Regina Erich: National identity isn’t one-size-fits-all

Universal values don't come draped in tartan, says Regina Erich. 'Picture: Neil Hanna
Universal values don't come draped in tartan, says Regina Erich. 'Picture: Neil Hanna
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‘Scotland’s ­modern identity is an inclusive one. We basically take the approach that, if you do want to be ­Scottish, you can be,” said Nicola Sturgeon in a speech at Stanford University last month. In reference to ­voting rights at the 2014 referendum she stated: “If you lived in Scotland, in our view, you were Scottish.”

Is becoming a Scot really that easy? And who is “we”?

Most people will probably disagree that national identity is merely a matter of moving house and proclaiming oneself ­Scottish. Take me, for example – a ­German living in Scotland for the past 17 years.

When I first arrived in this country there was no red ­carpet with “inclusiveness” written all over it. Instead people welcomed me with natural friendliness and kindness. Friends, neighbours and ­colleagues gently introduced me to their way of life. They allowed me to adopt their culture and language and to call Scotland home.

This didn’t happen under the banner of “Scotland’s modern identity”. It seemed to be motivated by general goodwill, a positive human trait, which has allowed me to form a sense of belonging.

Does this make me less ­German or more Scottish? Actually, it has made me a bit of both. My identity is now rooted in both cultures.

National identity is far more complex than ­Nicola Sturgeon’s one-size-fits-all version suggests. Many researchers and thinkers have explored the concept of Scottishness while less rational battles in social media are fought over what constitutes a “true Scot”. Add to that the odd angry voice demanding to keep certain migrants out, or the occasional disdain for people from other parts of Britain, and it appears that ­Nicola ­Sturgeon’s broad-brush vision of Scottish inclusiveness isn’t shared by everyone.

So, who does she actually mean when she refers to “we” in her definition of Scottishness – the Scottish people or the Scottish Government and its policies? The answer is on the government website.

The section on National ­Identity attempts to distill a formula for a ­specific Scottish identity. “We take pride in a strong, fair and inclusive national ­identity…We want all of Scotland’s ­people to take pride in their country.”

Listed are factors constituting this pride, for example landscape, heritage, culture, the education system and languages, particularly Gaelic. The government sees itself as a key player in “building pride in a strong, fair and inclusive national identity through its ability to lead, act and ­communicate” and outlines steps how to achieve this ­collective Scottishness.

In contrast, historian ­Robert Colls notes: “National identity is not something governments can invent. It is more a feeling than an ­opinion and not a policy statement… national identity should not be confused with national values.”

Values are rational, identity is not. Values are subject to collective consent, identity concerns the personal. Fairness and inclusiveness are values we share with others. They don’t make us unique and they are certainly not draped in tartan.

Regina Erich is a translator and writer. She lives in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire.