Monday, January 16, 2012

Country, tribe and home

I have never felt the lure of nationalism. Why is this? Partly my upbringing and partly also the many places in which I have lived or to which I have strong family ties: Bangladesh, Wales, Kent, the West Country, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, Aberdeenshire, the Lothians and the Highlands. At one time it looked as if my trajectory would continue ever northwards, perhaps touching down in Thurso, hopping across to Shetland, swooping over Fair Isle and coming to rest in Iceland. Uganda has put paid to that, taking me southwards once again.

With my family I have picked loganberries in Locksbottom and strawberries in Stonehaven, jumped streams in the Forest of Boland and waves at Portwrinkle, avoided vertigo at Flamborough Head and on the crumbling cliff paths of Dunnottar. Together we have gazed at sunshine on Snowdon and snow on Suilven. We have driven through the tea plantations of Sylhet and the coffee plantations of the Rwenzoris. All these places have felt like home at one time or another in my life. Many other families are also scattered across Britain like this. People no longer live and die in the same place: modern life has put paid to that. I for one, however, have never really expected to have to choose among the places I have, at different times, counted as 'home', particularly those which huddle together on one small island. However, now it seems I may have to.

And what does nationality mean to someone like me anyway? After all, it is difficult to be a nationalist if you are not entirely sure to which nation you belong. One bit of the family defines itself as Welsh, particularly during the Six Nations Cup; another branch proudly waves the Cornish flag. Am I English, like my Essex cousins? Given my birthplace, could I claim a Bangladeshi passport? Or would I have the confidence to declare myself Scottish on the basis of forty years residence, two Scottish sons and a marriage? And, crucially, would five million Scots agree with me despite my embarrassingly English accent?

In the past, such musings about my nationality have been rare. I have never really cared what country I am presumed to belong to and am as embarrassed by brutish English nationalism as by its crass Scottish counterpart. Pride in the music, landscape and literature of one's people and wanting to share them with others is one thing. However, what we have been watching on television and reading in newspapers this week have shown an obsession with borders, flag-waving and the resurrection of ancient grievances which is something else again. The online comments have been beyond belief.

According to the newspapers, at some point over the next few years, I will probably be asked to declare to which nation I belong, even if that involves drawing a border between me and some of my closest family members and carrying my passport with me whenever I drive down to see my mother. I remember one of my sons watching news footage of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia many years ago now, and asking the question, 'When Scotland fights England, which side will I be on?' - a difficult question to answer both then and now. When their father and I had visited Yugoslavia barely ten years before, we could never have predicted the rape, massacre and torture perpetrated by people who had lived side by side in the same villages quite amicably for years. All this may seem melodramatic when considered in the context of countries as apparently placid as England and with as small a population as Scotland. However, size is irrelevant and I believe there is no such thing as national character. It doesn't take much for people who have been neighbours to start treating each other as aliens even if it doesn't go as far as bloodshed. All it needs is an influential politician or two and manipulation of the media. Ask the people of Rwanda.

I was brought up to look beyond national borders. Our Lancashire home welcomed African and Asian students, despite the 1960s racism so blatant in the streets around us. I tried to bring up my own children with a similarly broad view of the world about them, with the result that they have travelled to, and worked in, more countries than we could ever have predicted. Now, however, the inhabitants of this small island, in particularly those in Scotland, are apparently being asked to narrow their perspectives to focus predominantly on their own little patch. None of the Scots I know and like and among whom I have lived for many years are like that at all. Scots have tended to have a somewhat broader outlook, coming from generations of sailors, merchants and explorers as many of them do.

It is difficult to predict how an independent Scotland would operate in an international context. I can't imagine it would be able to afford as many consulates as the UK does at present, with an inevitable impact on the assistance available to Scots abroad. Would Scottish diplomats have the kind of influence on world affairs that we have observed among European and American diplomats in Africa? The United Kingdom has been instrumental in cancelling the debt burden of developing countries and has continued to provide funding for international development despite financial pressures at home. I wonder whether the people of a small independent Scotland would continue to feel such a commitment to poor people in faraway countries or, indeed, be able to afford it on their own.

It is ironic given current discussions about the possible break up of the United Kingdom that our home just now is in Uganda, a country whose key aim since the 1980s has been to try to bring together all its tribes and clans. There are far more languages and ethnic groupings in Uganda than in Great Britain, yet 'We are all Ugandans' is the message for all. It hasn't worked perfectly, of course, with notable differences between the north and the south and a predominant tribe, the Baganda, which argues for a federal approach. However, no one has seriously suggested that the country should be dismantled despite its crazy colonial borders which separate members of the same tribe and cut across language and culture.

Once we break nations into smaller entities and start focusing on differences rather than what we have in common, then the apparent homogeneity of a country like Scotland could soon become illusory. Those who can successfully persuade their people that there are significant differences between the people on the north and south banks of the Tweed can hardly be surprised if similar differences emerge north and south of the Tay. The northern isles of Orkney and Shetland with their Nordic past have traditionally been wary of government from Edinburgh. Speakers of Scots already express their resentment of the privileged position, both political and financial, which the Scottish Parliament has assigned to Gaelic.

The future of our planet requires us to be citizens of the world, sensitive to the needs of people thousands of miles away from our own tiny island. In our families and schools, we do not bring up our children to think principally of themselves. We expect them to see the bigger picture and learn to make compromises in order for others, as well as themselves, to be happy, safe and secure. Inward-looking parochialism which considers only what is 'best for Scotland', 'best for England', 'best for Orkney' or best for any other small part of the whole is selfish, threatens our survival as a species and ignores our kinship with the rest of the world.

You may also be interested in When 'where you come from' really matters.

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