A Very British Identity Crisis


I haven’t written much about the European Referendum, but I’m very happy to have a guest post about it on the blog today. This is from my brother Ewan Cameron. He doesn’t mind a wee bit of debate, so please feel free to leave a comment below. Image credit: Chris Lawton at Unsplash.

I am not a writer, and as a journalist once told me (so it must be true) I am not a ‘political animal.’ I most definitely felt until recently that I had no national identity whatsoever. However, when my head is positively spinning with thought I do sometimes write things down in an attempt to find order. As I live in Scotland many of these thoughts currently whizzing around are a result of politics and involve matters of national identity so here goes.

I have a Scottish father and an English mother, which at least means I must be British. Until the age of ten this made absolutely no difference to me at all, I knew my mother was from a town called Leek in Staffordshire, I had grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins there who we saw twice a year or so and they were/are nice people and I enjoyed seeing them and that was as far as it went.

Things changed at the age of ten thanks to a particularly horrible Primary school teacher who decided that near the top of the big list of things she didn’t like about me was the fact I was half English. It would probably have been at the top of the list but I didn’t go to church and she was even more of a religious bigot than she was a racist. Monday morning lessons commenced with all those who didn’t go to church on Sunday being asked to stand and explain themselves to the rest of the class. Yes, this was 1983 not 1883…

History lessons in particular gave her plenty chance for a dig or ten in my direction, focusing as they did on Scottish history from William Wallace to Culloden. This teacher was also a rather skilful manipulator of the entire class so it was at this time that my peers began to notice my mixed heritage too, something that hadn’t happened before. The upshot of this was that I was left with a fairly major desire to fit in, something which I only really managed to extinguish completely in my mid 30s.

Lest you have been given the impression that the purpose of writing this is to exorcise some childhood demons, it’s not. In the long run I owe that teacher much, not least of all the fact that I learnt the true meaning of hypocrisy before I could even spell it. I will remember for all my days the feeling of confusion that came one day as she was reading from a book on Martin Luther King, pausing to look up and inform the class that she just couldn’t understand how one person could be  nasty to another purely because of their race. My ten year old brain was screaming in my head ‘That’s what you do to me!’

More than that though, she played a huge part in the formation of strongly held beliefs I have on nationality (and religion) – that they are fundamentally artificial constructs put in place so that a small percentage of the human race can easier control a large percentage of the human race. This is largely done through fear, misinformation and hate and what makes it particularly sad in my eyes is that it is all down to accident of birth.

How absurd. I do not define myself or take pride in any other accident of birth, I am not proud of my eye colour, or my gender, or my sexuality, or even my particular inherited pattern of receding hair. So why should I be proud of my nationality, define myself as Scottish, Half Scottish Half English, British or European? So I don’t. Which made voting in the last two referendums a little bit difficult and if we have a third one will make it very difficult indeed. Hmmm, perhaps not.

I voted to stay in the UK and I voted to stay in the EU. That puts me along with most people living in Scotland on both counts. My heart and head were united both times, it won’t surprise given my opinion on nationality that my perfect world would consist of one state so that’s my heart sorted, and my head tells me that the practicalities of trade, peace, fighting international terrorism and international crime are best handled by working together with as many people as possible in the biggest club possible, even if you don’t agree with them all of the time or get the decision you want all of the time.

If we get a third referendum it will basically be a choice referendum, do we want to be in the UK or do we want to be in the EU? This may of course not happen, but if it does it is not as straightforward as you may imagine. Many of those who I know wanted out of the UK also wanted out of the EU. They have unfortunately swallowed all the negative propaganda on numerous issues, particularly immigration, and seem to think Scotland’s problems are best addressed by pulling up the drawbridge and existing in splendid isolation.

In the first days following the Brexit win I struggled with both my heart and my head. The heart is after all half English, but the EU is the bigger club. The head too tells me that the EU is the bigger club but it also tells me Scotland does far more trade with the rest of the UK and will probably be a more significant player in Westminster than in Brussels.

So I had a think, and in doing so chanced upon something that has cleared things up for me. The most surprising result from the EU referendum to me wasn’t the fact that the UK as a whole voted to leave, it was the way in which the North of England voted to leave. I am (just) old enough to remember the eventual collapse of most of the UKs heavy industry and always believed that the consequences of this caused a certain amount of common ground between Scotland (particularly Central Scotland) and the other traditional industrial areas such as much of The North of England, Midlands and South Wales.

