Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Rather than concentrating on the crude party politics which usually characterises the Union v independence debate on Newsnicht, Monday's Newsnight discussion looked at the slightly more nuanced angle of national identity.

Of course, party politics and national identity are hardly unrelated concepts, thus the SNP's Joan McAlpine posited the fairly predictable vision of a better Scotland which could only be achieved with independence, while Michael Portillo took a similarly rose-tinted view of the Union's historically moderating influence against 'fanaticism', which in turn linked to the idea of Scottish v Unionist identities, and of course both tried to argue that their preferred identity was the more attractive one and that which the Scottish (and English) should, er, identify with.

Equally, as well as from the perspective of our preferred notion of the nation state, we all adopt various identities relating to numerous facets of our lives, some of which are of course related to the UK v Scotland clash. Thus party politics is the most obvious factor in this regard, while other matters like class, religion and ethnicity can also be relevant, particularly historically in the case of religion, although of course that can also be of more residual relevance to contemporary issues.

Our 'multiple identities' can also be found at lower geographical and political levels such as the county, city/town or housing estate/scheme. We can also identify with others with regard to things like football, music, occupation and a whole host of other ways in which we conduct our lives.

And of course many of these things can be related in different ways - for example, football and religion, music and politics etc - but some can follow a football team (say) while ignoring any religious or political dimension that others supporting the same team see as integral to that particular identity. Thus we can have multiple identities which can mean very different things to different people and interact in many different ways; a very complex scenario.

Anyway, the reason for this rather amateurish preamble - which (I assume) is really the domain of people like sociologists and anthropologists - is that from a personal perspective Monday's debate reminded me of how my own various personal identities have changed over the years.

Thus while living in England for a few years I regularly wore a small Scottish saltire badge or my Scotland football top, both as a mark of patriotism and defiance; indeed, perhaps almost antagonistically.

On the other hand, my politics were more class based, in fact left leaning and to that extent considering Scottish independence to be largely a distraction. But I was certainly no Unionist, and indeed associated the Union flag with a right wing, imperialist politics, and also connoting racism at the extremes, since in those days it was particularly associated with the National Front.

However, it's all very different these days. As Joan McAlpine said in Monday night's debate, the union is a 'political construct', thus my antipathy to politics means that I would still hardly call myself a Unionist. By the same token, Scottish nationalism is to a large extent a political construct as well, and as I don't find the SNP's politics any more attractive than the unionist parties then I'm not a Scottish nationalist either.

Similarly, I wouldn't wear my little saltire badge anymore, either because I don't feel so patriotic these days, or because in my previous life I used it in a regrettably slightly jingoistic manner.

Another problem is the essentially divisive nature of our identities. For example, my youthful anti-establishment ethos made me a fan of punk music, and by the same token regarded genres such as heavy metal and mainstream pop with some antipathy. And of course many people don't have to look at music through the political prism to 'diss' people who don't conform to their preferences in terms of bands and genres.

Thus these days I listen to all sorts of popular music from M People, Metallica, Morrissey, Madonna, Muse through to Motörhead, and even if I don't like a particular group or genre I peacefully respect the right of others to their preferences.

Thus the thing with identities is that they can be used in different ways by different people. Hence adherents to a particular religion can be tolerant and ecumenically inclined on the one hand, while others can bigoted and sectarian, which is perhaps a point that defenders of faith schools (for example) often miss, or at least ignore.

By the same token, political ideologies and nationalism can also be both constructive and divisive in nature (in terms of practical application as well as politics per se) but over the years the latter perspective has come to dominate over the former as regards my own personal outlook, hence this blog's essentially sceptical/cynical tone in relation to all things political.

Of course, the politicians hope that their preferred perspectives still resonate with the public and that - particular as regards the SNP - these political and national identities can increasingly be fostered in order to further their related policies via democratic means.

But John McTernan's defence of the dual British/Scottish identity in today's Scotsman and his reference to London (and to a degree the wider UK) reflecting Atlanta's "too busy to hate" ethos is surely over-optimistic. Perhaps with other people and in other spheres it's a case of the devil finding work for idle hands to do.

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