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By Jason Michael
Apparently we are British because our passports tell us so. This is the merry-go-round of unionist circular logic, the snake eating its tail that has kept us in the chains of British state irrationality for three centuries.
At no time in my life have I identified as British or as coming from a country known as the United Kingdom. I am Scottish and I come from Scotland. It was my mother and father who taught me how to brush my teeth and tie my shoelaces. They also taught me by example that I am a Scot. Forms be damned; we wrote “Scottish” beside nationality, letting the bureaucrats make of it what they would. Decades later it is encouraging to see that this identity dispute hasn’t receded into obscurity, but has taken centre stage in our national discussion. It wasn’t just my ma and da.
We’re still not supposed to do this. We are British because the British state and our passports tell us that we are, so – somehow – this circular reasoning has to be true. Britain says a lot of things. It says that making the poorest and weakest in society pay for the excesses of the ruling élite is the best thing for the country. It said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It claims that fox hunting is a good thing for the countryside. It says that limiting lower-income families to two children is in the national interest, and that rape survivors should be humiliated by social welfare forms. Britain sure says a lot, but that something has been written or spoken has no logical bearing on its factuality – Britain can say I am British all it wants. I am Scottish, not British.https://twitter.com/jetpack/status/862336833639895042
When I was verbally abused earlier today by a Yorkshire businessman and a Scottish unionist for stating my identity as Scottish, I decided to examine their argument. It wasn’t an argument qua a reasoned position per se; it was more of a bitter and hostile tirade with an implied position. This too is something that must give cause to reflect. Why should my or anyone else’s national or cultural self-identification cause others to become so angry?
This unionist position is constructed from the premise that we are British because either the British state or our British passports say so. It is here that we have to start welcoming people to the wonderful land of logical fallacy. In my first year of philosophy we covered this in the authorship of the Bible question: Who wrote the Bible? God wrote the Bible. How do you know God wrote the Bible? The Bible says he did. What we have here, which is exactly the same in the passport-nationality debate, is a classical circular argument; a conclusion presupposing the veracity of its own premise – begging the question. Both the Bible and the British passport can say what they like, but that proves nothing of their premises or indeed their conclusions. It is a duff argument.
What then of the state? We can’t argue with the fact that Britain exists, and that it lays claim to me as a citizen and as a national. There are three things can be said about this; firstly that there is a distinction between the state and the nation, secondly that this claim depends on the reification of the state, and thirdly that the state’s claim to any of us depends on the operation of hegemony.
No one is denying that the British state – or the United Kingdom – is a state-political entity. It is. But that is quite different to it being a nation with the internationally recognised national right to self-determination. Britain – Great Britain – is not, and nor has it ever been, a nation. The Acts of Union of 1706-7 make this perfectly clear. It is the state-political fusion into a singular kingdom of two kingdoms, which are kingdoms qua states as opposed to nations. We can accept the reality of the state without ceding to the nonsense that such a political arrangement alters the constitution of the nation. States are political constructs that can be politically reframed and reconstituted, whereas nations – which are formed organically over time by complex social and cultural factors – cannot.
States thus have political rights guaranteed by other states, following the principles of the Westphalian Settlement. They have no inherent right to exist in the way that nations and cultures do, following the principles of established human rights. Had states the same right to exist as nations, we would still be enjoying the glories of Tsarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
When others insist on identifying me or anyone else as British, they are essentially reifying the idea of the state. States are not real in the way that bananas or television sets are real. We can be hit over the head with a banana or a telly, but no one can grasp the state. It is an idea – an agreement of power and social relations that exists only because of these fundamentally intellectual processes. At the moment the claim is made that the state – the British or any other state – has the power in and of itself to do anything, they are making real something that has no intrinsic reality; they are reifying it. So I can legitimately assert that the British state has no claim on me. People who agree to speak for Britain because they have agreed they are British are making this claim on me. Best of luck with that!
Lastly, there is the issue of hegemony; the symbiotic contract between the dominant or hegemonic class – in this case the British state and ruling establishment – and the dominated. This contract is about power, and, more precisely, who has the power. Antonio Gramsci spells this idea out in his Prison Notebooks; this is, according to Berkeley’s Professor of Sociology Dylan Riley, “a form of intellectual and moral leadership in which the mass of the population understands its own interests as being fundamentally compatible with the dominant social group.”
In the context of Britain and Britishness then, the power of the British state to lay claim to any of us rests on the negotiated understanding that the state – here the “dominant social group” – is accepted by the dominated – us – as the best set of social relations in which our interests are met. Hegemony functions only when each of us, as individual political and moral agents, agrees to grant the state our power because it secures for us the freedoms and rights we cannot secure for ourselves as individuals. Can you see the problem here?
Yes, the British state claims me as a national and as a citizen. Our British passports do the same. That’s okay. That is what states do. It doesn’t mean that I have to accept it, and the more of us who refuse to accept this claim over us the more difficult it becomes for the state to en-force this claim. Unlike the state, the nation – in our case Scotland – is a familial, social, and cultural environment that is inculturated into the fabric of our personal self-understandings. Nationhood is as much a part of our natural socialisation as language, and consequently attracts identity and loyalty naturally. This the state can only ever achieve by persuasion and force. I am not persuaded, and I bloody dare them to try to force me. I am a Scot, and my home is Scotland.
Unlike the reified state, our nationhood and nationality is not an abstract political arrangement. While it is, like the state, an idea, it is more immediate. When it comes to seeking the mediate – the sovereign power by which my personal and national rights are protected – it is a contradiction to seek those rights in a constructed state-political entity which compromises both our human and national rights. For this reason I can rightly insist that I am an individual with inalienable rights, that I am a national of a Scottish nation, and that I refuse to identify as a dominated subject of a state that actively corrodes my nation and my national identity.
I do not accept – neither morally nor intellectually – that my interests are fundamentally compatible with the British state hegemon. As such, I am a proud member; neither serf nor subject, of a counter-hegemonic movement – a nation and a state-becoming, Scotland. So to answer the question: I am Scottish, not British.
STV: We’re Scottish or British
7 thoughts on “Scottish Not British”
Citizenship is a much discussed concept. Foreign nationals scrabbling for British citizenship, Brits considering Spanish or other citizenship in the face of Brexit. I consider my ‘Britishness’ as stated on my British passport to be my ‘citizenship’ rather than my nationally. I am Scottish.
I find it interesting that it is the “foreign nationals” who do the “scrabbling” for British citizenship, while the Brits “consider” things. But yes, I think you are right on the citizenship-nationality point.
I understand what your saying, and your distinction between nation and state – but can’t help thinking these distinction verge on semantics.
I think of myself as Scottish, but I was born in England, to a Scottish father, and my birth was registered in England, so, as some of my friends annoyingly remind me, I guess that makes me English. And of course I have British passport – but I’m hoping that will change very soon! The lines get blurred, don’t they? At one time I might have identified with the Kingdom of Strathclyde – things move on.
What would you say to someone born in Texas, who thinks of himself as Texan (his state) rather than American (his nation)?
And what about the Catalonians, Basques and Galicians? Are they no more Spanish than you are British?
Thanks for this one Keith. No, this isn’t a matter of semantics as the nation and the state are two very different things. It is perhaps analogous to a marriage where the marital union is the state and the spouses are nations. The marriage is a legal contract, where the individuals are not. When the marriage no longer suits one or other or both of the partners the marriage can be dissolved. We cannot dissolve either the individuals or the nations. In like manner, the state is a legal-political contract and the nation is a nexus of more human, social, and cultural phenomena. State and nation are not synonyms, if they were it would be semantics for sure.
Again, the Kingdom of Strathclyde – my own native medieval kingdom home – was a state rather than a nation. In this period it is hard to speak of ‘nations’ in the modern sense. It is more likely that in that time period we are talking about proto-nations and proto-nationalism. Nation and Nationalism are products of more recent social history.
With the American example there is a lot of confusion. The United States describes itself as a nation but it is neither a civic nation nor an ethno-nation. It seems to use the term as a means of creating a sense of national belonging and identity, but the great ‘salad bowl’ has not yet become a nation. The US is a state in the same sense as the UK is a state – that is a state-political entity, whereas Texas is not a state in this sense, but in the sense of being a semi-autonomous member state of a wider federation of states united by one centralised state – ‘the State.’ Hope this was of some use.
I wonder if you said to an English person ,’ Are you Scottish?’ Would they respond with ‘No , I’m British .@ or more likely ‘No , I’m English’
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As a Scottish/Canadian and dual citizen, I struggle with the fact that I chose to be Canadian but that my Scottishness is deeply embedded in my soul. I still feel a deep bond with my Scottish heritage and that will never leave. I cannot think of myself as British/Canadian and can totally understand why Scots feel so attached to our heritage. Scotland is a nation. I would think that English people feel the same way about England. My hope is that we can all live together in peace and cooperation no matter what happens in the future for Scotland. Scotland should be able to decide for itself without interference from others.
I’ve never classed myself as a brit, i was born in Scotland and hold an Irish passport. I’d rather gargle with bleach than have a brit one . I also get shown more respect abroad.