Why then, has the reaction of these areas to the problems of the 21st Century been so different? All ‘traditional’ Labour heartlands yet Scotland on the whole has if anything moved to the Left, abandoning New Labour and the coalition LibDems almost completely. The North of England, however has joined the South and headed off into the opposite direction towards UKIP and some fairly right wing Conservatives. Why? Perhaps there is a ‘national psyche’ at work here, even after centuries of union.

I have a little theory on this. Whilst it is fair to say that both sides in both referendum debates were guilty of misinformation and scaremongering there was a difference in debate from the coverage I observed. The big difference between referendums to my eyes was in the topics, everything in the EU debate came back to money and the economy. Even the immigration debate was about how much ‘they’ are costing the country, in jobs, benefits and resources.

The Scottish Independence referendum was much broader, the economy played a major role as you’d expect, but it wasn’t the be all and end all. There seemed to be a bigger emphasis on people, on values, on fairness and on society as a whole. Could it be that England and Scotland are not as alike as I thought? Could it be that England has a more materialistic and inward looking national psyche than Scotland? If that is the case, and I believe it looks that way, then maybe I have a national identity after all. Maybe I’m a Scot.




6 responses

  1. I also voted to remain. I am really struggling to come to terms with the result I must say – I always considered the UK outward looking.

  2. Really well written Ewan and certainly lots of food for thought towards the end of your article. I really enjoyed reading about your thought process…it’s interesting how many of us cling to our places of birth for personal identity. I love the feeling of ‘belonging’ to a place but I do consider myself to be a citizen of the world…if that makes any sense!

  3. Pingback: First sayings around the Brexit | Marcus Ampe's Space

  4. I voted the same way as you in both referendums. And I’m still trying to struggle my way through my feelings. I’ve turned off all social media, bought no newspapers and as I type I’m sitting in Spain on holiday – with hindsight, a very well timed holiday! Glad I read this, I can relate to lots of what you say.

  5. Very well written piece. As an ex-pat Scot living in Canada I didn’t get a vote in the 1st Referendum you refer to, but was staunchly YES – because Westminster has mismanaged Scotland for centuries. As an immigrant with an entrepreneurial mindset it boggled my brain that the general population of Scotland with eons of history of producing people who had ground breaking, immigrant, business and creative talents, not to mention (always) one of the best educated populations in Europe would fail to grasp this chance to stand up and work together to form a forward thinking and progressive country.

    If worst came to worst and the economy was mismanaged by the Scottish Parliament, then at least it’s by a parliament that you did vote for and hold more sway over. I don’t really give much coin to the Braveheart Freedom movement, nor do I dislike the English people as a nation, I just abhor the misinformation about Scotland and the Scottish peoples’ viability to be a nation.

    In the 2nd referendum I did get to vote and voted to stay in the EU – because unlike staying in the Union it is a seat at a globally recognized common market, coming out of the EU has more dreadful outcomes than becoming a recognized country (outwith the UK) in terms of economy, people, opportunities and long term vision of a global society.

    More importantly while I may not agree with everything the SNP have on their manifesto, I believe that their intention and vision for a more caring society where the disabled, ill and old as well as immigrants are treated with dignity is a far better vision than what the future holds for them under the Boris and Nigel vision (or lack thereof as we’ve just seen).

    Given the past week’s developments there seems little choice now for Scotland a 3rd Indy Ref is essential if the Scottish people are to have their democracy and if Scotland is to save itself from circling the drain the way England currently is. We MUST retain the higher moral ground to do otherwise is disgraceful to humanity and is plunging the entire UK (with potential outreach) into depression (financially) and disrepute.

    A book “The crash of 2016” is worth a read – note it was written in 2013! So this was indeed predicted. The 80 year cycle.

    • Hi I Brown,

      I’m glad you mentioned the disabled and other vulnerable members of society. We have a handicapped son and one of the factors in voting to stay in the UK was a belief that this would provide a greater chance of providing a society which had the financial ability to care for him once we have gone.

      However, having watched the EU debate I would now (if given the opportunity) vote to leave the UK partly on the basis that even if an independent Scotland were financially poorer it would actually have the compassionate society which would prioritise his care unlike a right wing UK which would have greater means but less inclination.

      Ewan (Dorkybro)

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