Reproduced with thanks to the Herald.
Working on an EU-funded regeneration project in Glasgow’s twin city of Rostov-on-Don, I happened to be out for dinner with my local government colleagues.
It was about the leaders of the late USSR: “Why did Brezhnev go abroad, but Andropov never left the Soviet Union?” “Because Brezhnev ran on batteries, but Andropov had to be plugged into the mains.”
It was met with stony silence: in belittling their former leaders, I had offended my hosts and their pride in their country. My apologies were of course profuse, and required another round or two of the vodka bottle to smooth over.
The point of this story is to show the stultifying effect of nationalism, and the problems created by its exclusivity. First, it is bad for your sense of humour; but secondly, and most importantly, it inhibits pluralism of all kinds.
In contrast, the identity of the United Kingdom has evolved specifically to accommodate pluralism. Since the defeat of the absolutist Stuart monarchy (and those who fought to restore it, the Jacobites) the UK has been defined by its ambiguities and multiplicity.
It is occupies an entire landmass, and part of another; it is a unitary state comprising two nations, one principality and one province. We have a common language whose structure is Germanic, but includes French and Romance vocabulary, and the languages of the Empire. And enriching this mix, we have indigenous languages: Gaelic, Welsh, even – at a stretch – the Guernsey patois of my granny’s nursery rhymes plus a host of informal and formal dialects (e.g., Scots, Ulster Scots, Doric, etc,.)
The politics of the UK is the same kind of glorious mess. The – at best – only partially native monarchy (the Normans, French Plantagenets, Welsh Tudors, Scottish Stuarts, and successive Dutch and Germans) has co-existed with local politics to create a political eco-system based on power-sharing and disputation, resulting in an evolutionary process that creates the survival of the fittest ideas.
Simultaneously, our nation has created an identity that is reflected in its culture and in the way in which we, its citizens, see ourselves and present ourselves to the rest of the world. The fire at the Glasgow School of Art reminds us Mackintosh worked and lived in Scotland and England and his inspiration came from both parts of the UK, as well as from the wider European influences, as did that of his predecessors, such as the Adam brothers.
It is from this glorious anarchic historical and cultural grab-bag that we can choose our identity. Mine is English by birth, specifically Hampshire by upbringing, Glaswegian by long residence, chunks of Londoner and Channel Islands by descent, some Scottish northeast by marriage, and a bit of German and central European by higher education and culture.
In politics, I am a sceptical social democrat, proud of the achievement of my comrades in the radical traditions of all parts of the UK, as well as in Europe, starting with the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Reform movement and continuing through the foundation of the NHS, up to and including New Labour.
These are all, crucially, identities of choice: the elements we choose as important from our backgrounds and circumstances are in our hands and no-one else’s. In the UK we do not need to be confined to a single identity based on a national dogma or approved stereotype. Instead, we can laugh at our leaders and mock preconceptions about who we are or should be.
Part of our national radical tradition is to recall the politicians of the past. One of these was Ernie Bevin, who said: “My foreign policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria Station and go anywhere I damn well please!”
As citizens of the UK, we can enjoy all of the potentialities of our mixed-up multiple history: in fact, we can go out into the world and ‘be anyone we anyone we damn well please’. And who would trade such freedoms for the restrictions and inhibitions of nationalism?