Thursday, 24 January 2008

SNP's interpretation of poll reflects only their narrow conception of identity

O’Neill has picked up on the SNP’s slant on the results of the British Social Attitudes survey which has detected a decline in the propensity of people to define themselves principally as British. O’Neill quite rightly points out that the nationalists’ interpretation of the results reflects their own narrow conception of identity, rather than any meaningful rejection of a multifaceted, multilayered identity which includes a sense of Britishness.

A healthy and vibrant Union does not require its citizens to define themselves “only or mainly” as British. On the contrary, people in the United Kingdom may adopt any number of cultural, ethnic or national allegiances, without dissipating their sense of political allegiance to the Union. It is only when the prescriptive and political nationalist reading of identity is applied that “only or mainly” becomes a relevant category in assessing the strength of Britishness.

O’Neill cites my post on Michael Longley’s thoughts on identity and widens the frame of reference to include another poet who is quoted regularly on this subject. Anyone with even a casual interest in Northern Ireland’s politics and literature will be aware of John Hewitt’s thoughts on the complexity of his identity:

“Firstly, I am an Ulsterman steeped in the traditions of this place. Secondly, I am Irish, of this Ireland. Thirdly, I am British, and finally, in a more diffuse way, I am European. It may make it easier for you to understand if you remove one of those elements but if you do you are no longer describing who I am.”

O’Neill quotes a different passage from Hewitt’s correspondence but one that is concerned with a similar theme and connotes an identical ethos:

“I always maintained that our loyalties had an order to Ulster, to Ireland, to the British Archipelago, to Europe; and that anyone who skipped a step or missed a link falsified the total. The Unionists missed out Ireland: the Northern Nationalists (The Green Tories) couldn't see the Ulster under their feet; the Republicans missed out both Ulster and the Archipelago; and none gave any heed to Europe at all.”

This nuanced understanding of identity is not merely applicable to Northern Ireland. Hewitt has identified a complexity and subtlety which are universally applicable when considering how we identify ourselves in terms of culture and nationality but of course his thoughts are particularly pertinent in a multi-national, multi-ethnic society such as the United Kingdom.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida was speaking in favour of a sense of ‘Europeaness’ when he distinguished between “an airtight, impermeable, homogenous, self-identical identity”, as opposed to a “porous and heterogeneous identity that differs with itself”. It is the homogenous understanding of identity which allows such a narrow and simplistic poll to be taken as an indicator of a dying United Kingdom.


Dinamo said...

Chekov - I monitor you. Please amend this quotation as below.

Firstly, I am a MEMBER OF THE PARTY steeped in the traditions of THE PARTY. Secondly, I OBEY THE LEADER OF THE PARTY. Thirdly, I am RUSSIAN, and finally, in a more diffuse way, I AM A CITIZEN OF THE UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS. It may make it easier for you to understand if you remove one of those elements but if you do you are no longer describing who I am.”

Abdul-Rahim said...

I think that you are absolutely corect in your assessment that British identity does not need to be strickly one dimensional, people can consider themselves otherwise without giving up their Britishness

Chekov said...

Dinamo. I believe you may be bordering on provocation by elevating Russian nationalism above internationalism citizen!