Post-Brexit identity for UK cannot be forged by London policy groups
Cultural and national fault lines riddled the constituent nations long before Leave vote
Scotland was always going to push for independence. Nationalists in the North were always going to be watching the clock. Photograph: Andy Rain
Now, less than three months away from the UK’s departure from the European Union, a new report by Policy Exchange has set out a list of things the government should do to keep the UK together after October 31th.
And yes, cricket is there: with a recommendation that certain matches be granted “full legal protection for live coverage” under the 1996 Broadcasting Act. Also there is a recommendation that people should be able to display their local area’s symbol or arms, flag, or similar on their number plate: “for many people, their identity is strongly attached to where they live and where they were brought up. Providing people the opportunity to display their civic pride would be a positive way for people to express local patriotism.”
Hmm. I’m not sure how that’s going to play out in Northern Ireland, although I could hazard a guess. We already have enough trouble here with flags without adding number plates to the mix. And if a union jack is going to be on a number plate, what about the Tricolour?
We have managed to maintain a sense of unity because we rarely ask the electorate of the entire UK to make huge, potentially very divisive decisions
I can just imagine the traffic chaos as drivers with competing and very public displays of identity refuse to give way to each other or demonstrate the simple courtesies-of-the-road which make life so much easier.
Anyway, this document is talking about a “national” UK identity which does nothing to address the identity of those who favour Scottish independence or Irish unity.
It’s a document which would have problems even if the UK remained in the EU; but I really don’t see it working in the context of an “independent” UK, particularly if the departure is accompanied by all the uncertainties and fears – real and imagined – of a potential no-deal.
National identity, that sense of who we are and who we want to be, goes to the very heart of every nation. Every political leader tries to tap into that identity, hoping to find a way of binding people together with a broader, sweeping vision of what it means to be a united people.
But what this document doesn’t do is address the issue of what it means to be British – more specifically, a citizen of the United Kingdom – at a time when almost half of the population, and a majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland, do not support leaving the EU.
Bringing those competing identities under a collective UK identity will probably be impossible
Convincing competing halves of the population that we have more uniting us than dividing us as we prepare to leave the EU was always going to be a hard task and it strikes me that elements of this report actually make that task harder.
I’m not convinced – and it’s a view which predates the Brexit referendum – that there is such a thing as a specific UK identity. That’s why we rely on stereotypes and fuzzy imagery.
That’s why we have national teams rather than a UK team. That’s why Scottish, Ulster, Welsh and English unionism are not quite the same things. But what we have managed to do is maintain a sense of unity because we rarely ask the electorate of the entire UK to make huge, potentially very divisive decisions. So we haven’t had to look too closely at what, precisely, holds us together.
Brexit changed all that, of course. Had there been a substantial majority underpinning the decision (as there was when the UK voted Remain in June 1975 by almost 70 per cent and a majority in all four countries), we wouldn’t have the present chaos.
Ironically, it was the clash of competing identities in all four countries which ensured the majority was so slim this time; so bringing those competing identities under a collective UK identity will probably be impossible.
It is, by the way, too easy to blame Brexit for where we are now. This moment was always coming. The Conservative Party was always going to have an epic division on the EU issue. Scotland was always going to continue the push for independence. Nationalists in NI were always going to be watching the clock and monitoring demographic shifts and election patterns.
Is it possible to construct a cohesive, coherent UK identity? Or, putting that another way, is it possible to create a version of the UK which Remainers can buy into and reconcile them to both post-EU membership and retaining the UK in its present constitutional form? Possibly.
But not by pretending that we can suddenly invent a new identity to suit new circumstances. And nor can it be done by Londoncentric policy groups and political leaders believing that they understand and can manipulate the slightly different identities of those living in Scotland and Wales.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party