I miss being British. I was brought up British, not English. We in my family never really described ourselves as English. Although I was born in Lancashire I never felt particularly Lancastrian either. My family’s from all over so I didn’t grow up with the local traditions and dialect that I’m envious of in others.
I grew up believing that to be British meant to identify with and belong to the British Isles. I was brought up near Liverpool, with its large Irish community, and not far from the Welsh border. The place I grew up couldn’t have felt more different from Anglo-Saxon middle and southern England. My part of the world had influences from all over the UK, hence we were “British”.
But outside of England, I now know being “British” means something quite different. Almost everyone I know in Scotland sees the term “British” as suggesting a recognition and identification with the political construct of the British State. Since moving out of England I’ve also realised that many English people, my own brother included, have an infuriating tendency to use the terms British and English interchangeably. This will not be news to my Scottish friends, but discussing this just now with my southern English husband has brought us close to falling out!
The conflation of these two concepts of Britishness and Englishness, which has become de rigeur among most UK politicians, has the effect of trampling over the rich diversity of these islands. We were told yesterday by Theresa May, channelling Margaret Thatcher, that we are “four nations, but one people”, but that’s simply not true. We are four nations and many more groups of people. Within England, regions like Cornwall and Yorkshire increasingly recognise their distinctiveness, and in Scotland we have huge variations between the cultural and linguistic heritage of different parts of the country.
Instead of celebrating this diversity, the British establishment increasingly seeks to suppress it. The largest group – the English – has fully adopted the label “British” and anyone from elsewhere in the UK who doesn’t identify with this anglicised view of Britishness is labelled a “nationalist”. I find this deeply depressing and as a result I’ve resolved to call myself “English”, although truth be told I still don’t feel it.
I want to see all the nations of these islands working together as equals. Even with all our differences, we do collectively have a different psyche from many of our European neighbours. Lots of people feel the same way, and many of them believe this means that the 300 year old political union (with its 100 year old addition) must continue in its current form or close to it. I disagree.
Sometimes a thing has to be dismantled in order to be repaired. I want to reclaim my British identity, but first the concept has to be separated from the stranglehold of the British State. Left to its own devices the British establishment will never move out of its comfort zone so we have to make it change. Each nation of these islands must regain its sovereignty. Borders must be redefined where they naturally fall, and the locations of those natural borders are becoming clearer by the day.
Once that has happened, we can then build a new relationship between the peoples of these islands. And those of us who wish to be can be unapologetically British again.
Sylvina Tilbury is on Twitter at @caorach and blogs at Notes from a New Scot