Sep 25, 2014

    Time for UK to walk the walk after Scots' vote

    SCOTLAND has voted "No" in the independence referendum, though by a smaller margin than had looked likely three months ago. British parties which campaigned for the maintenance of the union must now make good on the promises they made during the campaign or face dire consequences at the hands of Scotland's electorate at the next general election.

    Apart from constitutional questions, there are some deeper cultural questions to be considered. They are about what being British really means.

    My family moved a lot when I was growing up, and so I went to school in England and later in Wales. When children were taught history in England, they were told that they were learning about Britain's past. In fact, what we were taught was English history.

    Wales and Scotland came into the story when Edward I conquered them in the Middle Ages. Scotland vanished after recovering its independence in 1314, and re-appeared over 250 years later when Mary, Queen of Scots, took refuge in England during the reign of Elizabeth I.

    Even after the crowns of England and Scotland were united in 1603, Scotland itself hardly figured in "British history" in English schools, except for those attempts to restore the overthrown Stuart dynasty, the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

    As a result, most people in England had little sense of the past of Wales and Scotland, and easily assumed that they did not matter much beside the narrative of England.

    Strangely enough, they were more likely to have a greater sense of modern Irish history as a result of the series of conflicts with the English there over Home Rule and independence: More people in England know of the potato famine of the 1840s that depopulated huge areas of Ireland than of the Highland clearances of the 19th century that emptied northern and north-western Scotland of much of its population in favour of sheep farms.

    In the more recent past, there was little sense in much of England of the impact of de-industrialisation, the closure of railway networks and cuts in public spending on Wales and Scotland. They were regarded as purely economic measures, and their possible impact on national relationships was appreciated poorly, if at all.

    The transformation of the Conservative Party in Scotland into a minor political entity with just one member in the Westminster Parliament was initiated by the policies of the Thatcher government; the Scottish National Party drew much of its support from people alienated by that government and successors that failed to undo the harm it had inflicted.

    If the English could readily overlook most of the histories of the other nations of the British Isles, it is not surprising that people of other countries can be similarly unaware of other components of Britishness than the English. Being of mixed ancestry, I have never thought of myself as English, but I have sometimes found that identity forced on me. When I first travelled to the Middle East and introduced myself as British, people seemed perplexed, so I would say that I lived in London, and their faces would light up and they would say: "Ah, English!"

    It has happened elsewhere. Anyone who is Scottish, Welsh or Irish and has travelled abroad has probably had similar experiences at some point and been irritated by it. Normally, it is not because of a dislike of the English so much as resentment at the denial of their own identity.

    There is also the matter of those who originated in former colonies and migrated to Britain. To cite an example: I recall the resentment of a friend of Jamaican ancestry who complained that a black runner in a British team was described by a commentator as British when she was winning and Jamaican when she lost.

    It is all very well to talk about being better off together, and it is a sentiment with which I would agree, but it cannot be a substitute for serious re-evaluation of attitudes and assumptions that tend to peripheralise and ignore the diverse peoples of Britain who are not English.

    The Scottish referendum has thrown down a challenge to Britain as a whole - the challenge of re-making itself as a cooperative commonwealth. Inclusiveness has to go beyond formal equality of rights to what, in daily life, would be called mutual consideration, and to be British should never be assumed to be much the same as being English.

    The writer is a Singapore-based freelance writer.