Cameron's national identity dilemma in Scotland

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 17 February 2012 in Diary
Matthew Rhodes of British Future explores what impact the future of the union will have on the concept of national identity

David Cameron’s speech in Scotland yesterday about the future of the United Kingdom was notable for its emphasis on issues of personal and national identity as much as economic and political pragmatism. 

Speaking in plain view of Edinburgh castle as he laid out his case why the sun should not yet set on the arrangements made between Scotland and England in 1707, the prime minister said the future of the United Kingdom is “a question of the heart as well as the head”.

He went on: “The United Kingdom isn’t just some sort of deal, to be reduced to the lowest common denominator.  It’s a precious thing. It’s about our history, our values, our shared identity and our joint place in the world.  I am not just proud of the Union because it is useful.  I’m proud because it shapes and strengthens us all.”

Perhaps these issues of the heart will ultimately decide the referendum itself?  As the prime minister noted, “together” we have many benefits which once separate we may no longer have – a seat on the UN Security Council and being the seventh largest economy in the world to name but two. 

However, I wonder whether these things will ultimately be at the forefront of Scottish minds when the long mooted referendum finally takes place?

Of course, it is difficult terrain for any British prime minister to navigate – making the case for the Union in Edinburgh, with charismatic Alex Salmond’s SNP in government and the difficult tightrope for Cameron, of wanting to fight for something he believes in, but without coming across as bossy, disconnected and worst of all in Scotland, a “high Tory” English prime minister. 

Indeed some have cheekily suggested that if David Cameron wants to guarantee a “No” vote he should come out and back the “Yes” campaign!

At the centre of the emotional side of the debate is the fact that when it comes to identity, most human beings are not, as Amartya Sen has argued, “singularly affiliated”. 

David Cameron pointed out, like many Britons, he has a heritage that takes in more than one country in the Union: ''I've got Cameron blood, and I've got Llewellyn blood. I was born and brought up in England, I'm proud to be English but also proud to be British and I think many people in the UK absolutely feel that you can have all of these identities together, and that is the strength of the UK... [a] United Kingdom which is not monoglot, monochrome and minimalist but multi-national, multi-cultural and modern in every way.”

A recent poll conducted for British Future found that most Scots seem to have no problem with holding “multiple” identities. 

The findings showed that 82% feel they strongly belong to Scotland, while 60% feel strongly British (the same poll indicated that only 29% support Scottish independence). 

Personally, I have no problem in holding and acknowledging multiple identities – I am, from Leeds, a Yorkshireman, a Londoner, an Englishman, British, and occasionally I feel like a European – all these identities are held jointly and severally. 

Depending on place, time and circumstances I may feel more, or less, attachment to any of these constituent parts of my overall identity – but the basic point is that life is complex, and the different strands which make me the person I am, are actually enriching and do not compete with, but in fact complement one another.

The fact that the prime minister today framed the Unionist argument in the way he did, by emphasising both the emotional as well as the practical benefits of the United Kingdom, is perhaps an early indication of the way the debate will head.

The people of Scotland will certainly have plenty of opportunities to think about and debate their personal and national identities in the coming months and years.  It strikes me that the people of England will too – but that’s another story...

Matthew Rhodes is strategy director at British Future, a new think tank focusing on issues of identity and integration, migration and opportunity.

Tags: Alex Salmond, British Future, David Cameron, Scottish independence, The Union

Share this page

Add new comment

More from Total Politics