I had spent my weeks side by side with people from all across Europe including the UK and shared in many understandings about the way in which we hope to live in the world and in our communities. There was no barrier of border between that and nationalities played no part in these connections. What they did allow was a chance to learn about different perspectives and see that though there were distinctions in culture, the broad values that people lived for were essentially the same.
On our last night of the trip, what I gained insight towards was the mindsets of those who attach national identity as a marker of superiority and separation from other human beings. What I saw was the triumphalism of bigotry based on what I believed to be a misguided attachment to an idea.
That idea was Britain and because of the adherence to its archaic structures by broadly passive citizens, people I met were revelling in its more insidious elements and were using history to justify themselves. 2016 had become a year where those opinions were finding themselves not just unchecked but emboldened. They were living off a narrative of a small island whose history dominates all reading of history. This understanding of the wider world is not shaped by the stories people from other lands have to tell, rather Britain’s abilities to conquer and rule lands crafts the tales of which these people tell. The sun never sets on the countries with history brokered out of shackles forged by British steel.
Much of this lack of introspection comes from continuous celebrations of history. ‘We’ won the second World War and whilst at the time that produced a country in its finest throes of social cohesion, with an NHS its crown jewel, the success blinded citizens from reflecting or participating in what those ruled by Britain wanted in the world. Fascism had been the tool of the Nazis but they had been beaten. Britain’s use of oppression was given little scrutiny. Despite the mass movement of people from all around the world, this insular idea has still existed in Britain and for many it meant confusion when this immigration began. As the world shifts and changes, being an island nation means the narrative of the country has stayed aloof and steadfastly refused to integrate properly. Many coming in to make Britain their home bring their own diversity but the tenets of Empire still linger. Our governments still rule with a sense of entitlement that they should exert more influence than other nations of comparable size.
In an ever shrinking world where more localised self governance is possible, maybe having two, three nations on an island together means we would have to find a way to integrate and work with each other in a more nuanced way than the clunking fist of Westminster rule allows. If we can achieve that on ‘our’ patches of land, then we would already have loosened the ego of the Union that is so resistant to surrendering any of its prestige. Britishness is a straightjacket that restricts the countries in its makeup from integrating fully with other cultures and other ideas. Surely it is time to repurpose the asylum.
We beat out the languages of the Gaels and the Welsh and though not succeeding entirely to expunge it, we still generally only speak one language on this island. And the whole world speaks it with us. So we have never as a general principle had to know what it feels like to be properly misunderstood. Throw a Brit into another country and it likely won’t take long for them to escape any linguistic isolation. The world has always had to adjust for us. We look at the world so inwardly and force others to live outwardly for us and don’t see the privileges that we are basking in as a result. Not that they’re always even of benefit.
We don’t have to speak other languages but others do. Having a grasp on the complexities of language learning allows for a level of empathy that is harder to garner when you speak just one. I learn so much from the turns of phrase and thought patterns that come from those native to a different language who talk (in English) with me. They demonstrate a way of thinking with more avenues and depth than can be comprehended with only one vocabulary to think, speak and live in.
Being so rigidly controlled by such a narrow prism of people for so long means that a collective process of national self reflection or overhaul has never taken hold of the people of Britain. Small c conservatism allows for no break from the past and nor does it allow a disavowal of it. The closest there seems to be for some folk was apparently the death of Princess Diana. I don’t actually know anyone who that applies to. That is a culture foreign only in its complete strangeness to me. I cannae possibly relate, not through malice but sheer irrelevance. These are the shallow and tired strands of political culture that Britishness sets itself up against the world with. These overarching themes of Britishness continue to exist and those who profess them the loudest celebrated a confused V for victory in 2016 as the British took its country back. But back to who and to whom will it be controlled by now?
These forces of time, culture, privilege and ignorance trundled fast and loose through green and pleasant lands to 18:15pm on Friday November 11th 2017 as I stepped out of a pub toilet, parochially chained in my own way to a kilt in preparation for the Scotland England game that had taken us turbulently to London. Fittingly perhaps, it was Armistice day, an occasion once seen as a chance to reflect with solemnity on the disgusts and tragedies of war but in recent years, hijacked to shriek of the prowess of British militarism and patriotism through tabloid branded megaphones. Almost instantly, I was struck up into conversation by a seemingly friendly fella about the game but within two or three turns of discussion he instead began to celebrate our shared Britishness then aligned it with an ill will for those here who were non indigenous.
