History was made in Scotland on the 5th of May. In the twelve years of the Scottish Parliament’s existence, the Scottish National Party became the first to obtain a simple majority at Holyrood. The most obvious consequence of this is that the SNP’s long-standing pledge to hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom has become a real possibility by this parliament’s end. But what does the prospect of an independent Scotland entail for the notion of a Scottish identity and that of “Britishness?”
To many outsiders, the SNP’s case for separation would be readily suspected as one grounded in cultural and national foundations, as is typical of many nationalist outfits on the continent. But the reality is far from it, Alex Salmond and his party seldom heard invoking the wrongs of English control through the centuries . The SNP has consistently rooted its arguments in an overwhelmingly economic framework, envisioning a Scotland more prosperous and equal if freer from the constraints of HM Treasury. With its promising potential to become the powerhouse of European green energy and boast a skilled and innovative economy, Scotland’s government believes this is only possible with a comprehensive set of economic powers that it currently does not possess. To a lesser extent, it also justifies separation on the basis of greater political responsibility, hoping for a voice within the European Union and the United Nations and the opportunity to determine its role in military commitments at the moment dictated by the British government.
But if the “yes” vote were to triumph in a plebiscite, how exactly would Scotland be classified as a nation in a cultural sense? Such a question has been largely absent from an emerging national debate that has thus far centred on the economic merits of separation. For a start, what would it mean to be Scottish? The very idea is open to interpretation and is arguably less clear than say that of “Englishness.” Scotland has historically been steeped in both myth and legend, but would these be the cornerstones of its national conscience? Putting aside the saltire and the haggis, how may the cultural subtleties of the Highlands and Lowlands be reconciled to form a more singular identity? Who may be described as a Scot, or even one eligible to vote in a referendum that would determine such a status of his, those who at present live north of the border or take pride in being part of a diaspora spread across the globe? And where would Scotland’s new ethnic minorities, making up just over 2% of its population, fit in this identity, which for centuries has developed without their direct influence?
The scope of such confusion may be seen in a couple of specific examples. For instance, what would the national language be? Is it Gaelic, a beneficiary of much financial backing from the government yet spoken by so few and in such selective outposts of the country, or Scots, enjoying somewhat of a revival without official support and apparently spoken by 85% of the population to varying degrees, or both? What would the national anthem be? God Save the Queen would likely be discarded, but are either Flower of Scotland, favoured on the football and rugby terraces, or Scotland the Brave, sung on the podiums of the Commonwealth games for instance, viable options, or is a new anthem required? These and other issues are ones fundamental to the creation of a national conscience, but have been mentioned only tentatively in the wider national discussion on separation.
The consolidation of an identity as the Scottish one, however, may well lead to the breakdown of another one. An independent Scotland would necessarily result in the breakup of the United Kingdom and an end to over three hundred years of union between England and Scotland, so what does that mean for “Britishness?” Born in London and descended from a long line of Scottish ancestry, including a Jacobite soldier at the Battle of Culloden, the last serious act of resistance towards the crown in Scotland, I very much fit the mould of a “Briton, ” no matter how much I hesitate to describe myself as such. People like me are examples of the countless instances of social interconnectivity from which England and Scotland have benefited, hundreds of thousands having lived, worked and married in each other’s countries for the past three centuries. If Scotland were to gain independence, I couldn’t possibly call myself a Briton as it would no longer be a valid identity, as would hundreds of thousands of other “stateless” peoples. So that returns us to the question of, who and by what criteria, and in contrast to Britishness, would a Scot be defined as in the new country. And would the most obvious cultural symbols of Great Britain (the Union Jack, the Royal Family, double decker buses…) be of any relevance at to those north of Hadrian’s Wall in terms of their own cultural conscience?
The prospect of an independent Scotland, by no means assured, is a tantalising one in the context of nationalist studies. A disintegration of the amalgamation of four nations is a unique possibility in the present day. But if Scotland were to become a fully autonomous nation, it may have to further develop a sense of what it truly represents, in distinction to the remainder of the United Kingdom. As the days narrow on a referendum, that is a debate, though outweighed by the economic arguments, that will gather greater resonance in the coming years.