Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Identity post Brexit

The recent vote to leave the EU has had me pondering my identity and how this may guide me in the next few, possibly turbulent, years.

The late Charles Kennedy, used to say

he was “a Highlander, a Scot, a Briton and a European”, in that order.
West Highland Free Press, 5 June 2015 | “The brightest and the best of men”

Following that model I should be “a Southerner, English, British and European”, in that order; but I don’t feel I am.

Charles Kennedy was fortunate to be rooted in the Highlands and apart from studying at Glasgow University and a short spell working in the United States, I believe his home was always in the Highlands.

“The Highlands” has a more cogent identity than “The South” (of England). As a native identity, “Southerner” does not really say much – except when used as a term of abuse. However, I have recently noticed that I have spent more than half my life in the North East of England – the majority of those years in the border county of Northumberland. To a degree I feel more rooted than at any time in my life. Certainly I found a few years ago when I visited my town of birth that it felt alien – whether it be the beautiful high street, the genrified ex-council estates, or the over-comfortable suburbs with their privet hedges and gravelled drives leading to neat semis or fancier houses.

So I might claim to be a North Easterner, possibly more a Northumbrian, if only by adoption.

But do I feel “English”? “English” is an often miss-used term, particularly abroad, to mean “British” – which must be infuriating for the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish.

However, I speak English, I live in “England”, but do I feel “English”?

This is where trying to mimic Charles Kennedy’s hierarchical structure of identity breaks down. Charles was undoubtedly Scottish by accent, culture, and genealogy. I suspect most Scots are.

Most of the “English”, however, are sort of Anglo-Saxon (mongrel by definition!) often crossed with other ancestry that can be traced back to those countries which surround England; Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the near-continental countries and the Scandinavian countries. And more recently we have cross-pollinated with people from Commonwealth Countries.

So I am only part English, with Scots, Irish, Ulster-Scots and possibly Huguenot heritage. “English” is actually hard to define. For instance, how many “English” people can actually claim to have eight “English” great-grandparents? Only four of my great-grandparents are “English-born” (all are British – or Irish born).

Charles Kennedy did not mention “class” as part of his identity. At times he referred to his crofting background, but I got the impression that was more a cultural than a class distinction. I don’t think Scots, particularly rural Scots do “class” in quite the visceral divisive way some of the English do.

Possibly English identity is tied up with class identity. Is it the case that those who are most vociferous in their Englishness often also have a strong class identity? In this respect there may be a number of English identities – each tied to a class identity be it English Aristocracy, English elitist Professionals, dispossessed white English Working Class or some other group. I don’t feel comfortable adopting any of the class identities on offer – which is possibly a reason why I find it hard to feel comfortable with any English identity.

In the recent referendum it was England (and Wales), particularly outside the more cosmopolitan areas, which voted most strongly to leave the EU. It is probably too easy to just say that this was “English identities” being asserted, but it included aspects of an “Englishness” with which I am uncomfortable and has unlocked other aspects of “Englishness” that I dislike intensely.

So, if not “English”, what about “British”? After all England does not have the same range of distinctly “national” institutions as the other countries in the UK (with the possible exception of our Football Team). A “British” identity is probably more appropriate given my mixed genealogy and it is compatible with my adopted border identity. I identify far more with Carlisle, Berwick, Jedburgh or Edinburgh than I do with Cirencester, Gloucester, Hastings or Henley . “British” just feels more comfortable than “English”.

This could be unfortunate if leaving the EU leads to Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. Any “British” identity I have will be severely dented and “remnant UK” will be even more “English” – possibly rampantly so.

I also face having my European identity dented. Even though leaving the EU is not the same as leaving Europe, it is likely that visiting “the continent” will feel more difficult and foreign, possibly even more alien. As a country we are “turning away” from the idea of a “shared” Europe.

This leaves me with an interesting conundrum if Scotland does leave the United Kingdom, leaving me in “South Britain”. If I move north a few miles, I could retain a fuller “European” identity, possibly retain some aspects of my British identity that I value (albeit no longer labelled “British”), and by slightly adjusting my Border identity retain much of my regional identity.

The downsides? My Scottish ancestry is I think too remote for me to gain Scottish nationality, so I would for a while be a foreign exile (a migrant) in Scotland. The major problem however would be that my occupational pensions (from working for companies in England) would be paid in English pounds, and I would be living in the Euro-zone.

What price practicality when set against living within a comfortable identity?

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