In a column in last weekend's Scotland on Sunday, former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson returned to a familiar theme, arguing that "British identity is key to debate on independence."
Andrew worries that "fewer than one in ten Scots with a “strong sense of British identity” back independence". What is to be done? Andrew's answer is that the Nationalists should cunningly hijack British identity, and rearticulate it in a form more amenable to our constitutional ambitions.
"... the SNP and the Yes Campaign have just over a year to communicate cleverly that Britishness is about much, much more than the functions of state government. Indeed, who the government is and what it does is the least important aspect of Britishness and most urgent to reform. The familial, cultural, social and economic ties that bind will endure and strengthen when the politics is taken out of the equation."
But is it really a question of "cleverly" articulating a new, non-state account of British identity, as Wilson contends? I'm not so sure. As I tracked in a post here some time ago, nationalist politicians have been using the language of a "social union" after independence for a good while now. The idea that Britishness and this "social union" can and should be used interchangeably, seems a more recent development in pro-independence rhetoric. And for me, one of the least convincing.
On BBC Question Time a while back, the SNP MSP Alex Neil told the audience that "I am an Ayrshireman, I am a Scot and I feel British and European as well." Now, I've no window into the Health Secretary's heart. A cherished sense of Britishness may warm his cockles. If so, little of that heat communicated itself in his answer. His Britannic protestations looked strained, and hollow, altogether too pleased with themselves. Some independence supporters may feel profoundly British, but I doubt most prominent Nationalists do, and for them to pretend to do so looks decidedly shifty, and decidedly not convincing.
SNP MP Pete Wishart has been at the forefront of the argument that we should think about Britishness in geographical, super-state terms, detachable from national governments, and independent from the question of whether Scotland sends parliamentarians to Westminster. As is so often the case at the moment, Pete offers us Nordic models in justification.
"Britishness is as much about geography as it is about identity and history. Coming from Perth in the northern part of the island of Greater Britain I am as much British as someone from Stockholm is Scandinavian."
This argument has a superficial allure to it. Scots won't lose Britishness if we vote yes. Fear not fellow citizens! We'd be just like those friendly folks lining the fjords of Sweden, and of Norway and Denmark. But what do most folk know about shared Scandinavian solidarity and identity? Bugger all. How does the reference connect up to Scots' lived experiences? Not to any significant extent. So why the devil should we think that recasting Britishness in terms of an alien concept of regional identity of which most folk know nothing is going to do the trick?
Wilson's choice of words is significant. Such a strategy is "clever", but I think, too clever by half, and unlikely to make much sense to your average Scot, with hazy British sympathies, and at most a couple of days in Stockholm, or a couple of episodes of the Killing under their belts.
By making Britishness the answer to Yes Scotland's campaigning problems, Wilson's argument conflates two points. As he diagnoses, rightly, if the referendum resolves itself into a question of "do you feel British?", the SNP are stuffed. On the Better Together side, we've heard Ed Miliband's identity-driven British nationalist case for the Union. According to the Labour leader, the referendum turns on the question of identity, his message to Scottish voters: Feel British? Vote No. Independence supporters must resist this framing of the question. Hitherto, they have done so by focussing on independence as a constitutional, civic and political issue, about powers, not identities. The question before voters is not whether they feel British, but whether they want Scotland's democratic institutions to make key political decisions about their public services, their wars, their social security and taxation.
One of the surprises of the Better Together campaign hitherto has been the absence of the full-scale sentimental British nationalist campaign promised by Miliband's intervention. You could do it marvellously. Twinkle-eyed Corby grannies, born in Dumbarton but long in the south, surrounded by a giggling knot of grandchildren, and ideally, with a son and daughter living on both sides of the Tweed, whose laughing children sound an untroubled mixter-maxter of accents. The young couple, one Fifer, one Londoner, who met at university in Edinburgh, and settled down, all invested in the idea that the noble goal of a multi-national state is worth preserving, all arguing we're "better together", as the saying has it. And so on, and so on.
It might be an idea for Yes Scotland to get their retaliation in first, and to shoot a counter-intuitive ad with similar characters on both sides of the border endorsing independence, relaxed about the implications for their families and relationships. For Yes campaign to make the case for companionable Britishness, however, would be madness, and do Better Together's identity politics for them.
As many of you will know, since 2009, I have lived in the south east of England. I don't feel British to any significant extent. I enjoy warm and convivial relationships with my friends, neighbours and colleagues in Oxfordshire, unencumbered by any requirement that we share some defined regional supra-identity. I get along without Britishness quite happily. More and more, I've been wondering if independence supporters, tickled by the novelty of Scandinavian parallels, and the cul de sac of reclaiming Britishness from the British state, are neglecting the more obvious, more helpful contemporary example of the Republic of Ireland in talking about social, family and commercial bonds, after independence.
English-speaking, sharing a land-border and abiding historical ties, you'll find few people who seriously think, in Johann Lamont's ugly phrase, of the denizens of Tipperary or Cork as "foreigners" in the United Kingdom today. As is well known, Irish nationals enjoy a number of rights under UK law, including the ability to vote in our elections, free movement and immigration rights (above and beyond the rights of EU nationals in this respect). For most folk in Great Britain, the Irish are betwixt and between, resisting the straightforward binary of the Self and the Other. From my experiences in England, they are not significantly different from Scots in this respect, despite my Irish friends' "separate" government in Dublin, and "our" shared parliament in Westminster.
Identities don't belong to states. The Irish lesson shows us, in concrete terms most people in our country will understand, that our shared bonds in these islands won't break up if Britain breaks up. We don't need any mediating concept of Britishness to make this happen, to maintain the to-and-fro of immigration and emigration, wandering carelessly over lightly-drawn borders, comfortably befriending, loving, working and belonging. I don't need any pseudo Britto-Nordic construct to feel that my Irish friends here in England aren't the "foreigners" Johann Lamont would have them be.