Defining nationality

  • 23 January 2012
  • From the section Scotland
man's head
With debate raging over Scottish identity, similar questions are being asked in England

Down the decades, there have been sundry attempts to define "Britishness". Many foundered from being too imprecise, too inchoate.

For example, they were based upon common concepts such as "justice" and "fair play" as if these were, in some way, uniquely British and not to be found in, say, France or New Zealand.

To be entirely fair, I believe that an attempt to define "Scottishness" in such terms would be similarly hindered.

Nations and states are formed by such factors as geography, history, conflict, a sense of each other, a sense of an external other, identity and fellow feeling, culture, politics and manipulation.

Now it would appear, from an intriguing survey conducted for the IPPR, that there is a growing feeling of English identity among the people to the south of Hadrian's Wall.

There is a well-grounded methodology for tracking dual identity. For example, people in Scotland have long been asked whether they feel wholly Scottish, wholly British or a range of balanced options in between.

In Scotland, the default position tends towards the Scottish end of the spectrum.

Now, in a new development, it appears that there is a comparable tendency in England in that folk there are more inclined to stress their English rather than their British identity.

Couple of points. Firstly, most still adhere to a dual identity: it is simply the emphasis, the balance, which has changed.

Secondly, such an emphasis in England - as with the comparable emphasis in Scotland - does not mean that the nations of England and Scotland are certain to divide.

Ask folk in Texas about their primary identity: they will almost all reply "Texan." Does not mean the Lone Star State is about to secede.

Still, it is a fascinating survey and one which will undoubtedly influence political debate - not least among those who seek electoral support from the good and sensible people of England.

It seems likely to me that people in England were not obliged to confront this issue previously.

If they thought about it at all, they would perhaps be inclined to regard English and British as vaguely coterminous.

Now, with a renewed and UK-wide stress upon Scottish identity, it is understandable that questions are being raised in England.

Again, I believe the feelings to be imprecise: a general disquiet, a sense of puzzlement, perhaps a sense of unfairness with regard to such issues as the West Lothian question.

I think that is borne out by other feelings in the IPPR survey which suggest that the people of England have no clear, single idea as to how their discontent might be remedied.

They are divided between "English votes on English laws" in the Commons and and an "English Parliament".

As anyone will know who has studied the original West Lothian question (Author, Tam Dalyell) or the even earlier "In and Out" debate (proponent, W.E. Gladstone), neither of these options is easily implemented, at least without posing a substantial challenge to the continuation of the United Kingdom - which, presumably, would be something of a drawback for a UK Government led by the Conservative and Unionist Party.

But, at the very least, this issue is now a factor in the debate about the future of these islands.

It was G.K. Chesterton who opined: "We are the people of England and we have not spoken yet."

It seems they may be finding a voice.