Civis Britannicus sum: Will Scottish ‘yes’ utterly destroy UK’s identity?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 18, 2014

The nation formerly known as the UK?

As the Scots vote on independence – or not – today, one of the most moving comments on the subject comes from Ian Jack. He’s Scottish but keenly aware that “many people must love Scotland more than I do, as an entity and as a destiny. I don’t want to compete with them.”

Writing in The Guardian, Mr Jack asks if there’s anything to mourn about the prospect of losing the complex identity the UK created and the shared history of 300 years.

And he concludes, for complicated and roundabout reasons, that there is reason to grieve. Click here to read the whole piece.

But if not, let me give you a flavor of Mr Jack’s argument. And lament.

He starts with the late Nirad C. Chaudhari, the brown sahib to beat all brown sahibs, a wiry little man who wrote the brilliant Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, controversially dedicating it

“To the memory of the British empire in India,
Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:
‘Civis Britannicus sum’

Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.”

And he uses Chaudhari’s love of the distilled essence of Britishness to explain that if Scotland leaves the Union, it is a reason to grieve. “…gradually British identity will wither. If it survives at all, it will become narrow, eccentric, strident and romantic, like so many other national identities that have been deprived of their states and institutions.”

For Mr Jack, “the markers of Britishness include empiricism, irony, the ad hoc approach, pluralism, and a critical awareness of its own rich and sometimes appalling history. It’s sceptical, too: it has seen a thing or two and knows nothing lasts. But perhaps what recommends it most is the frail senescence that makes it an undemanding kind of belonging, and unexpectedly fits it for the modern world.”

This is true in all sorts of ways. I would question, though, if all of this will be lost if Scotland becomes a foreign country.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac