“To the memory of the British empire in India,
Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:
‘Civis Britannicus sum’
Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.”
Made, shaped and quickened all that was good and living within them! What self-respecting Indian, then or now, could live with that idea? Of the hundreds of thousands of words Chaudhuri published subsequently, none were so infamous as that dedication. Infamy, it turned out, wasn’t good for him. Craving more of it, he became a contrarian – a mischief-maker, as he liked to think of himself – always tilting against the conventional wisdom on any subject, from Gandhi to the Suez crisis. His love of Britain sometimes seemed one of the few unconfected aspects of his persona, and though it came with its share of wilful mannerisms and maxims (such as his belief that British food could only be truly enjoyed if the eater wore British clothes), his appreciation of the country’s history, literature and landscape was profound. The knowledge had been won from books: he first visited Britain in 1955, when he was 57, and didn’t settle here until 1970, when he and his wife moved from Delhi to a rented flat in Oxford, where he lived until his death, aged 101, in 1999.
This boastful, birdlike little man, dressed in his dhoti and surrounded by books in his Oxford flat, was an unlikely figure to recall in the middle of the second televised debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling on Scottish independence. Nevertheless I thought of him. Something was missing that he would have supplied: Civis Britannicus sum. Darling, defending the union, never once mentioned the British identity that it had created and promoted, nor the many cultural, social, scientific and technical achievements of its 300-year-history. Perhaps television debates are no place for this kind of soft-edged retrospection; perhaps the Scottish National party had already defused the prospect of that history’s end, by promising that the “social union” – between peoples rather than states – would persist undamaged whatever governments did; perhaps focus groups had given Britishness the thumbs down, as an idea that long ago lost traction in Scotland.
Whatever the reason, Scottishness is the identity that speakers on the no side have been most anxious to declare. “Nobody could love Scotland more than I do” has been a constant sentiment. In the first of the two Darling-Salmond debates, the first minister faux-innocently wondered why his opponent was proclaiming his loyalty to Scotland when he, Salmond, had never challenged it. Darling never took up the point, though the reason is clear enough. Facing opponents who literally wrap themselves in the Scottish flag, unionists feel they need to prove that to be against independence is not to be anti-national – in the argot of the blogs, a self-hating Scotsman, a quisling, an Uncle Tom. Both sides, therefore, turn to Scotland as the place that, in Chaudhuri’s construction, has “made, shaped and quickened” them. Civis Scotis sum.
* * *
I don’t know if it applies to me. I suspect many people must love Scotland more than I do, as an entity and as a destiny. I don’t want to compete with them. My friend and former colleague Neal Ascherson wrote eloquently in a recent issue of Prospect about his decision to vote yes, and in his essay evoked a memorable image, worthy of Pixar. “Put it like this,” he wrote:
“In every Scottish brain, there has been a tiny blue-and-white cell which secretes an awareness: ‘My country was independent once.’ And every so often, the cell has transmitted a minute, almost imperceptible pulse: ‘Would it not be grand, if one day … ’ But this stimulated other larger, higher-voltage cells around it to emit suppressor charges: ‘Are you daft? Get real; we’re too wee, too poor, that shite’s for Wembley or the movies.’ One way of describing what’s happening now is to say that the reaction of these inhibitor cells has grown weak and erratic. Whereas the other pulse, the blue-white one, is transmitting louder, faster, more insistently. This is why the real referendum question is no longer: ‘Can we become independent?’ It is: ‘Yes, we know that we can – but do we want to?’”
As I drove one evening last month on a road that follows the River Tweed, which for some of its length marks the English-Scottish border, I wondered why I had never felt the pulse of this blue-and-white cell. And I wondered why Neal, who has spent as much of his life in England as I have, if not more, always seems to have felt it murmuring away like an old song, though the institutions that shaped and opened up his life – schools, universities, regiments, publishers, broadcasters, employers – were at the very least British, when not downright English, in their atmospheres and influences. But none of us is a rational actor in these things, untainted by our upbringing.
In his essay, Neal remembers how he often heard the patriotic verse from Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel ringing round the kitchen in his mother’s cut-glass English:
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said
This is my own, my native l and!”
Driving towards Scott country, I recalled my father’s way with the same lines:
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said
When his toe has kicked the bottom o’ the bed
OH YA BUGGER!”
He recited this version, sensationally, at his brother-in-law’s silver wedding party, which filled a room that was somehow part of Dunfermline’s Regal Cinema. I guess he must have had one or two bottles of beer – he was never a big drinker – and decided to let fly. My mother spent most of the bus journey home wondering what had “come over” him, to which an honest answer might have been “India Pale Ale”.
