Broadcaster NEIL OLIVER says politicians are ‘temporary tenants’ of this Union of nations
No pronouncement by any politician – here today and gone tomorrow – and no referendum on this or that issue of the day will have any effect on my understanding of myself and where I belong.
It makes me feel better just to put those words down on the page.
The Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis said: ‘The world into which you are born does not exist, not in any absolute sense, rather it is a model of reality.’
I listen to those words and realise that Britain does not exist either. Neither does England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales nor any other country, not really.
Neil Oliver (pictured): ‘I will always believe in Britain, come what may. That will never be taken from me’
There are physical landscapes on the face of the Earth – made of dry land set apart from the sea. But the lines drawn and countries named are figments of collective imagination and made all the more meaningful as a result.
They are what we say they are. The existence of our homelands is nothing more nor less than an act of will, and also of love.
Just as creatures that once walked, swam or flew are long gone now, so there is a long list of countries that once were here but are here no longer. Sumer, Chimor, Kush… the list goes on and on.
You might say that a country is a dream shared by its inhabitants. As long as enough of the inhabitants believe in the existence of Britain, or Scotland, or wherever, then the dream remains alive and the country in question is made real.
If too many people stop believing, or choose to believe in some place else, then the dream is over and the country ceases to exist as completely as a candle flame blown out by the wind.
I will always believe in Britain, come what may. That will never be taken from me.
The most familiar line of the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter to a 14th century Pope, concerned the necessity of 100 Scots remaining alive if Scotland were to prevail.
Neil Oliver pictured with his wife Trudi, sons Teddy, Archie and daughter Evie with dog Gracie
My dream of Britain requires just me myself alone – it will last as long as me – but as many as want to are welcome to join me.
The question of whether or not Britain should continue to exist has been haunting our lives for years now.
In 2014, a referendum asked the population of Scotland whether or not it was deemed a good idea to remain part of Britain, to maintain its existence. A majority said they did wish the Union to prevail – 55 per cent of voters in fact.
The 55/45 split is well known. Less familiar to most is the fact that of the 32 council areas in Scotland, 28 said they preferred to maintain the three-centuries-old Union.
Many of those councils were small, with small populations dwarfed by those of conurbations elsewhere. But we are all told, are we not, that small voices must be listened to as well as large, and that small, determined, self-confident places might know their own minds?
In spite of that decision, that clean and clear ‘once in a generation’ decision – that decision that both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond swore, in writing, they would accept and uphold – the question has never gone away.
In spite of that decision, that clean and clear ‘once in a generation’ decision – that decision that both Nicola Sturgeon (pictured) and Alex Salmond swore, in writing, they would accept and uphold – the question has never gone away
On the last page of his popular classic, Culloden, about the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, John Prebble elegantly expressed the nature of dreams, or at least their power over us even when all seems lost.
He wrote: ‘A lost cause will always win a last victory in men’s imaginations.’
The Nationalist cause in Scotland is stubborn. I will admit to understanding stubbornness, being sympathetic to the trait and also admiring of it. This is because I am stubborn too, as stubborn as any nationalist could ever hope to be.
My dream of Britain will always live in me. There is undoubtedly a requirement for relentless stubbornness and determination when it comes to the question of whether Britain – the dream of Britain, that is – should continue or be blown out. As far as I am concerned, it is necessary most of all to see that it is that dream that matters most. In the end it might be all that matters.
Like everyone else involved in deciding the future of Britain, I have read and listened to countless thousands of words on the subject.
When it comes to predicting the prospects of a Scotland alone I have driven myself half demented trying to decide who and what to believe.
The nature of the Border, the ownership of the oil, the currency, the sharing of the national debt, the Barnett formula, relations with the European Union, the Armed Forces, the fishing grounds… on and on goes the litany of concerns, opinions, promises, accusations, threats and denials.
Both sides have at times declared victory – outright victory – in the economic debate. At the same time there have always been those on the separatist side evidently of the mind that the risk is worth it – come hell or high water it will be all right on the night. While others (with brains wired for the task, unlike my own) continue to fight that good fight, I have moved in a different direction.
I know what I have come to believe about all of the above, but I will leave that much aside. Why? Because long ago I realised that the economic argument was not what mattered to me. Dreamers of dreams and those who pursue causes, lost or otherwise, care not a jot for economics.
While trying to hammer the Scots into submission, King Edward I (pictured) wrote to the Pope to assert the ancient nature of England’s claim on the whole island
In my heart I respect this. A dream as grand as a country to believe in, to belong to, to stand up for, to speak for, to fight and to die for is a prize beyond gold or any other treasure. The economics matter – of course they do and for many people such is the be-all and end-all of the necessary discussion. I get that and respect that. But I am well beyond making the so-called ‘economic argument’ myself. Just as I would not ask a mother to put a price on her child’s heart, so I will not seek to challenge, to tarnish and sully a dream, with talk of money. What is truly at stake here, at least for me, is the business of the heart.
History has been invoked – again and again and again until everyone is blue in the face (well, one side certainly).
Both sides – Unionist and separatist – reach backwards in time in pursuit of origin myths and superior claims of ownership of place and people, hearts and minds.
This is among the oldest tricks in the book and has been tried more times than anyone might count. While trying to hammer the Scots into submission, King Edward I wrote to the Pope to assert the ancient nature of England’s claim on the whole island. Quoting historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, he said his countrymen were descended from a Roman named Brutus, that Brutus was the root of the very name Britain.
Quoting historian Geoffrey of Monmouth (pictured), he said his countrymen were descended from a Roman named Brutus, that Brutus was the root of the very name Britain
Since the English were in Britain first, went Edward’s logic, then the whole place must be his by right. The Scots replied by sending a party of churchmen led by one Baldred Bisset to talk to the Pope in person.
There in the Holy Father’s summer home in the hill town of Anagni, Bisset declared that the Scots were descended from Noah, that his descendants had fled Israel, all the way to Scythia on the Black Sea.
One of them had married a princess called Scota, who led them on an odyssey to the land subsequently named after her, bringing with her as an heirloom the Stone of Destiny upon which Scots kings were crowned ever after.
(Britain is certainly an old name – much older than England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales. It seems likely that when the Romans first encountered these islands, splashing ashore somewhere on the south coast, they asked the locals what they called the place. The reply would have been something like Prytain and the Romans’ attempt at pronouncing the word – called an ethnonym – became Britannia.)
But I ask you… Brutus, Scota – who really cares about the truth or otherwise of those ghosts now? Just as the economic argument is too shallow, so fairytales told to a Pope seven centuries ago are inadequate.
Neither ghosts nor fairy tales make foundations deep enough for persuading people of the best path to take now, into the future.
The Union is more than 300 years old. The coming together of Scotland and England, on May Day 1707, was hardly a happy one and no one denies it. The bride was poor and the groom knew he was being married only for his money. Unhappy or not, it was to prove the best thing that ever happened to either of them.
The Scotland and England that came together then no longer exist, however. This, as much as anything else, is worth remembering. Our parents, happy or not, are gone now and never coming back. It is we, the children of that union who must decide what is to be done with our shared inheritance.
More recently Scots, some Scots, have sought to distance themselves from the long years of Empire and Commonwealth.
What was once cause for common pride has been recast as national shame and some of those Scots have sought to pretend, to themselves most fervently of all, that imperial Britain was none of their doing.
The Scotland and England that came together then no longer exist, however. This, as much as anything else, is worth remembering. Pictured: The Scotland-England border
Apparently a big boy – England – did it and ran away. This stance is so wide of the mark, the claim so utterly false, as to be nothing short of a bare-faced lie.
We Scots were talented and enthusiastic builders and administrators of empire – as wedded to the enterprise as anyone else and grown rich and fat on the profits in the process. If there is shame to be apportioned then it is ours as much as anyone’s.
While there might be little to be gained now from knowing whether Brutus or Scota made the earliest footprints on the homelands, it is surely vital we remember the truth of all our behaviours during the last three centuries of our coupling at least – the bad as well as the good.
So much for economics and history – both matter but not enough, either together or alone. What matters is who we are now, who we think we are, who we could or should be in the future.
In seeking to portray Britain and British-ness in a bad light – a corrupt and sinful enterprise best dismantled and discarded – the champions of Scottish separatism have somehow claimed the moral high ground in its entirety.
Not only were the sins of Empire committed behind our backs, without our knowing (don’t you know) apparently it is the Scots, the Scots alone, that are the egalitarian, caring defenders of freedom.
South of the Border, therefore, lies the embodiment of all that is corrupt, selfish and heartless – the Mordor that is Westminster. It is worth noting that since it has long been unfashionable for the SNP and its supporters to openly voice hatred for England and things English, ‘Westminster’ has become the handy proxy.
South of the Border, therefore, lies the embodiment of all that is corrupt, selfish and heartless – the Mordor that is Westminster
Something similar lurks furtively behind every disdainful reference to the ‘London parties’, by which the SNP mean Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and anyone else that might speak up in favour of a United Kingdom.
If not economics or history, then what? How to make the claim that we, the inhabitants of these islands, are one family?
In the end I can only speak for myself and from my own heart. That much is all I truly know.
More by luck than good judgment, and mostly by means of the magic carpet provided by making television, I have seen a great deal of these islands.
