The United Kingdom; a sense of place

Slightly off topic…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the goings on in Scotland; the referendum and the idea of independence. It’s been a hot topic on Twitter and Facebook and with many Scottish friends on both sides of the debate and with obvious ramifications for the UK as a whole, it’s hard not to take an interest. And whilst I am very much English as English can be (excepting my Geordie heritage and ultimately Scandinavia origins), do not live in Scotland and never have and therefore, some might suggest, I do not have much of a claim to speak on this matter, I do feel there is some deeper relevance of ideas relating to space and place of the kind often discussed by eminent scholars such as Yi-Fu Tuan. This is my tangential hook into the debate. So whilst not strictly pertaining to the usual technological topics of this blog, I do feel a bit of humanistic geography is directly relevant to the broader debate regarding the future of Great Britain and United Kingdom.

The current debate

With the referendum in Scotland, much is being said in the media about why Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom. Equally, strong arguments are being put forward about why Scotland should become an independent country. The former focuses on being “better together”, how the countries that make up the UK can do more through being part of the same supranational structure. The latter is focusing primarily on the Westminster government and how it does not adequately represent the people of Scotland. Unfortunately, neither side are presenting much in the way of detailed evidence and facts on which to base a decision, preferring instead to go for emotive rhetoric, in many cases with reference to a sense of place. The ‘yes’ campaign promoting the idea of Scotland as a proud, historic nation being ruled from ‘abroad’ whilst the ‘no’ campaign stressing the commonality and shared heritage and togetherness of the Union.

Leaving aside the details of how, logistically, an independent Scotland might be achieved (as both pro and anti campaigns have, quite wrongly as these should be considered as much as the ideological issues), I would like to look at the debate from the perspective of a UK citizen, an Englishman, a British person and a European, drawing on the humanities, cultural heritage and geography.

Place and Space

A sense of place is central to understanding the issue. How people come to understandings of place necessarily involves representations and understandings of space, especially with respect to geopolitical boundaries. But is also involves feelings and very human constructs such as belonging, personal and group identity and ultimately society and politics. One of the key issues for the referendum is the idea of being governed by ‘the other’, by a group that doesn’t represent your own group. I would suggest that there is a very valuable nugget of information here, something the politicians of the UK would be wise to take on board and something which, despite being a focus of the ‘yes’ campaign, is not a uniquely Scottish theme and has more to do with the current structure of UK government: There is equally as much discord and dissatisfaction across swathes of the UK. And there are common identities and shared communal values both north and south of the border; this is where a sense of place based purely on space and particular views of nation states falls down and where many nationalist movements, including Scottish Nationalists, run into difficulties. As Billy Connolly said: “I’ve always remembered that I have a lot more in common with a welder from Liverpool than I do with someone with an agricultural background from the Highlands…

The United Kingdom

I would suggest what is really needed here is not for bits of the UK to splinter off, rather we need to look properly at how we structure the UK moving forward. Scotland has its referendum but there is a growing movement in other parts of the UK with strong senses of cultural identity and desires for self determination. We currently have a disorganized mess of a political system with a parliament in Scotland hamstrung by only having limited powers, assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland which do not have even the powers of a parliament and to top it off, a parliament based in London with control over the whole UK. At this level England is seen as being in some way synonymous with the UK and Great Britain and yet not having any parliament or assembly of its own. So depending on your perspective, England either has no representation or dominates all other members of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with ‘Britishness’ being seen as an extension of ‘Englishness’. Worryingly, this idea that it is the English who are the down-trodden, under-represented group plays into the hands of English nationalists who are, by and large, unsavoury organizations without the well meaning, largely socialist agenda of Scottish nationalists.

It should be noted however that the notion of Britishness is very much distinct from Englishness. Oddly enough, we tend not to talk about ‘United Kingdomness’ although we ought not exclude Northern Ireland here. The United Kingdom can be seen to be largely synonymous with Great Britain and this is largely true. But to conflate British and English is to do a disservice to the many people who see themselves as British. There are Scottish and British, Welsh and British, English and British, Jamaican and British, Pakistani and British, Nigerian and British, Cornish and British, British Sikhs, British Muslims; the list goes on. Britishness as a social construct is adopted and used strongly by a diverse range of communities in a myriad of ways; many groups consider themselves to be British but not English, even groups who have long histories in England and whose nationality is English. This is due in part to the nature of Great Britain, and the United Kingdom, as supranational constructs and the ways in which so many groups, communities, nations and individuals have interacted with them over their long histories (or been interacted with, for better or worse; I am not trying to gloss over the history of empire here).

UK government

Returning to space for a moment, the rather chaotic organization of government structures is apparent when one looks at their spatial depictions. They are quite clearly the product of a long history of development, going right back to the tithes and hundreds of yore but with layers of restructuring, electoral reform and local government reorganization all playing a part. We have counties, ceremonial counties, districts, wards, boroughs, civil parishes and (my favourite) the non civil parish (a spatial entity defined by the lack of the presence of civil parish). The number of tiers of government varies, who has responsibility for what, as does the scale of geographic units, ranging from single villages and communities through to massive swathes of countryside. It is of course very different in the different countries that make up the UK, representative of the different trajectories each have followed to get to where we are today. Understanding this is non trivial to say the least. It is inconsistent, variable and downright unintelligible in many cases. The governmental structures aligned with this are equally as confusing and it is this which contributes to feelings of alienation and under-representation. As for mapping and cartography, well; the Ordnance Survey do the best they can but the data is necessarily complicated because the real work is unnecessarily complicated.

Recent attempts to improve matters, such as the introduction of Unitary Authorities in some areas, have only muddied the waters further; rather than improving representation, or perceptions of representation, they have in so many cases resulted in transfer of powers upwards not downwards, so what used to be District or Town issues are now dealt with remotely. People feel like they are being governed by ‘the other’ in the same way as Scots feel about being governed by Westminster. Town councils have been left as little more than Parish Councils, the lowest tier and most local of local government bodies, and whilst the Localism Act, through the Powers of General Competence, allows them to take on more responsibility, ultimate control of so many areas rests with the remote, distant and unrepresentative governmental body. Or so it is perceived.

If we are truly serious about encouraging political engagement, we, as the UK, should take this opportunity as presented by the forward looking Scots, to get the UK house in order. Let’s properly reform our government structures based in part on space, obviously, but including group identities and cultural identities based around belonging to a place but let’s not put such identities and place definitions above all else. They are constructs and we are free to define them as we see fit. We are, after all, all British, and whilst I self identify as English and others as Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Cornish, Anglian, Geordie or whatever, we have a shared heritage and undoubtedly, although I hate to use the phrase being bandied about by the unholy trinity of Clegg, Cameron and Miliband, we are better together. But we can move towards governmental structures that reflect and represent our cultural identities and at the same time are not determined solely by them, nor determined solely by national, regional, local or other spatial constructs which lead to the division of the UK into ever smaller pieces. It is interesting to note how Shetland is now considering independence from an independent Scotland, unwilling to be ruled from afar by some ‘other’ cultural group. The SNP response being to insist that the Shetlands are Scottish and there can be no break up of the country. Sound familiar…? The irony of this was not lost on at least one commentator.

Yes, No or is there a third way…?

The logical solution seems to be to given everyone what they want. Let’s have a restructured system of government which is locally driven and responds to the needs of constituents. Heck, we might even get folk to engage in the political process once more; the referendum in Scotland has certainly demonstrated that when people feel like they have real input, they will vote in their masses. Not necessarily with their heads mind you, but even a passionate vote from the heart, even if misguided or misled, is surely better than apathy?

So let’s use the space in which we live, and reinvent, redefine our sense of place. Not along purely nationalistic lines but taking cultural identity into account to come up with workable, meaningful units of government people can really take ownership of. I think what this means in reality is some kind of federal system, at a minimum with the four countries of the UK represented equally. Ideally, to make government more accountable and resolve the current mess, why not make regional assemblies form the main focus of government? We would then just need a supranational structure at the top, representing the UK and dealing with only matters that need to be dealt with at that level. Running embassies and foreign policy for example. Ensuring the NHS isn’t asset stripped any further (assuming a change in government of course). Below that lightweight UK government could be regional assemblies at a sensible spatial scale, doing the bulk of functional politics, basically everything that quite properly should be devolved. These may fall along perceived nationalistic bounds, as in the case of Cornwall. Or be aligned to the already existing European electoral boundaries, which seem fairly sensible. Or be more regional, based on a shared outlook and ways of doing things, for example Wessex, which was indeed a kingdom once and whilst the place only exists in folk memories, the places therein retain common characteristics. Following on that line of thinking, why not recreate the other old, once great kingdoms of Mercia and Northumberland and Anglia? Sounds strange, but these tracts of space which once were the primary places of this land, the kingdoms of old, happen to be a good size to be recreated as modern geopolitical spatial entities. Bizarre how things could come full circle.

Either way, such a move would benefit not just the Scots but all of us UK residents. What the Scots have started, we could all collectively reap the benefits from. They would achive their aims but we would all achieve something better. Together. And without the risks associated with an unplanned, jump feet first, think later style of independence the Yes campaign are pushing for.

Thankyou Scotland

So, whilst not being Scottish, I share much of what is being claimed to be a Scottish outlook. Views being put forward as reasons for independence are not exclusively the property of Scottish nationalists but can be seen across the UK; it’s just the Scots have showed the gumption to shout it from the rooftops and a real grassroots political movement has emerged. For this I think the rest of the UK owes Scotland much. This is a real wake up call.

But it is for this reason that I hope some British sense of place, Britain comprising the equal nations of England, Wales and Scotland, will contribute to this referendum and can then become the focus for reinvigorating politics across the UK. Rather that than an ever dwindling route towards nationalism and fragmentation. That way, we can start with the real job of re-defining our shared sense of place, what is is to be British and English/Scottish/Welsh and UK citizens with our countryfolk in Northern Ireland. And European citizens too as we all are now. Only once we are confident in our sense of places, our shared, multi-layered places, can we look to how we want our government to align with this, how we want it to work and be shaped ready for the next three hundred and more years.