Flying all our flags

Posted on 1 May 2012

Photo: The Laird of Oldham

What are we proud of in Britain? Can we be British as well as English, Scottish and Welsh? Since devolution have our identities across Britain changed and what do our flags mean to us today? Sunder Katwala argues that the population has a strong sense of what they are proud of, but also more needs to be done to extend our pride in our flags and the modern, inclusive Britain they represent.

Obituaries for Britain and Britishness remain premature as majorities of the population want  to have two identities, happy to call themselves English, Scottish or Welsh as well as British, our polling from YouGov shows.

It does reflect that significant groups of people across the nations of Britain reject British identity. In Scotland 31% say that they are “Scottish, not British”, while 17% say that they are “English, not British”; and 21% say they are Welsh, not British.

But more than six out of ten in Scotland and Wales want to combine their British and national identities, while the growing interest in English identity is also combined with British identity for most people.

So the poll shows that most people across  the nations of Britain do maintain a sense of British identity which, as a shared civic identity, will be sustained as long as a majority of people across the various British nations want them.

Reflecting the public’s sense of plural identities across Britain today may depend on  showing that we can fly all of our flags with pride, without believing we have to choose between them.

This helps to explain why Scottish nationalism is now, counterintuitively, developing an increased interest in engaging in Britishness. Alex Salmond is now developing a novel argument for a “social union” arguing that a newly independent Scotland would continue to reflect its British identity and history too, as well as maintaining allegiance to a shared Crown. The identity findings in this poll show the wisdom of this. There is no path to a pro-independence majority without winning support from Scots who feel British; meanwhile Unionists will need to reflect a strong sense of Scottish identity too to maintain the UK.

Even in Northern Ireland, whose longstanding divisions reflect both the most strident commitment to and the most vehement rejection of British identity in any part of the UK, the identity debate may be becoming more gradually more conciliatory. Deputy first minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Finn, speaking over the Easter weekend, recast the vision of a united Ireland as one “open to practical ways of giving expression to the unionist sense of Britishness”. In speaking about the need for “new language and new compromises” to reflect “reconciliation between my community and the British state”, McGuinness appeared to pave the way for the conciliatory symbolism of a Sinn Fein handshake with the Queen during the Jubilee celebrations.

Sunder Katwala

This article was first published in British Future’s This Sceptred Isle publication, available here.