On September the 19th 2014 I found myself walking towards Hendon tube station unsure about which country I was in. The Scottish independence referendum had been the previous day and I hadn’t heard the result.
It was like being suspended between possibilities. Schrodinger’s country – alive and not alive at the same time. The early morning street bathed in pale sunlight, and all the people going about their business, would have been the same, and just as solid, but which state we were in, and where we might be heading, seemed fluid, full of possibilities, most of them bleak.
Were we still in the Britain we had grown up in, surviving a little while longer with its familiar outlines, dusty old emblems and narcissistic nostalgia; or had Scotland broken away into a brave new dawn on the back of the enthusiastic support of barely half its people, having to lug along the bewildered resentment of the rest like Braveheart with a limp; leaving behind a wounded greater England (or lesser UK) – with Wales and the North of Ireland as awkward appendages cued up to eye the exit – the long slumber of continuity broken by edgy debates about who – after all – we think we are – or, for that matter, were?
Uncertain speculation was resolved prosaically by the front page of the Metro in the Hendon Central entrance. Return to normal. No terrible beauty born. Continuity had won out, allowing the old order to drive on for a few more miles as though nothing had changed – rather like the Duke of Edinburgh in his 4×4 on a country lane on a darkening evening with poor visibility – but in reality just as a chrysalis – a thin papery wrapper with deeper, darker stirrings within it – English nationalism – in its stubborn, bloody minded, “I’ll cut my nose off to spite my face if I want to, because its my bloody nose; and don’t you come over here telling me not to – its none of your bloody business” mode – probably the worst of them.
Had the SNP won in 2014 they, like the Catalan nationalists more recently, would have faced the problem not only of how and how far to disengage with deep structures of economic, political, cultural, personal and emotional love hate relationship that had been taken for granted for years and years and years, but also how to manage a people polarised – just over half wanting to press ahead with a new identity, with the other half no longer feeling completely at home because they had lost something essential to their sense of themselves – which I suspect would have felt like an amputation to a lot of people; still feeling the sensation in ghost limbs, as an awful reminder that they weren’t there any more
At least, in their case, the nationalism was an inclusive one. Anyone who lived in Scotland would be considered Scots, regardless of their origin or anything else. An adjustment would have been difficult, but there was some sort of forward looking prospectus for it. Continuing to co-exist within the wider framework provided by the EU – setting common ground for the tension with the bilateral relationship with England- would have set relatively limits to the poison and polarisation generated by any divorce – just as it had allowed peaceful co-existence between the “two traditions” in the North of Ireland; pending a long term demographic shift towards a united Ireland. Love (or making it) conquering all in the end.
A loosening of absolute identities, allowing people with a differing sense of identity to share a space to live in, is at the heart of belonging in most countries that are going well, looking forward and outwards. Identities are not simple. They are multiple. Every society is to a greater or lesser extent multicultural, multi ethnic, multi faith, multi lingual and divided by class; and every individual’s sense of belonging is a unique combination of these big things and lots of little ones (illustrated rather graphically by the case of the former Jihadist who abandoned ISIS and wanted to come home because he missed his mum, pasties and Dr Who). To loosen things further, all these aspects of identity also overlap with people in other countries; which creates international identities that can be a challenge to the notion of absolute allegiance that all states seek to foster because they want people to die for them. “I vow to thee my country…”
That means that it is possible, outside of periods of crisis, and unless a state defines itself in absolute nationalist terms as belonging to ONE people, defined by blood, for people to co-exist peacefully; even while imagining the country they live in in completely different ways and as a very different place. A metaphor for this is China Mieville’s The City and the City – where the very different cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same space operating on different rules and perceived at different ends of the colour spectrum – while their citizens see each other – and the other city – only as a glimpse on the edge of perception.
It’s at moments of crisis – when the economy no longer holds out a future of promise, when people begin to struggle to make ends meet in the here and now, that mutually exclusive visions become more forceful and frenetic, discourse becomes coarse, the centre falls apart – because the arguments really matter – and implicit aspects of identity become explicit and visible and fundamental. When this occurs there is the shock of a rift and the beginning of a prolonged crisis.
To be continued…