There is a pattern to conversations with Scottish nationalists online. At some point the same old arguments are repeated. It is these arguments above all that mean that there is very little common ground between Pro UK people in Scotland and those who would prefer that Scotland became a sovereign independent nation state.
One of the reasons that it is so difficult to interact with Scottish nationalists is that they speak a different language to the rest of us. I don’t mean that they try to write in Gaelic or in Scottish dialect, though some of them do. What I mean is that certain ordinary words are used quite differently by Pro UK people and their opponents. The words that are most contentious are “country”, “nation”, “United Kingdom”, “Britain” and “British”. It’s because we have no agreement on these words that we cannot hold a civil conversation with each other.
I have long argued that when we use words like “country” and nation” we do so in different senses. Scotland correctly is called a country and a nation, but it is not a country or nation in the way that the United Kingdom is nor indeed in the way that France or Japan are. Scotland is not a sovereign, independent nation state. This is all very straightforward. But crucially Scottish nationalists deny something that is self-evidently true, that the United Kingdom is a country in the same way that France is, while asserting something that is self-evidently false that Scotland already is a country in the way that France is. This means that they continually beg the question or assume what they are trying to prove.
When I point out that in any democracy a part will sometimes vote differently to the whole and that this would also be the case in an independent Scotland, I always find the same objection made, but Scotland is a country. Quite so. But this argument only has any force if Scotland were already an independent nation state. In the United Kingdom we have national elections that cover the whole of our country. In this context it makes no more difference that five million people in Scotland vote differently to the UK as a whole than that five million people in Yorkshire vote differently. Why are the rights of people from Yorkshire less important than those from Scotland? Ah, because Scotland is a country, but Yorkshire is not. But this would only matter if the relationship between the parts of the UK were international. It would only matter if when I travelled from England into Scotland I were crossing an international border and going abroad. Given that our relationship remains national it is simply unjustified to point out that Scotland is a country in order to complain about election results we don’t like.
When we say Scotland is a country, we really mean that historically there was a country called Scotland which has retained a rather different identity from the other parts of the UK. But this is not unusual. There are differing identities all across Europe. There are places that once were independent sovereign nation states and the people from those places have both a separate identity and a common identity. I can feel both Bavarian and German, Sicilian and Italian, etc etc.
Scottish nationalists routinely treat the United Kingdom as if it were a collection of independent, sovereign nation states. It is for this reason they say that the UK is not a country or a nation. They see the UK as being like the EU or the United Nations. But amusingly if that were the case Scotland would already be an independent state? Why then struggle to gain something you already have? It is this above all that shows the circularity of Scottish nationalist reasoning. Nicola Sturgeon assumes that Scotland already is independent, for which reason she travels to Brussels as if she had exactly the same status as Angela Merkel or François Hollande. She then discovers that in point of fact she is the leader of a regional parliament with no more competence to negotiate internationally than the leader of Saxony or Burgundy. She must have known this already so why did she go. The reason is that the argument for Scottish independence depends on this circularity. Without it there would be no argument. It’s only because so many Scots assume that Scotland is a country in the same way that France is, that there is even a debate about independence.
What do we call someone from the United States? We usually call them an American. What do we call someone from the Netherlands? They are usually called Dutch? What do we call someone from the United Kingdom? A United Kingdomer? We could but that would be an odd way of speaking. We instead call them British. Anybody who is a citizen of the UK is called British citizen. Yet I routinely come across Scottish nationalists who deny that they are British. This is exactly the same as a German citizen denying that he is German. Sometimes they claim to be Scottish citizens. But once more this is to assume what they are trying to prove. If Scotland became a sovereign, independent nation state, there would be such a thing as Scottish citizenship. Claiming that you already are a Scottish citizen is to assume that there already is such a state while arguing that there ought to be one. Once more the typical Scottish nationalist argument shows itself to be obviously circular.
But what is it to be British? Many Scottish nationalists deny that there is any such thing as being British. This usually takes the form of once more denying that there is a sovereign independent nation state called the United Kingdom? How am I supposed to argue with someone who denies the existence of something that obviously does exist? It’s like going to Germany on my holidays and telling the Germans that there is no such thing as Germany, but only Saxony, Bavaria etc. Sometimes Scottish nationalists maintain that the word “British” refers to the island of Great Britain which they think is a geographical term similar to Scandinavian. But again this is to fail to realise that there is no independent sovereign nation state called Scandinavia, but there is one called the UK. Italy is a peninsular and at one point Metternich said “The word 'Italy' is a geographical expression”. That may well have been true when he said it in 1847, but it is not true now. It would be absurd and indeed offensive to tell an Italian today that his identity is merely geographical.
But what is it that unites Italians and gives them a common identity. One thing that unites them is a shared culture. But what is this shared culture? How can I define it? Here we immediately come up against a difficulty. How do I define a shared culture without listing things that are either common to everyone in the world or are instead clichés? I could list some things that I think are typically Italian. They eat pasta and pizzas. They drink expresso coffee. They love football. They are romantic and emotional. But all of these qualities are stereotypical. Each of them is also shared by many other people in the world. In Italy moreover there are many dialects and in each part of the country there are different cultures and traits. Yet when I go to Italy I immediately recognise that there is something different about it from Britain. I may have difficulty pointing out exactly what it is, but it would be absurd to deny that Italy had a shared culture or indeed that it had a culture at all. It would be like saying Japan didn’t have a culture.