That would be in the mid-1950s. We’d been back in Scotland four or five years by then, after what, for my parents, had been a 22-year stay in a Lancashire mill town where my father had found work in 1930. He and my mother were both from Fife and it was to Fife that we returned – gladly, for the most part, though my mechanic father found that the textile machinery he was paid to maintain was antique compared with that left behind in England. His side of the family had been the stranger and more adventurous: my paternal grandmother was born in India to an Irish sergeant in the Royal Artillery and a Scottish midwife, who died respectively of alcohol poisoning and acute melancholy in late Victorian Scotland, when their imperial service was done. “British” is the description that fits them best: warfare, the Protestant faith, industry and the empire – the four elements, according to the historian Linda Colley, from which British identity was forged – secured their advancement, such as it was, and probably led to my great-grandfather discarding his inconvenient Catholicism. Two world wars, the BBC, a reasonably popular monarchy, mining and manufacturing communities that shared trade unions and political aims; by the time I was born, in the closing months of the second world war, British identity had never been stronger or thicker, accreting layer by layer since 1707. Soon after, the National Health Service and the welfare state arrived: the cherry on the crumbling cake, the “fairer Britain” – the postwar settlement, now eroded, that many in Scotland believe independence can secure and preserve, while the rest of the UK privatises and outsources what’s left.
This late summer of British identity lasted roughly from 1948 to 1982, from the launch of the NHS to victory in the Falklands war. Except for that war, and some earlier hoopla about “the new Elizabethan age” that followed the coronation and the first ascent of Everest, patriotism tended to lie low. The Suez debacle and the quick dismantling of an empire made it a problematic emotion, which began to be comically evoked in the 1950s by the Goon Show even before its wholesale demolition by the satirists of the 1960s. In any case, in a family like mine nobody had waved a flag since 1914. British nationalism – British identity, Britishness – had become an unconscious reflex rather than a deliberate political posture. If we’d thought about it, it was what we were in the modern world of nations, though in far-off history and some aspects of our present life – the way we spoke was the most obvious – we knew ourselves to be Scots.
The English, until relatively recently, seem to have imagined “English” and “British” to be interchangeable, as if Britain was just a bigger England. Our dualism gave us a better appreciation of the nation-state we lived in, though if Britain was a “nation” as well as a “state”, where did that leave Scotland? As a region, a sub-nation, a culture, an anachronism? In my childhood, “country” was the favoured solution. Countries could have borders, it seemed, even when they weren’t nation-states. Evidence of ours famously existed in a heraldic sign that the publicity-conscious London & North Eastern Railway erected just north of Berwick in the prewar years of the great Anglo-Scottish expresses; children’s books sometimes showed a train speeding past it, with a calm North Sea stretching blue to the horizon. Otherwise, the border remained invisible. What struck you as a sign of difference was how, travelling south, the grey stone and pebble dash of domestic architecture gave way to unfamiliar red brick when you reached the terraces of Newcastle and Carlisle.
Now, motoring along minor roads in the Tweed valley, even the smallest change is hard to detect. A brown-and-white sign in the most functional sans serif says “Scotland welcomes you”, as if anxious to please. (The sign for the opposite direction simply reads “England”.) On one side, university tuition costs £9,000 a year and on the other side nothing, but how would ripening fields of barley recognise the difference? Handsome but long-abandoned railway viaducts can be glimpsed among the trees – magnificent ruins from Britain’s greatest age, waiting for the modern traveller to remember Ozymandias and the impermanence of all regimes. But we are after other monuments, and drive on west.
* * *
It was early August. In the Borders, there were few signs yet of a campaign that could take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. A large Y-E-S hung in separate letters from a tree on the road from Coldstream to Kelso. There wasn’t a N-O to match it, but Kelso town hall flew both the saltire and the union jack. Then we came to the Tweed’s most beautiful stretch, where the hills and trees seem to have been handcrafted.
Just upstream of Dryburgh Abbey, a reproduction of a classical Greek temple stands at the top of a wooded hillock on the river’s north bank. This is the Temple of the Muses, built in 1817 by the 11th Earl of Buchan as a memorial to the poet James Thomson, who was born, in 1700, a few miles away in the village of Ednam. Few people other than river fishers and dog walkers come here – the guidebooks barely mention the memorial – but then even fewer people read his work, which includes the words to a musical entertainment, Alfred: a Masque, which, in glorifying the life of Alfred the Great (who burned the cakes) also paid tribute to the patriotism of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was paying Thomson a pension of £100 a year. The masque has also been forgotten – except for its hummable, breast-inflating finale, where Thomson’s lyrics were set to a tune by Thomas Arne. At the masque’s premiere, in Prince Frederick’s country retreat, Cliveden House, on 1 August, 1740, an audience heard Rule, Britannia! for the first time.
The union was only 33 years old. The Britons who “never, never, never” would be slaves had already faced one Jacobite rebellion in 1715, and would face another in 1745, both supported by France. “Men and women decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not,” Linda Colley writes in Britons, her history of the making of British identity. Throughout most of the 18th century, they defined themselves as Protestants “struggling for survival against the world’s foremost Catholic power”. Later, when they began to build an empire, they defined themselves against the people they conquered. “Britishness was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact with the Other, and above all in response to conflict with the Other,” Colley writes. It didn’t emerge by “blending” the different regional or older national cultures inside its boundaries: it wasn’t a melting pot, but neither could it be explained as an English hegemony – England imposing its culture and politics on “a helpless and defrauded Celtic periphery”. British culture, in other words, refused to become homogenous – impossible to break into three simple components, English, Scottish and Welsh.
In Colley’s words, Great Britain in 1707 was “much less a trinity of three self-contained and self-conscious nations than a patchwork in which uncertain areas of Welshness, Scottishness and Englishness were cut across by strong regional attachments, and scored over again by loyalties to village, town, family and landscape.” Apart from Francophobia, what bound them together was what Colley calls “the substantial profits of being British”. All kinds of interest groups – traders, manufacturers, plantation managers, ship owners – came to see the new nation as “a focus of loyalty which would also cater to their own needs and ambitions … from patriotism, men and women were able to anticipate profits of some kind.” It would be a mistake, however, to conceive the strength of the union purely in terms of fear and greed. Almost from the beginning it produced social and intellectual fusions of all kinds: from the partnership between the steam technologists James Watt and Matthew Boulton, which changed the course of industrial history, to Reith’s invention of the BBC. In decades past, when the idea of a golden age mattered more to political nationalisms as a period to inspire and emulate, campaigners for Scottish independence found it awkward to admit that Scotland had made its biggest impact on the world in the years between 1750 and 1900. It had been a largely unionist achievement.
* * *
By 1992, when Colley published Britons, much of this achievement either lay in ruins, like the shipyards of the lower Clyde, or had vanished entirely, like car-making and linen-weaving. The decline had been slow and probably inevitable, but a little burst of hostile Thatcherism hurried things along at the end. Colley, therefore, did more than examine the origins of British identity. She also questioned, given the collapse of empire, industry and the Protestant faith, how long such an identity could survive. Other writers had been here before, particularly the Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn, but Colley’s scholarship and clarity gave the question a wider audience. “God has ceased to be British, and Providence no longer smiles,” she wrote, undeniably, though to someone of my generation and background it also seemed that she underestimated the strength of an identity that had taken nearly three centuries to accumulate: Coronation Street as well the British Museum, Penguin Books, free orange juice, the Queen Mary, Big Ben, the Beano as well as the Somme.
Why would this shared history be so easily washed away? In her introduction, Colley directed us away from the notion that nations were characterised by cultural and ethnic homogeneity – of “blood and soil” – and towards Benedict Anderson’s definition of a nation as an “imagined community”: ethnically and culturally diverse, but artificial and problematic. Most nations were in this sense invented, but some, or so she seemed to imply, were more invented than others. Great Britain was “essentially invented”, while Scotland was one of the “much older alignments and loyalties” that lay underneath. The distinction suggested that the identity-seeker needed to tunnel through 300 years of the temporary and ersatz to get to the eternal and true – Neal Ascherson’s tiny blue and white cell. I’ve never been able to do it; to prioritise the 13th and 14th centuries over the 19th and 20th as constituents in my historic sense of selfhood is beyond me.
In any case, Scotland has been no slouch at national invention. The Greek temple to commemorate James Thomson wasn’t the only monument raised by the 11th Earl of Buchan, who was a friend and neighbour of Walter Scott, and as great a romancer in his obsession with ruins, battlements and fancy dress. Three years earlier, in 1814, the earl had erected a colossal statue to William Wallace on a much higher hill than the one allotted to Thomson half-a-mile away. It, too, stands among trees, but the effect is much more dramatic. The visitor walks through a wood noisy with woodpeckers until he reaches the escarpment, and suddenly finds a commanding figure carved from red sandstone staring south towards the English border. Wallace stands more than 21ft tall and has at least another 10ft of plinth under him – with his winged helmet, his beard, his shield and his broadsword he might be a centurion. But there’s something of the gargoyle in his face; something of Neptune, too; and not least a fierce touch of Maurice Sendak. “Wallace,” says the inscription, great patriot hero! Ill requited chief!”
