2007 - 2021

Be Who You Are


We are awash with conversations about our national identity right now in Scotland. What does it mean, after all, to be Scottish at this seminal time in our history? A few friends who are voting No in the upcoming referendum talk about their sense of being British as a reason for their vote. I find this confusing. As a Yes voter, I identify with being British too – and not only because of my passport. Our history is where we’ve come from, the cultural material from which we’re made, so it’s no wonder. As eminent historian Tom Devine said last week, “It is the Scots who have succeeded most in preserving the British idea of fairness and compassion …. Ironically, it is England … which has embarked on a separate journey” It is this sense of Britishness with which I identify (and about which I write in my series of murder mysteries) but there is no doubt that I’m Scottish too. ‘Don’t you find that duality confusing?’ someone asked recently as if I was wearing a summer dress with a winter jacket – two things that shouldn’t go together – as if I ought to jettison one of them. ‘No. I wish that I had only two identities,’ I replied. ‘It’s far more complicated than that.’

When I think about it, I’ve always found my cultural roots confusing. I was born in Edinburgh of a Scottish/Russian/Jewish mother and an English/Irish/Catholic father – there is no form of guilt to which I was not subjected in my childhood. Members of my immediate family live all over the world in a diaspora of cousins, aunts, uncles and more in a dizzying mix. My family spans many world religions, ethnicities and nationalities.

The truth is that I don’t have one identity or even two, or for that matter three. And none of my identities dictate directly how I ought to vote. I’m Scottish, British, European, Humanist, Atheist and in part at least, culturally Jewish. To add more confusion to this mixture last year I took a DNA test as part of the Scotland’s DNA project. After a long wait, it turned out that the mitochondrial DNA of which I’m made is ‘vanishingly rare’. So rare, in fact, that so far they’ve only found 3 other people who share it in the whole country. I spring from a female line that developed 17000 years ago in the area around Japan’s most northerly island and on the mainland just opposite. The stuff I’m made of at base is Japanese, Siberian and Mongolian with all the rest of it added on top.

With my DNA results arriving like a love letter from a long lost many-times great grandmother, you can imagine how much it bemuses me when I hear people are concerned about distance from their families down south, in the event of a Yes vote. It’s only a few miles (the number of miles won’t change) and when it comes down to it, the ties that bind run through generations and cross all borders. None of us are only one thing.  Not in today’s world. There’s nothing that will hinder us loving across boundaries or make the journey to visit our loved ones impossible. At the base of it, family ties endure always – you carry them with you across time. That’s epic! With a yes vote we’ll be dissolving a political union – a decision about our government microscopically less long-lived than our genes or for that matter, many of our other ties.

My discovery about my DNA has taught me a whole load more than that, though. It made me realize how much I project my identity – how tempting it is to add  ‘glamour’ to ourselves (in the old sense of the word, which is ‘magic’) by telling stories about where we came from. The truth is that I had envisaged Jewish ancestors who had survived slavery in Egypt, not on the Steppes and that vision created many self-stories about, for example, why I take a tan well and am not fond of pork belly. Side by side with that, I identify just as much with the part of me that is Scottish. My near obsession with vintage cashmere and seafood, all add to the sum of where I’ve come from. Perhaps, because I’m a novelist, it’s not surprising that I told myself stories but those stories were important to me and when the DNA test came through it took months to shift my perspective on them. The reality is that the way I did so is by telling myself a different set of stories from the ones I started out with. The experience has made me realize that not only do I write fiction but I am fiction too. We all are.

It’s impossible to say exactly what ‘Scottish’ or ‘British’ is in this context. Identity is so random. After all, my DNA arrived in Europe due to an ancient slave route that runs along what is now the southern border of Russia. If my particular ancestor (all I know about her is that she was a woman) had succumbed to injury or illness, if she had, for whatever reason, not had sex (or been forced to have sex) on a particular day (or night) I wouldn’t be here. There are generations of happy and unhappy accidents that lead up to each of us. My husband (a tall, broad, white bloke from Greenock) recently had his DNA tested too and discovered that way back the stuff he is made of came from what is present day Pakistan. Neither of us would be where we are, here in Edinburgh, if these random ancestors of ours hadn’t taken decisions that would be impossible to second guess. Each one of them chose a path that made sense to them at the time and here we are, at a not dissimilar crossroads that will affect our kids and grandkids – the generations that continue.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the experience of having my personal identity shaken up, it’s that you can’t rely on what went before. You are made of history but you have to go forwards. And when you do so, you bring everything that’s gone before with you. I hope we are about to claim that – to make a little history of our own. To bequeath our children a better Scotland and thereby a better world. In the face of that, discussions about being Scottish or British or ancient Japanese (in my case) aren’t important – we have to focus on our destination, not where we’ve come from because the stuff of life is where you’re going and the only thing that’s inevitable is that movement. No empire or indeed, union, endures without change. In the scale of things the decision we are making is small – our Referendum is only about political administration – but for us, living through it, it will have a huge (and I hope) positive impact.