How do I define Scottish culture without descending into tartanry? Most of the things that are taken to be typically Scottish are not a part of our everyday lives. Few Scots play bagpipes on hillsides or speak like Robert Burns. Yet no one sensible denies that there is a Scottish culture that is somewhat different from the other parts of the UK. The same goes for British culture. Visitors to the UK will find much that is common between the parts of the UK while recognising some differences. But is it possible to define British culture in a way that avoids cliché and which incorporates the identities of people from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
Here’s my attempt:
In Britain we love defeat more than victory. We celebrate the Charge of the Light Brigade and the defeat at Dunkirk while other countries forget these things. If you go to the Second World War Museum in Moscow you’ll find no defeats mentioned. Even the response of Scottish Nationalists to defeat in 2014 was typically British. We came so close just like in 1745. We had a glorious defeat just like Culloden.
If we have a victory we prefer it to be a “close run thing” like Waterloo or the “narrow margin” like the Battle of Britain. In sport we are almost the only country that celebrates the gallant loser. We alone think that taking part is more important than winning.
When I’m at the bus stop most Brits take note of where they are in the queue and try to get on the bus in that order. We try to be fair to those we’ve never met and may never meet again. On the bus we never talk unless a crisis happens in which case we overcome our reserve. Compare busses in Italy.
We are prudish yet promiscuous. It is the combination of opposites in the British character that is so unusual. See also the combination of politeness and aggression.
We are anti-intellectual. There isn’t really an intelligentsia in Britain. We favour empiricism over reason, which means our philosophers use common sense like Hume, Locke and Reid rather than abstract reasoning like Kant and Hegel.
We rarely learn foreign languages. I have hardly ever met a Brit who has taught himself a foreign language and reached fluency. The only bilingual Brits I know were either brought up that way or studied languages at university.
We are defined by our language which has spread Britishness all around the world. Wherever that language is spoken as a mother tongue there we find a culture that we recognise and share. This is what British culture is. If you go to New Zealand, you’ll find some things that are different, but much that is the same. I have far more in common with Canadians, Americans, Kiwis and Aussies than I do with anyone from Europe. It would be straightforward for me to work in any of these places and almost nothing about the culture would seem strange to me. This is because we share our British heritage and have kept our common culture just as we’ve kept our common language. For a Scot to deny he is British is to deny what he shares with much of the world.
British people are indifferent to food and therefore our food is indifferent. I have almost never seen a British restaurant when I’ve been abroad. The idea of a British restaurant seems absurd, yet everywhere there are French and Italian restaurants.
In almost all of the rest of the world people drink either wine or yellow beer. In Britain we also have brown beer that is fermented with top-fermenting yeast rather than bottom fermenting lager yeast. Until recently no-one other than the Belgians brewed in the way that we do.
British people get drunk in a unique way. The French and the Spanish drink wine slowly with food. They may drink more than we do, but you wouldn’t notice. The Russians on the other hand may not drink every day, but once you open a bottle of vodka it has to be finished. Such bottles at one point came with caps like our beer bottles. On holiday you can always spot the British by their unique form of drunkenness, sunburn and terrible clothes.
What defines British culture is our shared history and tradition stretching back hundreds of years. Russia abolished serfdom in 1861 and has never really been a proper democracy. Corruption was endemic during the time of the tsar, during communism and under Putin. In Britain we developed free markets and free trade centuries before anyone else. We haven’t had peasants let alone serfs since the Middle Ages. We started on the path to democracy earlier than anyone else. Our monarchy was limited by parliament when nearly every other European country still believed in the divine right of kings. It is for this reason that I do not expect a policeman in the UK to be corrupt. I expect to be fairly treated if I have a dispute in business. It is also for this reason that we settle political difficulties with elections and with parliament. While everyone else in Europe had revolts we did not. It is this that we share in the UK and also with most other countries that share our native language.
Because we are confident in our British identity we rarely feel the need to boast about it. The difference between an American and a Brit is that the American continually needs to go on about how great America is.
Because of this confidence we also celebrate eccentricity. We like to do things that are pointless such as climbing Munros. We like collecting and we can be obsessive. But the combination of these traits can give rise to fine thinking just as it can give rise to follies. It was British scientists who invented the bouncing bomb and the D Day funnies. It is that combination of eccentricity and obsessiveness that leads us to invent so many things.
A Scottish nationalist who denies his Britishness is denying not only what he shares with other people in the UK, he is denying the very words that come out of his mouth with which he makes the denial. It is Britishness that created the language with which most of the great Scottish thinkers and writers thought and wrote. A Scottish nationalist in denying his Britishness is therefore perversely denying himself. We only speak the language we do in Scotland because we are part of the UK. I can only with difficulty understand either of the languages of Scotland prior to the Union. That is a faraway place of which I know nothing and understand less. If Scotland had not joined the UK we would now either be speaking Gaelic or a Scottish language that was as different from our own as Dutch is from German. To regret the Union is to regret that I am what I am and that I speak and think as I do. Rejecting Britishness is to reject me. I cannot even express this act of rejection without self-contradiction for I quite literally don’t have the words.
Britain is a great country which has contributed as much to the world as any other and more than most. It is our country. This is the only argument we need to defeat the SNP. The world speaks our language and celebrates our culture. Yet some Scots would pitifully deny that any of this is theirs. They would do this because of an argument that doesn’t even recognise that it begs the question. They would do it because they can’t bear to share anything with the other parts of the UK, not even a shared country. I sometimes think that Scottish nationalists would prefer we didn’t even share a language with or nearest neighbour, because they can’t quite bear what it is called.