‘You Scots think you have a chance today, mate?’
‘I reckon so, aye, 3-1!’
‘Haha, not a fahkeen chance but hopefully you enjoy yourself here anyway. You, me, we’re all English (British) mate, each and every one of us, the same people. But it’s changing. Place is full of muzzies now, all over the place. Have you got muzzies in Scotland?’
‘Nah, Muslims, have you got them?’
‘We fahkeen hate them down here, you like muzzies up in Scotland?’
‘Aye, I love Muslims, mate.’
Whit? The theme continued upstairs with further conversations of this ilk spilling from his pals and others around us. All the way to the stadium these off hand comments would spiral around about muslims and pakis and the roles they played in the loss of British industry to Europe. There would be cheers of celebration for the Falklands War, derision for that Krankie bitch Sturgeon and God save the Queen bellowed across the night. As we trawled through the streets of this vocabularily rancid sea bearing land, we moored at Trafalgar Square where thousands of Tartan Army fans had sprawled themselves out and over the monuments. Indubitably laid before me through swathes of the crowd would have been our own staggered out fleet of arseholes, but nowhere was I hearing a bombastic cry of such open bigotry as I was around those who made the cries of Rule Britannia.
What I am not trying to say is that prejudices spilled from one side and not another but what I had was an identifier of dead end culture and this roar of Britishness was it, displaying its rotten ugliness in all its royalist prayed for glory. It wasn’t England or Scotland that ever ruled the waves. It was Britain. In a world more integrated, it seems so far dated as a model now that the vocal supporters of it have only this triumphalist, bullish rejoice to shout about and most decent minded folk across Britain have too many more interesting traits and friends of a wider gene pool to characterise themselves with instead.
English or Scottish identities are neither more prejudiced or open minded than the other, but the identity of Britain is corrupted. I have had more affirming, formative moments with people across Britain than any other pigeon holed group that it feels ridiculous to even say so but these relationships were built on much more than conjoined statehood. Simply put, there are more meaningful things to talk about.
The same principles apply with others around the world but the relationship with people from this isle is clearly stronger and built on more commonality due to a physical closeness that in turn breeds a cultural closeness. The obviousness of these statements seem so banal they bore me as I type them. A shared passport doesn’t make these so, a shared humanity does.
Attaching ourselves to an identity bridged foremost through nationality is pithy and parochial. We’re all better than that and branching out, we’re also all the same as the rest of the world. Nobody I know that champions Britishness ever have anything much to say or do to upset the power balance complicit in Her Majesty’s crimes. People cheer on Olympians whilst staying silent over the indefensible saying nothing say of Britain’s role as the second largest weapons sellers in the world. Maybe they only gun for gold and a silver bullet isn’t good enough. The history has got us this far, it’s time to take a step back and reshape it.
The four of us heading to the match, Callum, Matt, Liam and I got along to Wembley. Bundled into our seats we saw the inept performance of one set of players out inept the other. Scotland were trounced 3-0. We had travailed across Europe, indicted ourselves at international borders and shelled out hundreds of pounds and euros for 90 minutes of mediocre pish. Solace was scant knowing we would not have to worry about spending any more getting ourselves over to Russia for a world cup in two years time. The ship had sailed on another campaign.
We hitched a ride from the back of Wembley on a supporters bus that was heading through the night to Edinburgh. I speculated to myself on what direction people on this island can take in solidarity with other movements and groups around the world in the next few years. There are things that need to change here and there are things that, if left to their own devices, will never change here. A sound system no one knew how to turn off blared into the night. I began to drift off as my final moments and final thoughts on this adventure around Europe became permeated by the sounds of Tom Jones, Rolling Stones and the gastro flatulence of a man called Barry from Glenrothes. Through these shared sounds of the British Isle, I knew then that we’ll still be a family of nations, long after the Union is finished.