Beyond his victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297, and his execution in London eight years later, little for certain is known about Wallace; the first account of his life, by the minstrel Blind Harry, was composed 170 years after his death. This epic poem has all the reliability of the Gospels, but it ensured that his name persisted. Then, in the first decades of the 19th century, when Scotland was saying farewell to its pre-industrial, pre-union history, Wallace became a devotional cult. This was his first monument. More followed – Scotland has 20, mainly erected in the mid-19th century by a middle class anxious to preserve Scottish difference when it looked as though British identity would wipe it out. The climax of the movement, at least until Mel Gibson’s film, was the opening in 1869 of the National Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig outside Stirling, a massive 220ft tower in the Scots Baronial style, funded, in the words of one critic, by “enthusiasts for Scotch nationality”, who included European nationalists such as Kossuth and Garibaldi. (Or at least they wrote letters of support; their donations came in fact from a Glaswegian well-wisher who saw the publicity value of their names.)
It was a popular triumph. Nowhere else in the world was a national hero celebrated so vastly. Every year thousands of people made the journey to Stirling and climbed the 246 narrow stone steps that wound up past the Hall of Arms, the Hall of Heroes and the chamber that contained Wallace’s sword (or one very like it), until finally they stared breathless from the parapet across the plains of central Scotland, to the foundries and collieries in the smoky east and the mountains outlined on the western horizon: a panoramic summary of Scottish beauty and industry. Of course, there was a paradox. Here was a magnificent tribute to the national hero, but where was the nation? It existed sentimentally, culturally and socially, but it had no political form. Its patriotism and colourful, often-invented traditions complemented rather than threatened British nationalism, which represented prosperity, enterprise and progress. In this relationship, it was Britain that in every sense wore the trousers.
One day, more than 60 years ago, we went as a family to the National Wallace Monument. My father took a binary, black-and-white approach to people and things: in toothpaste, Colgate was bad and Euthymol good; in bicycles, Raleigh was preferred to BSA; in Polar explorers, Captain Scott didn’t stand a dog’s chance against Amundsen. When it came to Scotland’s medieval history, the contest lay between Wallace and Robert the Bruce, in which Wallace emerged as a kind of proto-socialist compared with his aristocratic and treacherous successor – “nothing but a French baron”, as my father always said.
Of the trip to the monument, I can recall almost nothing. A bus journey, a stone spiral staircase, a gloomy room filled with marble heads. Last month, when I went back for the first time, it was clear that the gloomy room of my memory must have been the Hall of Heroes, where the visitor is presented with the marble busts of 16 eminent Scots – a number that includes William Ewart Gladstone, on account of his father being born in Leith. Six were writers: Burns and Scott, naturally, but also Carlyle. Two were theologians and two were inventors. One, Adam Smith, was an economist. There are no women. Of course, this is a Victorian collection – and nicely preserved as such – but absorbing the gravity of it, I remembered the liberation that was implicit in “British” as a self-description, how it enlarged the sense of yourself and allowed you to feel part of something grander and more various. By the 1960s, the bombast of Britishness had drained away. It seemed loose and confused, and therefore spacious and accommodating. EM Forster, Joan Littlewood, Dickens, Orwell, CND, Play for Today, Beyond the Fringe, the Beatles: the list is random. In Chaudhuri’s word, they “quickened” me, just as men and women of my parents’ generation had been quickened by Shaw, Wells and night school. I felt close to these sensibilities and institutions – I felt we’d emerged from the same national history. The thought of separation never occurred.
* * *
Is it, as VS Naipaul once remarked of British culture, all over?
During the past dozen years, the Scottish National party has worked an astonishing transformation, turning the tables so that unionism now looks sentimental – the home of exhausted tradition – while independence stands for energetic progress. Over that time, the death of Britishness has been predicted as often as the death of the novel, but it has managed to survive and even to grow. When the findings of the annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey were published last month, they showed that since 2011 the number of people living in Scotland who picked “British” as their national identity had risen from 15% to 23%, while those choosing “Scottish” had fallen from 75% to 65%. Time and again, the leaders of the yes campaign have stressed that the social union will endure and that anti-Englishness is over and done with. I have heard Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, talk about her English granny, and watched Mike Russell, the MSP for Argyll and Bute, tell an audience in a village hall about his English mother, whose father or grandfather once clean-bowled WG Grace. There’s even an oddly named group, English Scots for Independence. Nevertheless, in most political conversation, “British” has become a missing word.
