Our Britain was never about Westminster

The problem isn't Britain, it's Westminster
The problem isn't Britain, it's Westminster
Ian Dunt By

For many of us, Britain was always the country. The fact it was actually a union of states never mattered. It was true, but irrelevant, like a friend's middle name. England was a region with pretentions. Britain was the country.

I know the constitutional definitions, but I don’t care. When I think of my country, I think of Britain. Millions feel as I do. Their voices have been almost entirely wiped out in the last few months. We've been made silent and irrelevant. We were written out by the terms of the debate itself.

But for many people my age, and certainly the vast majority from immigrant families, that was the default setting. In truth, it wasn't even Britain. I fell in love with the island, this remarkable island, which one could never say anything about without the opposite also being true. It's reserved, but people down shots and flash their bum on a Saturday night. It's arrogant, but popularity is based on self-mockery. It's grotesquely unequal, but everyone always heads to the pub, where the millionaire and the workman are treated the same. It's funny, but everyone you see on the street has a face like a slapped arse. It's a puzzle that can't be solved, a place one will always hate as much as one loves it.

The referendum is about what 'we' means. When Scots say 'we want to be free of Westminster', I think: 'Yeah, we do.' We is us. I never spoke to Scots differently. They were my countrymen. It is hurtful and alarming to suddenly hear them speak of themselves as something else.


I do not think of my Scottish friends as people from another country. They are just too similar. I refuse to accept that we need different laws to govern us, different states to live in. We are us. Why would we need to split up?

The referendum debate has turned into one between Westminster and Scotland. If that is it, then it is no wonder Scotland has the upper hand, for no sane person would select a different side. But that is a grotesque misrepresentation - which Better Together, hailing from Westminster, has been unable to address. This is about Scotland and Britain. And Britain – the modern, diverse, open Britain which we still live in, despite the frenzied psycho-sexual inadequacies of the Ukip brigade – is a place worth saving.

It has become commonplace for the Scottish left to call for a disentanglement from the Tories. Many on the English left – a majority, perhaps – agree. It's a failure of solidarity. They are leaving the English at the mercy of the Conservative party. England has been painted as this pro-austerity voting block, as if it was in cahoots with David Cameron and George Osborne.

The independence debate tacitly confirms the categories it needs to win. By virtue of having the debate at all, we are defined as Scots and English. It then follows that you might as well get rid of the Tories. But we're not getting rid of them. England will simply lose a substantial left-wing voting block. Scotland will lose its fellow countrymen, people who love it even if they do not always have the words with which to express it.

To say this country is a political compromise, or a constitutional stitch-up, or a Westminster plaything, or an imperialist fantasy, is to ignore our accomplishments. No matter what the Tories and Ukip want, this country remains diverse, free and social democratic. If you tot up the Plaid, SNP, Labour, Lib Dem and Green votes, it always votes centre-left.

We are one of the most multicultural nations in the history of mankind. That is not a coincidence. It stems from the multiculturalism embedded in our origin. It is a defining attribute of what makes us who we are.

Just two years ago, although it seems a lifetime now, our athletes were happy draping themselves in the union flag. This was not a poisonous compromise. It was people expressing how they felt about where they came from. Scottish, but British too. English, but British too.

At the heart of the British idea is the feeling that one can have multiple identities: from local to continental. I am a Londoner, an Englishman, a Brit and a European. They are not necessarily equal. I feel the first most deeply. I feel British more strongly than English. I feel the last the most weakly. We hold these identities all at once. If the British identity really did not matter at all to Scots, there would never have been a debate.

But it does matter. Only one in four Scots said they were 'Scottish not British' in this year's British Social Attitudes survey. One-third say they are equally Scottish and British. Scots are more likely to be 'very proud' to be British than the English or the Welsh. Seventy-six per cent of Scots feel at least somewhat proud of being British, compared to 74% in Wales and 73% in England.

For the young, it's even stronger. Sixteen-to-18-year olds feel very comfortable mixing Scottish, British and European identities. The freedom of association gained by the internet is making us ever more comfortable with mixed identities.

This is not a struggle against Scottish wishes, as it is sometimes made out. Scots feel British too – they just despise Westminster, as the English do. This is about definitions. The debate has been one of Westminster vs Scotland, Austerity vs Scotland, Tories vs Scotland. Because that was a debate Alex Salmond could win. He can’t win the Britain vs Scotland debate because it is no more a conflict than the relation between my arms and my legs. One does not preclude the other.

What's obvious is how complacent we've been. We find constitutional questions tedious. As soon as someone says West Lothian, if I'm honest, my eyes cloud over and I go to my happy place. But plainly we can't maintain that. Our complacency has threatened our country. We need massive change.

Westminster's anaemic self-interest has put this remarkable experiment at risk. They can never be allowed to do so again. Outside of security and some home affairs issues, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must be given full control of their affairs. Full federalisation is now the only game in town. To counter English dominance we must split it into regions for political representation. This has to be the start of a new, better Britain - one rooted in localism - not the death of the old one.

We are not fighting for austerity, or imperialism, or 'our strength on the world stage', or even the pound. We are fighting for the very idea that you can hold multiple identities. We are fighting for the absence of walls, for multiculturalism.

And for those of us who grew up feeling British, we're fighting for our country.

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