It has been a much argued point over how much the Referendum was about identity. It was not the primary driver of the independence campaign, although identity undoubtedly had that role in earlier decades. The ‘No’ campaign very much tried to pretend that it was about identity, in an ethnic sense, Alistair Darling even going so far as to support the idea that it was ‘blood and soil’ nationalism (i.e. next-of-kin to national socialism in Germany – thanks, Al). On the ‘Yes’ side, one particular polling analyst very much expected that there would be a direct correlation between the census figures showing 62% of those living in Scotland solely identifying themselves as Scottish (with no element of ‘Britishness’ in how they self-identified), and the numbers who would vote ‘Yes’ – on the grounds of how could anyone think of voting against their self-identified country’s existence. Although this made perfect sense to me as a perspective, it is clear from the eventual 45% vote in September that he – like dear Alistair – was wrong.
Interestingly, within a couple of weeks of the vote, many of us were again challenged on how we self-identify, with requests to confirm our registration on the electoral role by the end of that month. One thing that was interesting was that there was a hefty fine involved if you failed to respond – and I could not help but think of Aberdeen Council’s apparent attempts to punish supposed ‘Yes’ voters who had avoided council tax payments for decades, yet had come back on the register for the Referendum. Not everyone on the register was asked to confirm our registration – my mother got a standard ‘you do not need to do anything about this’, presumably because her voting address has been unchanged for some 50 years. But I, as someone who recently moved their registered address from Glasgow to Edinburgh, was asked to confirm. (I recently found that I had had a similar letter to my mother sent to my former Glasgow address – and indeed a second polling card had been sent to me there, as well, despite me deregistering from that address.) The registration process was straightforward, asking for a very few answers to supplement the details held. As sending something by post seems such an involved process these days (I’ve clearly sent too many e-mails in my life), I opted to complete the form online. As I clicked through the options, I came to the identity question. But the options were British, Irish, or other nationality. No Scottish option was available.
Identity is of course a very personal issue, in terms of how we engage with the concept, so this post has to be a very personal viewpoint – perhaps even more so than the others. Everybody defines their interface with culture, origins and living space in a unique way, very much weighted by the significance or impact that those individual factors have made on that given person both currently and in their development. In that regard, I confess that I have never seen or identified myself as British, and have always endeavoured to find other options to select, when confronted by tick-boxes and pull-down menus that mad such an assumption about me, treasuring those few that offered ‘Scottish’ or ‘Scotland’ as options. Indeed, it was an online discussion with a colleague in the north of England back in February-March, which dealt with just such issues as the Scottish experience or identity within the British Empire and thereafter, that convinced me that I should start this political blog (so blame Mike Boyd). I think that as much as Scots ended up being the engine of the British Empire, and therefore were complicit in its many appalling acts, I recognize that it was not necessarily the case that they had a great deal of choice in their overall participation, given the very deliberate restrictions on their opportunities at home, and perhaps as a result I feel far more shame than any sense of pride at being associated with the concept of Britain. I realise – of course – that that is far from many people’s experience on the ‘Yes’ (let alone the ‘No’) side, and was very proud to work alongside those with very differing senses of identity who recognised the common cause of the need for independence to make Scotland (and, perhaps, the world) a much better place.
That said, I am hardly a flag-waver, painting my face blue and white at every chance to attend a sporting event. My need to promote a sense of Scottish-ness within Scotland has never been that strong. Identity is a complex weave, interacting with place and culture, ramifications of language, music and – particularly in Scotland’s case – aspects of textiles. Musically, I am hardly a folk music fan (although in primary school we were all taught ‘Flower of Scotland’), but then again I also like popular music that varyingly displays its Scottish roots, whether Big Country’s skirls, the Proclaimers, Simple Minds or the bagpipes in some early AC/DC tracks. As a ‘lowlander’ from the central belt (and not even from Glasgow, but Edinburgh – the shame!!), perhaps it was some vague sense of ‘not being that Scottish’ that led me to learn Gaelic some years ago, in some quest to embrace a concept of identity. Nor do I wear the kilt at every opportunity. This is partly because I have never felt that comfortable with this aspect – my family does not have an ‘automatic’ tartan and yes, I know (as my Auntie Sheena, a former kiltmaker, has on many occasion been at pains to try and impress on me) one can be entitled to wear whichever tartan one likes, as the ‘family tartan’ idea is very much a 19th century confection. Nonetheless…the once-modern myth of the family tartan entitlement does now feel old enough (to me, at least) and comfortable enough to be a ‘genuine’ tradition – so I am happy to buy into it.
Therefore, I have not had a kilt of my own since I was around 7 years old – save for rentals when I was acting as best man or usher at weddings, when the choice of tartan was up to those who were headlining the ceremony.
Until this year.
When I saw that a tartan had been produced for the ‘Yes’ Campaign, I knew that this was finally a tartan that I could wear feeling complete entitlement. More than that – (and even better) it was a political statement. My brother married again in May, and for that event I finally bought my first kilt, and was able to wear the ‘Yes’ kilt for a wide array of international guests (many from down south) as an usher. It was really good to do.
The strange thing is, that my dynamic with these badges of identity has changed with the Referendum – perhaps because of the result, although I feel that the incidents that I am about to relay would probably have happened with a ‘Yes’ result as well. Firstly, I attended a conference in Berlin a few weeks ago, presenting two posters on some research I had been doing. Needing a blue and white background for one of them, I suddenly found myself importing an image of a saltire…and printed it, so that it resembled a large flag in the middle of the poster session (it worked well with the rest of the design too, by the way – at least, that’s my story). What was this? The only flag I had ever owned in my life was the Croatian one (see earlier posts for tha story), so this was slightly strange behaviour. On my regular bus journeys to the centre of Edinburgh in order to help staff the Marchmont stall, I passed many souvenir tat shops presenting overpriced tacky Scottish garments…yet, on those trips I began to be drawn to a saltire hoodie, of all things. As I saw it each day from the bus, I made a deal with myself that if there was a ‘Yes’ vote, I would buy one – perhaps to wear at the inevitable Hogmanay Party to end them all at the close of 2014. There was no ‘Yes’ vote – but I bought it today, for some work I am about to do out in China. Again – I believe this is quite uncharacteristic.
Back to the electoral registration form. When, in my frustration at an online form that seemed to smugly want to present me as British when I had just been part of a campaign trying to mark a separate, cleaner identity on this country, I had ended up putting myself down as a Chinese national from Ireland, as a result of refusing the mantle of the British identity, I abandoned the online process. I went back to the printed form that had been sent to me in the post, as I did not have a memory of it being so polarizing when I had first scanned it. Sure enough – the handwritten form allowed you to define yourself however you wished in an empty white box. I wrote ‘Scottish’ (as with all my visa application forms, to whichever embassy), signed the form, and sent it off.
So, what have we learned – if anything – from this mish-mash of identity-related experiences? I certainly regard myself as Scottish – not as some ‘pure-bred’ sense of identity, but as part of a relaxed acknowledgement of our joyously mongrel nation. I take that identity to mean what I want and need it to – as everyone else does – but that has somehow changed for me during this year. I feel more uncompromising in my sense of a Scottish identity than ever before, particularly within Scotland itself – perhaps because it represents the Nation of Yes, just as much as any older idea of Scotland – a place where it does not matter where you were born or where your parents were from, or if you are from the Lowlands instead of the Highlands or – heaven forfend!! – from Edinburgh instead of Glasgow. I think there are a lot of things to be proud of in the idea of how an independent Scotland can be – and the simple possibility of being different to what we were – and what we have historically been part of – is reason enough for optimism. And I think also that that is a part of why so many more saltires are on display around Scotland, than there were before the Referendum. That symbol has become more important to people than it was before.
Scotland can be something greater than what it would leave behind it. Much of the rest of the UK either has a longer way to go – or is on a very, very different journey of identity to a very different destination.
“The men and women of Yes should live and work as if they already belonged to an independent country. And perhaps, in a sense, that is what Scotland has now become.” (Neal Ascherson, 21st September 2014)