At this moment of great history, what I always come back to is that I’m a woman born and living in Scotland and sometime some hundreds or even thousands of years ago my many times great grandmother travelled west from a Japanese/Siberian/Mongolian village, carving a path for her many times great granddaughter towards Edinburgh. And I feel free – a lot freer than she did because it is most likely she was enslaved.

To have responsibility for yourself, in the end, is a huge privilege and we each have that – we are free to make our own decision. I am very aware that where my identity goes from 18th September is up to me, and I’m proud to be voting Yes. And when I do so I’ll be bringing my entire identity with me – British, Scottish, Japanese and all – into a new and I hope better Scotland.

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  1. Andrew Skea says:

    For me, this Vote has absolutely nothing to do with Identity. For me Identity belongs to culture and sport, it has very little relevance in Politics.

    For me this Vote is about our maturity as a people – are we mature and confident enough to share sovereignty with our neighbour. Do we trust that the people of rUK have the same concerns and interests as us, and that it benefits us all that we work together; or do we not really have the maturity to trust them – are they different in some way.

    Scots have had the maturity to share sovereignty with rUK for over 300 years. We shared sovereignty with our neighbours 250 years before the EU was thought of. Ideally the EU will bring the people of Europe together in the same way that the Union has brought the people of the UK together – but the EU has a long way to go – as the EU evolves the UK may become less relevant to the lives of Scots.

    There are certain elements of the UK shared sovereignty that are very important to Scots and to the contribution we can make in the world – specifically Currency, Shared Defence and Shared Foreign Policy. If the people of the UK are unable to agree shared sovereignty of these things, what hope is there for agreement between peoples who have much less in common.

    1. Douglas says:

      Andrew, the question most of us are asking ourselves today in terms of shared sovereignty is, in the event of a YES vote, will the UK have the maturity, to use your term, to enter into a currency union with Scotland? And what is your view on that as somebody posting for a NO vote? Surely as somebody who believes in shared sovereignty, even if the result is not the one of your choosing, the sensible thing would be to do a deal and be very up front and honest about that?

      In terms of the larger issue, you never seem to mention the fundamental word in this debate: governance. And that Scotland is a complex, variegated and by no means as small a country as they keep telling us. And it is a country which, in far too many issues, is run from London and we don’t have the levers to control policy that we require and we end up being MISGOVERNED..

      And maybe that Devo-Max might have been enough in that regard for many, but David Cameron didn’t want it on the ballot paper. And why not, you ask yourself? If we are in this blissful loved up relationship, why did Cameron not agree to a devo max third question?

      By the way, this notion that we pooled sovereignty 1707 in some kind of mature or grown up way is a fantastical reinterpretation of the facts. Ever heard of the Alien Act? Google it and see. The Union was a deal done on the back of necessity: England was worried about an indie Scotland possibly siding with France under a restored Stewart king; and the Scottish merchant class wanted access to English trade markets.

      And, you have to remember too, the role of the State in the lives of people in 1707 wasn’t a fraction of what it is today. There was barely any public administration at all. The parish church acted as a kind of welfare provider/poor relief and the role of the State in the lives of people was marginal – for better and for worse The power of the State has increased massively since 1707, and then, remember too the demographic element: there used to be about 4 or 5 English people for every 1 Scottish person, whereas now it is of the order of 10/1. So it doesn’t matter what we vote in any UK election.

      As Tom Devine said the other day, there are just too many issues which have come to a head at the same time, and that Scottish independence is an idea whose moment has arrived… .

      1. Andrew Skea says:

        CU with rUK, where Westminster would effectively run our currency, and have the power of veto over our budget would give us no, or virtually no democratic control of our currency. This is therefore not Shared Sovereignty. Shared sovereignty is where we elect MPs to a parliament where the parliament runs the currency. Shared sovereignty does not involve intergovernmental agreement behind closed doors where big players call the shots.

        You seem to conveniently forget that Alex Salmond never asked for a third option on the ballet paper – so how could David Cameron have rejected it if it was never asked for.
        If Devo Max is what we want why did the SNP not arrange a DevoMax refereendum?

        The Union has certainly evolved since 1707, and it will evolve further if we vote for ‘status quo’. Surely democracy is about one person one vote – so why should a Scottish vote carry more weight that a Yorkshire vote or a Cornwall vote. As i say in my original post – you guys are not mature enough to accept shared sovereignty with English people because somehow you think we are different / superior. You try to convince us that we are inferior in the current set-up – too wee, too stupid to quote Pete Wishart. In reality we have always played a big part in the running of the UK and our ethos is firmly stamped in what the UK stands for.

