Watching Ed Miliband’s interview on Channel 4, I was struck by how politicians unfailingly find themselves in troubled waters when trying to define what they mean by ‘nation’; choppier for us still is the notion of ‘national characteristics’. Official use of the word, in its UK domestic context, has evolved in recent years from largely referring to a sovereign state to trying to keep everyone happy, as in successive governments’ widespread use of the notion of the ‘nations and regions’ of the UK. It’s virtually impossible now to agree a common definition of ‘nation’ at all, let alone lay down national characteristics as Ed, understandably in political terms, tried to do this week. He suggested that the English are ‘stoical’. But is this really a meaningful, defining trait? Many people thought the Japanese people after the Earthquake to be the epitome of stoicism. The Russians, some would say, were pretty stoical in the face of their sacrifice in World War Two. And think of recent tragedies in England – Diana, various football disasters – were people really ‘stoical’ in the aftermath? Would stoicism have been the right response anyway? And in what way could the ‘English’ be deemed more stoical Scots or Welsh? No, the use of stoicism in this context leads us inevitably back to plucky Brits holding off Hitler at the Battle of Britain. And that really isn’t the right place to locate a debate about what lies ahead for all of us in the UK, is it? 30% of Londoners aren’t British; many British people have no link whatever to our ‘stoical’, or otherwise, imperial past. And what the hell’s ‘British’ anyway? We’re the United Kingdom, right? What’s ‘Team GB’ all about, when it’s obviously Team UK?
Scotland’s become a difficult issue for Ed, and for David Cameron too. It’s true that discussions about characteristics here do not turn around notions of culture and race as they would elsewhere. But Alex Salmond is a very capable general and he has some quietly competent junior officers. For the SNP, you’re Scottish if you live here. UK politicians need to be careful to apply the same quality of thinking to the referendum as they would to any other serious policy issue. For example, Ed has this week chosen to stress that if Scots voted for Independence they couldn’t also remain British. Well, I rather doubt that would be in any politician’s gift – the prevailing meaning of the term, such as it made any sense at all, would likely evolve with use just as it is doing now. But what of yer actual, legal status? I don’t know what UK government policy would be should Scotland vote for Independence, but I really rather doubt it would involve stripping everyone living in Scotland of their UK passports. In other words, it’s highly likely that people could if they wished be LEGALLY British and Scottish (just as they can be British/Australian, British Pakistani, British/pretty much anything you like unless it’s Congolese). The SNP are keeping quiet about that and I understand why – it serves their interests, but only if they don’t shove it in everyone’s faces.
A final thought – the super parliamentary band MP4 serenaded the Queen as she passed the Houses of Parliament’s Terraces on her wee boat at the weekend. Hurrah. Fair enough, she was probably too stoically freezing to hear. But who is the star of MP4? Step forward Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth. They’re frog-boiling, all right.