on. Westminster’s traditions pre-date the Union, references there are to English politics, the built-in majority is English – the monarch in whose name the parliament sits is called Queen Elizabeth II despite there never having been a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland. But then Scotland is an irrelevance in the union of Britain.

It is not surprising that the period following World War 2 provided an edge to the debate over Britain/England/Scotland for it was a war fought to defend the freedom of sovereign nations across the world from fascism. Scots lives were lost in that war where British soldiers have been described as English and the Union of nations that is Britain was presented to the world as England. It is the cruellest of actions to take someone’s life and deny their identity and existence but that is what happens in a union of unequals.