Who do you say you are? The politics of national identity

Published: 26 August 2020
Author: David McCrone

David McCrone analyses the politics of national identity in Scotland comparing it to England's sense of national identity for his chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics. 

It would seem a truism that Scottish politics is increasingly defined by ‘national identity’. After all, the rise of the Scottish National Party, and increasing support for Independence, would appear to reflect the importance of national identity; just as the Conservative party in Scotland has latched on to ‘being British’ as support for Unionism, and Leave in the Brexit referendum of 2016.

Indeed, we might be tempted to juxtapose ‘identity politics’ and ‘material politics’, as if they are quite separate ways of doing politics. We would be mistaken. These are intimately dovetailed one with the other. If anything, ‘identity politics’ is the prism through which we make judgements about who is ‘one of us’, and hence has the right to material resources. Furthermore, it is often claimed that social and political values in Scotland and England show only marginal differences (Scots being marginally more left-wing and liberal) but insufficiently so to account for major differences in political behaviour and voting habits.

Scotland got a UK government it did not vote for more than three-quarters of the period between 1945 and 2019, but England, very rarely (between 1964-66, and 1974-79). It might seem ‘obvious’ that electors in Scotland have become far more ‘Scottish’ and less ‘British’ since 1945, and that this has accounted for growing political divergence between Scotland and England. Similarly, we find the argument that, at last, England has caught up with Scotland in fore fronting national identity, in voting for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, asserting that ‘being English’ was the major determinant of voting Leave.

But all is not what it seems. True, saying you were ‘English’ was a key factor in the Leave vote, just as ‘being British’ in England was not. However, ‘being Scottish’ did not have a similar effect in voting Remain; rather, there was something of an ‘identity alliance’ between Scottish and British national identities north of the border. The point is that we cannot simply read off how people behave politically from how they construe their national identity; crucially, it depends on what Fox and Miller-Idriss called ‘everyday nationhood’.

So what can we say about the politics of national identity?

First of all, national identity is not a fixed label. Identity is not a ‘thing’ which people have or don’t have, or aspire to, and it cannot make them ‘do’ anything. People have an active part in manufacturing who they are; they are active participants, rather than inactive citizens who conform to what the state asks of them. National identity is a flexible means of understanding which they are able to manipulate and mobilise as needs arise. It is best thought of as a flexible frame of understanding depending on context.

Second, it is often assumed that the politics of ‘emotions’ outweigh those of ‘reason and interests’. The most obvious riposte to this is to say there is no simple distinction; ‘identity’ politics often provide a frame for making sense of social and material inequalities. It is something of a false distinction as all involve the operations of power. Think of national identity as a prism through which people make sense of the material world around them.

Third, we cannot simply read off from national identity how people will behave and think politically, or, indeed, vice versa. For example, in Scotland, there has been no simple shift from British to Scottish in terms of national identity. True, most people, if forced to choose, will say they are Scottish rather than British, or more Scottish than British, but given the freedom to choose, they will say they are strongly Scottish, but a significant number that they are also strongly British.

Neither can we assume that we can read off people’s politics from their national identity. True, those voting YES in the 2014 Independence referendum were significantly more likely to say they were Scottish, but being ‘strongly Scottish’ did not, in turn, determine how they voted.

What has happened over the last thirty years is that there is now a closer alignment such that a higher proportion of self-defining ‘Scots’ are now in favour of Independence. In 1997 about half of those who saw themselves as Scottish not British were in favour of Independence; by 2016, three-quarters of them were. There is an English parallel; in England, the shift from ‘British’ to ‘English’ is marginal, but among those who do say they are English a much higher proportion favour an English-only parliament.

But the key point remains: there is no simple alignment between national identity, party support, and constitutional preference either in England or in Scotland. It seems that the Leave campaign (‘Take Back Control’) caught the mood of ‘being English’, while in Scotland ‘being Scottish’ had, if anything, the opposite effect, reinforcing Remain. This is a good example of the ways national identity operates differently in the politics of Scotland and England.

The important point to make is that there is no singular and accepted meaning to ‘Scottish national identity’. It is always a melange of markers and icons. Many of these markers have waned and waxed. For example, being Protestant is a far less important marker in a secular and pluralistic Scotland than it was a century ago.

History also matters in that a territorial sense of ‘being Scottish’ is faute de mieux. Claims that national identity in Scotland is based on ‘civic’ rather than ‘ethnic’ criteria is not a claim for moral superiority so much as fact of historic life. Having a ‘sense of place’ rather than a ‘sense of tribe’ is more important because the realpolitik of Scotland demanded it.

National identity matters; but in much more complex and interesting ways than we are led to believe. Simply put, it frames how we do our politics.

'Nationality and National Identity' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash