Problems with the B-word

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by Paul Kavanagh

On Monday Newsnet Scotland published a thoughtful article by Pete Wishart MP, the SNP representative for Perth and North Perthshire.  In his article Wishart took a few tentative steps towards starting a discussion on a topic that may well figure large in the debate around independence and the promised referendum.  That topic is “cultural Britishness”, what it means, how we define it, and what relevance or significance would it have post-independence.

Pete Wishart’s article was interesting and provocative, but it was also flawed.  The article was received like a red white and blue flag to a saltire draped bull.  It was savagely attacked by many commentators below the line, some of whom were doing their very best impression of an angry mob of Transylvanian peasants in search of a Dr Frankenstein before their blazing torches went out.  

Wishart sees “cultural Britishness” as a cultural and historical identity shared between the nations of these islands.  He links it very firmly to the British state, considering it “the sum of the 300 years journey that we have enjoyed and endured on this island.”

There is certainly such a thing as – I hate to use the term – “cultural Britishness”.  It comes into the category of things we understand intuitively but which are hard pressed to define.  I would argue that for a majority of Scots the English, the Welsh, and the Irish are not quite ‘foreign’ in the same way that a Frenchman or a Greek is a foreigner.  England or Ireland are not ‘abroad’ in the same way that visiting Germany or Bulgaria is going abroad.

However the various nations and cultures of these islands have together enjoyed and endured a journey which is far more ancient than the British state, which was not mediated by power brokers in Westminster and which was not dominated by the economic and military imperatives of the ruling classes of England.  The political construct known as the United Kingdom is merely one source of “cultural Britishness”, and historically a fairly recent one at that.  “Cultural Britishness”, whatever it is exactly, is very ancient, is not a product of Westminster and is not predominantly English in content.  

To take a fairly random example, the ancient Welsh poem Y Gododdin tells the tale of the fall of an Old Welsh kingdom.  The poem is an important early Welsh text, and was a foundation to the Welsh sense of national identity which developed in the early Middle Ages.  Yet the kingdom of Gododdin was in the Lothians in Scotland and had its capital at Din Eidyn, modern Edinburgh.  Another early Welsh text tells of the foundation of the kingdom of Gwynedd by a band of warriors from Strathclyde who went to North Wales to fight off raiders from Ireland.  Although of great antiquity, these texts tell us of cultural influences and mutual interchanges which link Scotland with Wales, which are entirely independent of the British state and which are not mediated by the English language or Anglosaxon culture.

Wales is not an immediate neighbour of ours, yet we share much with that land and its people.  Our links with our immediate neighbours are even stronger and deeper.  England is not Scotland’s only immediate neighbour.

Scotland has profound cultural and historical links with Ireland.  These links are likewise entirely independent of the British state and are much older than it.   In the days before good roads, the sea was a highway and Ireland and Scotland were united by the North Channel not divided by it.  The beginnings of the Scottish kingdom and the Scottish state trace back to a colonial enterprise from Ireland.  The very name “Scottish” originally meant “Irish speaker” and throughout the Middle Ages Scotland and Ireland formed a single Gaelic speaking cultural province.

These close links have continued throughout history and into the present.  People have never ceased to move between the North of Ireland and the West of Scotland, interchanging ideas, culture, languages, traditions and genes.  Sometimes these links have been violent and aggressive but more often they have been peaceful and productive.  In the West of Scotland you’re hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have at least some Irish ancestry.  

Speaking personally as a Scot from Glasgow with a measure of Irish ancestry, I don’t feel that Ireland is any more or less foreign than England.  I share as many cultural reference points with Irish people as I do with English people.  In some cases more, like for example the knowledge that Daniel O’Donnell exists and makes records, a piece of information which many Irish and Scots people are unable to expunge from our brains no matter how hard we try.

There can be no doubt that Ireland and the Irish are full members of and participants in what for the time being we’re calling “cultural Britishness”.  Yet Ireland, or at least most of it, is an independent state.  Given that Ireland and the Irish are equally “culturally British”, we are then forced to examine our terminology.  

It’s the “B word”, British, that’s the problem.  Words do not just mean what it says in a dictionary. Words are not like wood varnish, they do not just do what it says on the tin, they do a lot more besides.  Some words are emotionally neutral, but other words carry a rich set of emotional associations and so provoke an emotional response.  Where a word has a strong emotional import, listeners can be deafened to any other import the word may carry.  

In this sense, the word “British” is very different from words like “Iberian”, “Scandinavian” or “Balkan”.  These words also refer to geographical / cultural regions of Europe, each of which encompasses a number of distinct nations.  As terms of cultural reference they are emotionally fairly neutral.  Norwegians, Finns, Saame and Danes don’t get het up about being described as Scandinavian.  Portuguese people do not take immense offence at being described as Iberian.

The crucial difference is that there was never any political attempt to construct nation states called Iberia, Scandinavia or the Balkans and to impose a common ‘Iberian’, ‘Scandinavian’ or ‘Balkan’ national identities on the various peoples of those cultural areas.  

In the case of Iberia there was an attempt by one group to create a state encompassing all of Iberia, the state founded by the Union of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon which came to call itself by a different classical name for the Iberian peninsula, Hispania.  This state came to promote and foster a distinctly Castilian language and culture as ‘pan-Iberian’.  

Iberia was the Greek name, the Latin name was Hispania, the root of the modern name España, Spain.  Modern Basque and Catalan nationalists reject the description “Spanish” with the same vehemence as the Portuguese, and with the same vehemence that many Scottish nationalists reject the term “British”.  To a Basque or Catalan nationalist, “Spanish” means “Castilian” in much that same way that “British” means “English” to many modern Scots.

The result is that of the two Classical names for the Iberian peninsula, one is emotionally highly charged and strongly rejected by many modern inhabitants, whereas the other is accepted as an emotionally neutral term equally applicable to all.

Like Hispania, the Classical term for the island group off the North West Atlantic coast of Europe also became the name of a powerful state which attempted to impose a single national identity upon all its inhabitants, an attempt which has ultimately proven unsuccessful.  In the case of the British Isles, this identity was firmly rooted in the language and culture of south eastern England but which was ‘rebranded and remarketed’ as British.  As a consequence, Britain and British are terms which carry strong emotional resonances.  For those of us who reject the British state, a “British” identity is also rejected.  

The only commonly accepted term to refer to the island group was co-opted by the British state and as a result it is now as toxic to many of the non-English inhabitants of the islands as the term Spanish is to the non-Castilian speaking peoples of Iberia.  Unhelpfully, the Greek term for the British Isles was essentially the same as the Latin – Nesoi Pretanniki in Greek, Insulae Britannicae in Latin.  Unlike the Iberians, there is no alternative Classical name for us to fall back on as an emotionally neutral term to refer to all the nations of this distinct geographical / cultural region of Europe.  

Geography poses an additional problem.  Iberia, Scandinavia and the Balkans are essentially single land masses with their associated islands – although a large part of Denmark is strictly speaking a geographical continuation of northern Germany.  The “British Isles” consist of two large islands and a considerable number of much smaller islands.  Inhabitants of the smaller of the two main islands take umbrage at the group being referred to by the name of its larger neighbour.  In Irish the term “British Isles” translates as Éire agus an Bhreatain Mhór, literally Ireland and Great Britain.  In Irish the island is called an Bhreatain Mhór to distinguish it from the Irish name for Wales, an Bhreatain Bheag or “Little Britain”.  (Brittany is an Bhriotáin in Irish, a relatively recent borrowing of the French name Bretagne.)

So what then do we call this cultural complex which many of us feel intuitively but which we are hard pressed to define absolutely?  Anglo-Celtic is the term commonly used in Australia, but it would probably be rejected as it gives undue prominence to one of the nations of the islands, and lumps all the other under the common rubric “Celtic”.  Other terms like Pritannic or European Insular Atlantic seem forced and artificial, not to mention way out there on the other side of pretentious.  There is no easy answer.

Yet for Scottish nationalists it is imperative that we open up the “cultural Britishness” debate to include the Irish.  By including the Irish we make it plain that the deep and very real links we feel with the other nations of this island group are distinct from the British state and would continue beyond the demise of that state.  That strengthens the case for independence immeasurably.