      2. Douglas says:

        Andrew, to frame the debate in terms of “maturity” is not very productive. Do you think notable achievers in their field like Sir Tom Devine or Noble prize winners like Joe Stiglitz or winners of the Cannes Palm d’Or like Ken Loach are “immature”? Could it not be that you are not seeing something the rest of us are seeing?

        You could be in favour of the Union and put forward a case for it, but that would mean you would have to address the issues at stake and you, like Alisdair Darling – one of a long line of Edinburgh lawyers with a second home in the depopulated Highlands – refuse to do that.

        Instead we get Darling running about like Mother Hen, “Cluck cluck, cluck! But you can’t, you can’t can’t, you can’t…!!!! Cluck, cluck cluck!!!!”. A scene both ridiculous and undignified.

        As for the third question, that was the way to save the Union, it’s what all the polls said most Scots wanted. Cameron will go down in history as the man who gambled and lost. Salmond and the SNP have always been consistent about wanting to undo the Union. Why would they have fought for a third question?

        It fell to the defenders of the Union to come up with a devo max question on the ballot paper. And the reason they didn’t do that was probably because they thought, like you do, that the whole issue at stake – Scottish democracy and governance – was “too immature” to think about and give due consideration to.

        Emil Cioran: “confidence is a source of error…”

    2. Clootie says:

      …or mature enough to exercise our right to develop different choices.

    3. rabthecab says:

      So a wish for Independence, by your reckoning, is immature? This is *nothing* to do with feeling “different/superior” to anyone, it’s about who is best-placed to take decisions that affect the people of Scotland – a Westminster elite elected by a few swing seats in the south of England, or a directly-elected Scottish Government based in Holyrood?

  2. Optimistic Till I Die says:

    My background is nowhere near as complex as the author’s (at least so far as I am aware, but who knows) but I would certainly think that identifying oneself as British and presenting that as a the reason for voting No is somewhat silly. If that is the only basis for their judgement is it clearly based on sloppy thinking (and a lot of exposure to a British identify (not to be confused with English/British as understood by many outside the UK who equate the two)).

    I doubt such individuals are open to persuasion unless their reasoning has been somewhat more complicated. If they cannot offer more complex reasoning related to the principles underpinning the Yes campaign I would suggest, whatever they say, they are simply anxious about the future/future change.

    If so, they have cause for concern. Recent reports and a survey of English voters indicate we are going to see a lot more change in future whether or not Yes wins. There appears to be a backlash building in the loonier wings of English Nationalism and support from the ordinary person in the street. The latter are just as misinformed about the complex economics underpinning the union as most individuals in Scotland were until recently. Even now, if Scots voters only look at the Better Together websites (what a sorry lot – the web sites, that is – when compared to Indy blogs, articles, etc) they will have their anxiety boosted without a shadow of a doubt.

    I looked at the Better Together site today (on the basis of know your enemy) and was appalled at how shallow the content was (though I suppose it is typical of sites intended for the average voter). There were few links to anything of note and one list of experts included a 17 year old girl. Now, I know there are some experts around, even at that age. Liam Finn, for example wrote ‘Sacking the Monarch’ at that age and knows a thing or two about Republicanism. The person listed in the section entitled Experts say No Thanks, however, was Orla MacNeil, a shipbuilding apprentice. Regardless of how good she is at her job, I doubt if she is an expert on shipbulding or any other subject. However, if you intend to appeal to those unprepared to think deeply about issues, I suppose she is as good a source of knowledge as any. Get your friends to read as widely as you apparently have, it could reassure them.

  3. tartanfever says:

    Sorry, but this is the first article on Bella I’ve actually stopped half way through.

    ‘It made me realize how much I project my identity’ – yeah and you aren’t half telling us about it !

    I feel like I’m watching an episode of ‘Who do you think you are ?’

  4. Andrew, I thought shared defence policy is one of the things we want rid of. Westminster wants Trident. Scotland doesn’t. How can we share those opposing views? I would also hope we will be developing our own foreign policy as a peace loving nation and not busy sticking our noses in everybody else’s business.

  5. But we aren’t agreeing! Not by a long shot. Our values are different – or at least the values of many people (the majority even, perhaps) do not chime with the values of our government. There will be a great deal for us to agree on after the Referendum, I hope, but right now, the real test of our tolerance is to accept our differences, legislate for them, assure better governance than we’re getting and then be good neighbours.

  6. As someone sitting on the sidelines in lil’ ole Wales, to vote Yes is quite simply to vote for greater democracy for Scotland. Simple as that, and why you should vote Yes. All the rest (including currency) is a huge distraction, details that will need to be worked out later. PS: I am still able to use Scottish pounds in Wales!

  7. Dan Huil says:

    I’ll be voting Yes because living in hope is preferable to living in fear.

  8. big jock says:

    Then there are people like me of Irish ancestry and Scottish naturalisation who don’t feel British at all.Britishness in Scotland has always been tied to unionism and protestantism. Therefore I rejected or never felt British from a young age.I will not shed a tear when the Union Jack is removed from our capitals castle.Nor will I miss our young lives dying under a Butchers apron in Iraq and other imperial wars.To say there is no identity attached to independence is denial.Nationhood starts when a collection of people agree that they are something together that another group are not.Its not a narrow identity as it takes in people like me and Poles and Asians etc.But nationhood has to be about culture and identity otherwise it is simply a business transaction based on economics.We are Scottish and we want to let the world know that we are not the same as the English and Britishness is not a nationality nor a culture.Therefore I reject Britishness when I vote yes and want the more friendly and welcoming culture of Scotland to replace old empire bullshit of enforced identity.Of course you don’t have to be Scottish to vote yes.But when you tick Yes in the box you are agreeing Scotland is a nation separate from British and English identity.

  9. gonzalo1 says:

    I wouldn’t tie unionism and protestantism together as there are many in the independence movement who are protestants. Anglicanism, many would argue, is what defines unionism, not presbyterianism. The monarchy and the UK establishment is tied to the Anglican church and that church almost doesn’t exist in Scotland.

  10. big jock says:

    Of course there are protestants who are yes supporters that wasn’t my point.My point was that in Scotland the union flag to me is deeply associated with The Orange Order/Rangers and Queen and country.That element in our society are your hardcore unionists.There are of course unionists who are Catholics in the labour party but they are not union jack waiving Brits they are soft unionists for different or misguided reasons.Its just the way Britishness has been used in Scotland that makes me reject it.The slaughter after Culloden by butcher Cumberland,Orange marches,the Scottish Tories,Wars in Iraq,colonial wars in Asia,genocide in Ireland by the black and tans,the thin red line of cannon fodder clutching that flag,Rangers nutters running amock in Europe and Manchester.To me Britishness only exists in Scotland by those determined to keep Scotland in its place.Its not like being Scandinavian.That describes a collection of Nordic countries not a fallen empire.Hence no Irishman would ever still call himself British as its the past and not a proud past.Scotland will not hold onto Britishness after independence.It will disapear like snow off a dyke.

  11. yerkitbreeks says:

    For me it’s quite simple. In an analogous way to being Scandinavian, I’m British ‘ cos I inhabit a little bittie of the British Isles. Within the British Isles there are distinct Nations and I happen to belong to one of them. Sadly my ancestry may not be as interesting as yours, Sara, although after reading your piece I will consider a genetic assessment.

    This Referendum is about social justice, but to get there, there two other issues ( if you accept the first, the Scottish/British thing is a cultural one ) which Westminster will produce as hurdles and must be dealt with.

    One is The Union of 1707. This was a fudge, hence the fact we are singular in not having a written constitution. Westminster’s legal opinion from Crawford and Boyle asserts that Scotland was “extinguished” at that time. Now this is a surprise, and perhaps a shock to many Scots who don’t see it that way, but it has huge implications, if accepted, since what automatically follows is that rUK is the “continuator” State and calls all the shots regarding big things like the approach to Europe, NATO etc.

    The third issue is that of the United Kingdom, which to me is an institutional collective with lots of good things like the NHS(s), regulatory bodies and so forth. You rightly state that it was Tom Devine who highlighted the fact that England started to veer away from these bits of social capital, typically surreptitiously privatising the English NHS, flogging off the National Grid and so forth.

    So if we concentrate on not being extinguished, assert we’re British ( unless for some reason an iScotland floats away into the Atlantic ) and fight to keep our social capital, that’s who we are.

  12. Brian Fleming says:

    Thank heaven for Big Jock. A voice of sanity. I was brought up in the Church of Scotland by a protestant father who detested Orangeism. But I agree with Jock’s general drift. My younger daughter, born and raised in Finland, has adorned her Facebook page with the words “Scottish NOT British”. That says it all for me.

  13. Letter in the Guardian today:

    “Discussing the referendum earlier this week, Sir Tom Hunter said, “whatever the people decide we’ll just get on with it” (Report, 20 August). And the “we” Scotland’s first billionaire is referring to is really the few who own the country. “That’s democracy”, he concedes, generously. In fact it is the opposite, but he neatly exposes the irrelevance of the referendum and the sham that is democracy within capitalism.”
    Brian Gardner Glasgow Branch Socialist Party of Great Britain

    It is all about class, and at the end of the day that is the only identity that should concern the peoples of the world.

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