Pete Wishart’s remarks on Britishness were an example of something that is rare in Scottish politics - a controversial statement of a party-independent political view, or the floating of an idea, depending on how you viewed it. As I said yesterday in my piece on MSPs’ tweeting styles -
The political opinion tweet is regrettably as rare as hen’s teeth from MSPs, who seem to wish to demonstrate as much bland conformity as Blair’s Babes (male or female).
And of course, Pete Wishart’s statement was much more upfront and public than a mere ephemeral tweet. I did, for an ignoble moment, wonder if Pete was actually floating an idea on behalf of the Party, testing the water so to speak, with the First Minister and his team waiting anxiously for the public reaction, but I dismissed this quickly - I don’t think that’s his style at all.
My own initial reaction to the idea was shock, and bafflement, having recently spent more than a little time attacking the unionist argument that Britishness was one of the things the Scottish people would lose -and regret losing - after independence. I hoped that I was not alone in feeling that I could not lose my sense of Britishness, since I had never had one, having spent most of my life feeling that I was a Glaswegian, a member of the international brotherhood of man, and a Scot, more or less in that order.
But since my second reaction is usually more reliable than my first, and because I actually enjoy having my ideas challenged, Pete’s idea sent me hame again - tae think again …
Having read Andrew Davies’ monumental history, The Isles, twice - 1707 and a' that ... - and now well into my third reading of it, the idea of the British Isles -or Britain - as a geographical entity as distinct from a political concept is well established in my head. I have lived on its main land mass all my life. Had this given me a sense of being British, a kind of locational identity?
I revisited the idea of identity derived from place, clearly a powerful force for many people, and also a happy memory from my consulting days. I had been running a week-long residential course in London, and the participants decided we should have a night out at The Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping, arguably the most famous pub in London - named after a ship - dating from 1543, when it was a hangout for dockside smugglers and sundry criminal types. The huge bar, with its flagged stone floor, its pewter bar top resting on barrels, was packed to the rafters, with an indescribably vibrant atmosphere, and very soon a sing-song erupted spontaneously.
At first, it was mainly the old music hall songs which, in 1990, were still part of the consciousness of the population, sung in pubs and at parties - My Old Man said Follow the Van, Daisy, Daisy, Uncle Tom Cobleigh, Pack up Your Troubles, Three German Officers crossed the Rhine - parlez vous, Pack Up Your Troubles - the wonderful, vigorous, melodic popular songs from early in that century. They gave me a warm feeling - they reminded me of my National Service, of the NAAFI, of my mother’s parents round a piano, of my mother, of a generation beginning to disappear over the horizon then, and now almost totally gone.
But they were all indisputably and deeply English, albeit part of a common heritage, especially that of war and military comradeship. And I had another heritage of popular song - the auld Scots sangs and the Scottish popular theatre songs of Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe.
But then a voice emerged during a brief lull in the singing, a light tenor voice, heart-stopping in its purity. The singer was invisible in the throng - the song was Danny Boy - the Londonderry Air, a song claimed by two factions for partisan reasons, but truly international in its simple beauty. The crowd listened silently, with that kind of respect given such moments by a boisterous crowd, sentimental and maudlin in the main, but with a core of true feeling. When the singer stopped, there was a great roar of approval, glasses were smashed on the floor (apparently an acceptable tradition at The Prospect of Whitby - when I left, the bar floor was carpeted with glass).
Then the old Yorkshire question rang out - “Wheear 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee, ah saw thee?”, instantly recognised, instantly responded to by the crowd - “On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at”. When it finished the new pattern was set - local songs, regional songs, national songs. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, I belong to Glasgow, If you’re Irish, Come into the Parlour rang out, initially by the protagonist group, but soon taken up by the mass. Waltzing Matilda was struck up by an Earl’s Court contingent, but that was a temporary bridge to more competitive and simultaneous repeats of Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at, Keep yer feet still, Geordie, hinny and I belong to Glasgow. Men of Harlech erupted, in all its powerful martial force.
Annie Laurie settled the crowd back into joint singing, one Scot attempted My Ain Folk, but it misjudged the mood: few recognised it, and it ended ignominiously with a stentorian voice cutting across it with Land of Hope and Glory, attracting enthusiastic support from most, but not all. Rule Britannia petered out - a bell was rung and time was called from the bar.
Was this an example of ‘Britishness’ in operation? Not to me, but perhaps to some. Is it replicated today in the The Prospect of Whitby? I suspect not - maybe a recent visitor to the pub can enlighten me. I would guess it has been replaced by a shared pop culture with no national or regional base
If it still exists, would any of it be lost by Scotland’s independence?
Very little, if any - after all, on that night in 1990, there were people from the Republic of Ireland present, from Australia, from America, from African countries and God knows how many more former British colonies. Yorkshire folk feel themselves to be a uniquely independent breed, as do the people of the North East of England. The city boys like me, from Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and London probably still draw more of their identity from their urban culture than the national or UK version. The drinker whose attempt to sing The Red Flag was quickly aborted probably still feels an internationalist - and Scotland’s independence, when it come, will not make any real impact on those identities.
But it will make a huge, overwhelmingly positive impact on Scottish identity - and we’ll still love our neighbours on these Isles and sing most of their songs - but draw the line at “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Brittania” .
If that’s what Pete Wishart’s remarks on Britishness meant I’m with him - and thanks for making me think, Pete!