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By Jason Michael
Since at least 2014 the union jack and various other symbols of the British state have become perceptibly more conspicuous across the Scottish culture space. In the past, outwith the confines of government and particular “loyalist” institutions, the union jack in Scotland was reserved for things relating to Britain’s most hallowed sacrament – war.
It was run up the flagpole for the Girl Guides, the Boys’ Brigade, the Scouts, and other paramilitary youth organisations to make their oaths of allegiance; it was draped like a pall to remember the dead once a year; it was printed on plastic bowler hats anytime we ever got to bomb a Third World country. Until quite recently the “butcher’s apron” was the creepy uncle of Scottish culture.
Over Britain and the occupied counties of Ireland the red, white, and blue had very different meanings; making it too problematic to impose anything like this “One Nation” Britishness we now find ourselves faced with in the United Kingdom. In Ireland it was and is the emblem of a belligerent force in a dirty war of conquest and military occupation, while in Scotland and Wales it was – as it remains – the battle standard of Greater England.
Even in England, where it was always effectively the away strip of the English flag, it was a contentious rag. It was the flag of power; the pennant of the Crown and the State, the banner under which Tory sentiment and British racial supremacy alike could rally. This was never the flag of the immigrant – there’s no black in it, apparently.
People like my grandparents & mum came to this country after the war & gave it their life only to be carted off w/… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…—
Robert J Somynne (@RobertJSomynne) April 15, 2018
After April 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and at the height of Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment, a window of opportunity opened for the old imperial flag. With “peace” in Ireland and a refreshing post-Conservative era flourishing over Blair’s New Britain, it was felt that the union jack too could be rebranded and sold at home and abroad as the hallmark of brand UK – a neoliberal whitewashed advertising strategy that has been developed through a number of more recent permutations including “Team GB” and “UK OK.”
Ahead of the Scottish referendum in 2014 a national attitudes survey found that the majority of Scots identified as Scottish and not British. After 300 years of political union Britain remained just that – a political union. There was no real social or cultural – and certainly no national – union. Scots, even unionists, did not consider themselves “British.” Three centuries on and Scots saw themselves as Scots who thought of Britain more or less as a political abstraction they either favoured or disliked.
Continued unity, as any dunce in the London establishment could appreciate, would require a concerted effort to fabricate a homogenous and shared idea of Britishness for the whole of the UK, and this could only be achieved through the weaponisation of the media and popular culture production. From about this point the union flag would become a ubiquitous feature of British television and state-cultural marketing. The “jack” would be the new common seal of One Nation quality, pride, and national identification. It’s no accident the union flag then began appearing with increased frequency on shortbread tins, toys, and food packaging.
This was the beginning of what may prove to be Britain’s too late Kulturkampf, a last-ditch attempt to transform Britain the state (1707, 1801, and 1921) into Britain the nation. According to this neo-imperialist strategy the field of vision of the Scots, the occupied Irish, and the Welsh has to be utterly saturated with the triumphalist ephemera of a dead empire reborn as plush cultural icons. At the same time the production of counter-culture – the natural reproduction of heterogeneous national identities such as Scottishness, Irishness, and Welshness – had to be smothered.
It came as no surprise then to hear comedian and television presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli say that he and others were placed on a blacklist by the BBC. People in favour of Scottish independence and other voices promoting Scotland as a distinctive national identity can only be corrosive to any state-establishment effort to make Scotland more British. Of course independence supporters would be denied any and all platforms provided by the national broadcaster and other media outlets in any way beholden to the British establishment.
Robert. (@RobDunsmore) April 19, 2018
The absurdity of this is the fact that it can’t work. In the “Holy Land” of British Ulster – an oxymoron if there ever was one – the Britishness constructed by Orangeism and Ulster Loyalism was always a Britishness out of time. Orange parades are parades of a cliché; a pageant of what Ulstermen in the 1920s wanted Britain to look like. They always look the same, like the gaffers of Harland and Wolff taking a stroll after the launch of the Titanic.
Likewise, the Britishness of The Great British Bake Off and Britain’s Got Talent has never existed. It is a Mickey Mouse projection of anachronistic wishful thinking. No one is going to become more British or pin their national and cultural identity on Britain because someone trained their mongrel to do summersaults or because an unemployed panel beater from Scunthorpe can sing opera. But this is what Britishness has become – vapidity. It can’t be history. We don’t have a shared history, and no sooner than someone insists that we have than someone else mentions Windrush.
This “Britishness” will not last long. It is puddle deep and built atop fleeting trends. A good fart will blow it away. Authentic national identity is deeply rooted in the entire nation from which it grew. It is natural and organic. This Scottishness, Irishness, Welshness, and Englishness will continue and develop as other national identities do. The British fraud can’t even survive a power cut.
What is Britishness?