The Guardian recently looked at the lingering impact of Partition on the Indian subcontinent, however, I was accused in their general comments of being “borderline offensive” for saying that partitioning Britain would damage lives, families and identities. “People have family and friends all over the world and are capable of loving them no less”, I was told by one poster.
So what? I have more in common culturally with friends in France and Italy than with most people I know in the UK. To me, that is an argument for abolishing nation-states, for taking down borders, not for exhuming them from the tomb to gerrymander a political agenda.
‘Loving people no less’ is irrelevant sentimentality; rights are more important. Imposing borders means members of the same family, even the same household, can be discriminated against or privileged, based on an accident of birthplace or parentage, not what they think or how they vote. Yes, I would be eligible for a Scottish passport ; but how would I be able to look my excluded family and friends, people who are no less anti-Brexit, in the eyes? We have already seen this in families divided by Irish passport eligibility. Borders hurt real people, their relationships and even their job prospects if not all household members have Freedom of Movement rights. The divisions are tangible, and the resentments are real.
Where is home?
I have spent my life between Scotland and Yorkshire, two places with similar sized populations. My father was from Bute, my mother from Hull. ‘England’ seemed to mean somewhere far to the south, somewhere affluent and sunny, that did not stink of fishmeal. However, my late paternal grandfather and father had been in the SNP, and I grew up with a lot of its assumptions; the sense that my failure to ‘belong’ in Hull was because I was ‘really Scottish’ – not my intellectual/cultural interests, or then-undiagnosed autism.
So, I went to university in St Andrews and lived in Fife, then Glasgow, for 25 of the following 29 years. I participated in the 1997 Devolution campaign – but came to regret it. The failure to roll it out based on equality for all of the UK turned the devolved governments into latter-day ‘rotten boroughs’ and created a democratic deficit in the English regions, which partly fuelled the ‘protest’ element in the Brexit vote.
It took me decades to be at ease in my own skin and comfortable as a whole person – unfortunately, this came at a time when nationalism began to rise again. I came to realise that the only place I ‘belonged’ was in academia, particularly old European university towns. That is my ‘country’. The location matters less than shared interests and education. My ‘people’ are those with whom I can discuss the things that I love: history, art, literature.
Both/and, not either/or
I have seen arguments online that ‘Britain’ is an eighteenth-century fiction; that being ‘British’ is a fiction. But Ynys Prydein, the Island of Britain, long predates ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’. It also ignores the existence of thousands, if not millions of families and lives like mine.
We are not ‘fictional’: we exist. We are not separate species: we interbreed; we move back and forth. Half my family is not ‘alien’ or ‘other’ from the rest, not more or less deserving. I am European first, British second. Why should I be broken into halves of a person?
Nationalists claim we are ‘too different’ to share a political voice, but there are many different Englands, as big as or bigger than Scotland. Nor is Scotland homogenous: the Central Belt and its concerns were profoundly alien to my father and me after years in north-east Fife. I knew people on the Left in Glasgow who would demonstrate for Gaza or Greece at the drop of a hat, but not England ‘because everyone votes Tory’. I told them that the place I grew up in had not done so in living memory. A Marxist ‘No’ campaigner, who worked at a foodbank, told me he was equally concerned about foodbank users in Cardiff and Liverpool. That seemed to have bypassed a many people I knew who sang ‘Solidarity for Ever’ – but did not extend it beyond Carlisle and Berwick.
A postcode lottery should not inflate the value of a vote
‘Civic nationalism’ is a thin veneer: scratch the surface and the old ethno-nationalist ugliness emerges. For example, ‘Yes’ campaigners on Byres Road in Glasgow in 2014 told me I did not ‘deserve’ a vote because I ‘wasn’t born there’. I was Scottish enough to be eligible for a Carnegie Scholarship, however. To them, I was not ‘Scottish enough’ because I had said I did not want a border through my family, life and selfhood. My recently widowed father lived in Hull. It was hard enough to support him at a distance without further bureaucratic barriers.
A ‘Yes’-voting, wealthy, originally southern English neighbour in Glasgow asked, ‘Why don’t you move him back up, then?’ As I lived in a one-bedroom, rented, third-floor flat, that was hardly practical; nor was taking a disabled 80-year-old away from the medical professionals who knew him, from his friends and his late wife’s family in a town where he had lived for most of the past 50 years.
Deploying Brexit as grounds for separatism relies on the idea that the ‘nation’ label is more important than human beings – even though we voted as individuals, not as blocs or constituencies. 1.6 million Remain votes in Scotland are deemed more precious and inviolable than 13 million in England alone. If the latter were classed as a state, they would be in the top ten of the EU in population size: they outnumber the entire human population of the rest of the UK combined. I lived in Glasgow when I voted Remain in 2016; I moved back to Hull in 2017 when my father was terminally ill: does that make me worth less? I would have voted the same way wherever I live because I am European first, culturally, intellectually and imaginatively. I have participated in anti-Brexit marches in London; most marchers came from England. They are not worth less than Remainers in Scotland.
Equality of humans, not of administrative units
Partitioning Great Britain is about privileging the ‘nation’ label on some administrative units above the equality of human beings. Claiming that ‘Scotland’ should be treated as equal to the whole of ‘England’ (rather than to ‘Yorkshire’) is to say that one vote in Scotland should be worth ten or eleven in England. It is the ‘Rotten Borough’ scenario that continues to plague unequal devolution.
It is also a problem between states of disparate size in the EU. Making one vote in a small state worth dozens in a larger one flies in the face of human equality. Post-Revolutionary France broke up its old, unequal ‘nations’ into more equal départements. As a European federalist this should be the goal of European unity – including Britain.
We need to see more pan-European parties with pan-European campaigns. Equality of human beings – of one person, one vote having the same value wherever you live – should be the basis of unity, not equality of administrative units labelled ‘nations’.