I have circumnavigated the coastline multiple times. I have criss-crossed the interior. I have seen the landscape from the sky, from the cockpit of fighter jets, vintage biplanes and microlights. I have been on its encircling waters in kayaks, battleships and just about anything in between that floats, and under its waters in scuba gear and a nuclear submarine.
I have had a thorough look around. Long before the end I realised it was all one place, that the national borders drawn across it had no meaning for me and were invisible anyway.
I have seen for myself how fisherfolk in Cornwall have more in common with others of their kind in Fife than either has with any inhabitants of the interior.
I have seen for myself how fisherfolk in Cornwall have more in common with others of their kind in Fife than either has with any inhabitants of the interior. Pictured: Fishermen in Charlestown, Cornwall
You might say the same common ground is there with fishermen in France or Spain, but there is no denying the added strength of bonds made by shared language, shared culture, shared history, shared centuries.
I have also found it unavoidable to see the connections between the character of folk in Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow on account of shared shipbuilding heritage.
My English father-in-law learned his trade as an engineer in the coalmines of Kent before coming north to make the family that is part of my own. His Scottish father had worked as a miner in the pits of both the Central Belt of Scotland and in England’s South-East. Both talk and talked with nothing but love for that lost trade.
It was a love born of camaraderie and shared experience in an often dangerous world.
Underground it hardly mattered where you had been born, as long as you could do the job and cared to look out for the wellbeing of the other men on the shift. Miners were miners.
I have noticed that differences in accent and dialect, style and demeanour, the countless idiosyncrasies providing the dizzying multicolour of the tapestry of Britain happen mile by mile, between one valley and the next, and are not all about national boundaries.
Most of all, and best of all, I can say with hand on heart that I have been received with nothing but affection in every town and city, nook and cranny.
Year after year, as a Scot abroad, I have been made to feel at home all over. When I toured Britain with one of my books last year and the year before, going from theatre to theatre, I stepped out onstage one memorable night in Liverpool into a welcome of cheers that took me aback so much I almost burst into tears.
I have no connection to that city on the Mersey and yet I was nearly knocked to the back wall of the stage by the wave.
I know that might sound self-indulgent but I have to write about what I have experienced as a citizen of Britain, to make clear why it all matters to me the way it does.
All of this is personal in the end, perhaps for all of us. How could I not love this place – this whole place – and so hope with all my heart that it remains one place?
If so much is cut away from me I will feel the itch of missing limbs until my dying day. I have been around enough of the wider world to know that most places are not like Britain, not at all.
Every time I hear the place being run down for some or other alleged failing I want to ask: ‘Compared to where?’
That anyone at all would imagine it were possible to break this wonder into pieces and yet somehow retain its fragile, precious gifts in each of the tattered remnants is beyond me.
A torn fragment of a work of art is not enough. Once it’s gone, it is forever and we will all be diminished by its passing.
This Britain of ours has been and remains a bright light in a dark and darkening world, a magnet for humanity moving in hopes of somewhere better.
When the EU was conjured into being, it copied our Union in hopes of having a fraction of its success. Whatever the intention, those builders fell short of the mark.There is no EU welfare state, and German taxes do not pay for healthcare in Greece or pensions in Spain.
Most of the wider world would rather it were more like us, that it might have what we have had. When it comes to western liberal democracy, ours is the original marque.
What I said in 2014 I will say again. The idea that we Scots might look on at a whole Britain in need of repair, in need of realignment and updating to cope with the future, and choose to cut and run just makes me blush to my fingertips with shame. I am a British Scot and the Britons are my family, all of them.
I don’t give a fig for politicians and I certainly don’t allow my feelings about the present bunch to blind me to what Britain actually is – no more than I would let this year’s crop of midges blind me to the beauty of the Highlands.
I set aside my feelings concerning the latest incumbents of various parliaments on the grounds that they – and all of us besides – are temporary tenants.
These islands of ours are rented accommodation whether we like it or not, and sooner or later we will vacate the place for new occupants. You don’t burn down the house just because you don’t care for those living in it now.
Keep the house together. This house of ours is the work of 300 years (and the rest). If there are repairs to be done, then so be it.
Let’s treat it like the grand home it is, and make it wind and watertight for the whole family again. The whole family. Let’s not break it into flats like a dodgy conversion job by cowboy builders.
I don’t base my decision on politics or economics or even history. I make my choices based on the responsibility I feel for people – alive now and yet to be born.
I love Britain more than anywhere else in the world. With all my heart I declare that those of us born here, or who have made a home here by choice, are the luckiest, most blessed of all people.
I am British. I will always be British.
- Neil Oliver is an archaeologist and broadcaster and has presented BBC television programmes including Coast and A History of Scotland. This essay was first published by These Islands. www.these-islands.co.uk