“Scotland is not wholly surrounded by the sea – unfortunately,” the nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in 1934, and yet to many people south of the border it might well have been. (I don’t always mean metaphorically: my father remembered a Lancashire workmate asking him which port he caught the boat from when he went home to Fife.) English ignorance of Scotland has always been considerably larger than Scottish ignorance of England. Some of the imbalance is understandable: as the political, administrative and cultural capital, London made its presence felt everywhere. But it must also be said that what a variegated country such as India would know as a “programme of national integration” has never been seriously attempted in Britain. My Scottish state school introduced me to the works of Keats and made me rote-learn the causes of the English civil war, but I doubt that a sixth-former at an English state school got to know much about Burns or the Covenanters. The year 1707 should matter as much in England as Scotland, as one of the United Kingdom’s foundational dates, but until recently, in my experience, few people in England could identify its significance. For these and a hundred other reasons, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Scotland took the British project more seriously than England did, and that London’s careless stewardship of a pan-British identity – and a pan-British economy – fostered the growth of Scottish grievance and alienation.
Over the course of the referendum campaign, the yes side has insisted that independence “isn’t about identity”. This may be only half-true – identity comes to the fore with the persistent idea that Scotland is inherently more egalitarian than England – but Alex Salmond made a remarkable statement two years ago, in the referendum’s consultation document, where he wrote, “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated. Independence matters because we do not have the powers to reach our potential.” Without words like oppression and liberation, the vocabulary of nationalism is weakened, but in Scotland, their absence has enormously broadened its appeal. In the SNP’s big-change but no-change version of independence, nobody’s identity is at risk. If people want to think of themselves as British as well as Scottish, then they can keep calm and carry on. As Salmond wrote, soothingly, in the same document: “Much of what Scotland will be like the day after independence will be similar to the day before: people will go to work, pensions and benefits will be collected, children will go out to play and life will be as normal.”
And of course it will. But gradually British identity will wither. If it survives at all, it will become narrow, eccentric, strident and romantic, like so many other national identities that have been deprived of their states and institutions. I value it too much to want that. Gordon Brown erred when, as prime minister, he attempted to enunciate his list of “British values” – which turned out to be the values of most civilised nations. He would have been wiser to have written, as Orwell did, about its characteristics rather than what he imagined to be its longstanding moral beliefs. The markers of Britishness for me include empiricism, irony, the ad hoc approach, pluralism, and a critical awareness of its own rich and sometimes appalling history. It’s sceptical, too: it has seen a thing or two and knows nothing lasts. But perhaps what recommends it most is the frail senescence that makes it an undemanding kind of belonging, and unexpectedly fits it for the modern world. The untangling of the institutions – military, administrative, academic, ambassadorial, commercial, cultural – that have sustained this identity can’t but be painfully destructive. The past 300 years have not been about nothing.
* * *
I write in a room that has a view of the Firth of Clyde. Trident submarines pass this way, though I rarely see them. The sun is out, the water is blue and the Cowal hills are turning brown here and there with dying bracken. Nirad Chaudhuri grew up beside rivers as broad as this, and they formed a bright part of his memory. In the second volume of his autobiography, he writes of a journey up the Padma by paddle steamer (built, as it happens, on the river outside my window), where the dry season had exposed many sandbanks “and made the river a mass of serpentine streams, like the background of Mona Lisa, of course with the difference that there were no rocks.” It was this scene, observed as a 15-year-old in 1913, which taught him that beauty wasn’t confined to the Britain of his schoolbooks – that it was also present in Bengal. And yet after the age of 30 he never saw those great rivers of the delta again. First, he was preoccupied by his new life in Kolkata and Delhi, and then, when India was partitioned, his ancestral district found itself in the new nation of Pakistan. Millions of people in India were similarly displaced – or, if they stayed in their homes, found themselves living in a new state.
Not for a moment do I make a comparison with the possible break-up of the UK – that would be absurd – except in one regard. To find that the country one grew up in is now a foreign state will be an odd feeling. True, the bracken will still turn brown at every summer’s end, the train will still take us from Glasgow to Euston, and, as Alex Salmond says, children will still go out to play, and pensions, we hope, will still be collected. But the United Kingdom that made so many of us will no longer exist. If it happens, I shall grieve. •