Growing up in Northumberland, you might expect that I was well aware of the divisions and national identities within the UK. After all, Northumberland is a border county and so for hundreds of years was the battleground in the wars between England and Scotland. What better place is there to understand the ongoing difficulties of uniting four separate countries under one flag?
The reality of living in Northumberland could not be further from that. With the Scottish border less than an hour from my doorstep, many people living in my part of Northumberland have Scottish connections. The majority of my classmates in school (myself included) have at least one Scottish parent or grandparent. I did not grow up entirely ignorant of nationalism within the UK, but I never really paid much attention to it. I happily described myself as being half Scottish, but assumed that like me, everyone else within the UK would consider themselves to be British first and foremost.
Then I moved to Wales, and I began to understand more about the UK than I had in my whole life up to that point.
I was identified as being English. I had never really had a particularly strong sense of national identity as an English person before. I supported England in the football and rugby, but that is about as far as it went. But the idea of my being English was something more than that. I, along with every other English person venturing over the border, was a target for the Welsh humour and banter, as every Welsh person I met claimed to “hate the English”.
It was all in good humour of course, and I certainly never felt victimised or bullied as a result of the fact that I was English. I think it definitely added to the experience of living there, and in a funny way actually helps bond with other people, provided you don’t take any of the banter too personally. But before moving to Wales, I had never really considered the fact that I would genuinely be seen as being different because of the fact that I was English. Having a Scottish parent in Northumberland was totally ordinary. Having an English parent in Wales was something to be embarrassed about. I could not describe myself as being half-Scottish (which I am) as no true Scot would ever acknowledge that they are half-English (which is also probably true).
The consequence of this is that I developed (or maybe discovered) a national identity as being English separate from being British. I would still describe myself as being British first and foremost, but I would now also describe myself as being English which I never would have done before. In participating in with and defending myself against the banter I developed a separate concept of my own Englishness.
This then further developed to identifying myself as being from the North East separate from being English. The people of the North East are fiercely proud of their region, and I began to identify more with that for living away. The North East has a lot more in common with Wales and Scotland than the South of England – wages are low, unemployment is high, heavy industry and coal mining formed the backbone of the local economy (which was almost destroyed by Thatcher’s Government) and a high proportion of those employed are working in the public sector.
National identity and nationalism is alive and well in Wales. Whatever might be said, 99% of Welsh people do not really think any worse of you for being English, however there is a small minority who are staunchly Welsh not British, and who genuinely do despise English people for nothing more than the fact they are English. I remember living in Wales during the 2006 World Cup where one Welsh school boy in the Valleys was ordered by the local council to take down the England flag that he had up in his window on the grounds it was racist.
In 1998, when given the vote about devolution, Wales choose to have a National Assembly instead of a devolved Parliament like Scotland. In it’s early years, the Assembly faced a lot of criticism for being a pointless layer of bureaucracy with no real power. The North East was given a referendum on having its own Assembly a few years later and (living in Wales at the time) I voted against this on the basis of the toothlessness of the Assembly. However, I think 15 years on, it as started to come into its own and has been gradually gaining more power. Plaid Cymru’s blueprint for Wales is to see it as an independent nation, and if Scotland vote for independence and it is successful, I can see a similar vote for Wales occurring at some point in the future. The sense of national identity and pride is well and truly there, and that is no bad thing. I find English people are a little embarrassed by the idea of their own Englishness, and that is a shame. We are currently the only country within the United Kingdom not to have its own Parliament or National Assembly, and we should have the same to look after our interests within the Union. Perhaps that would also help ease some of the tensions within the Union, as it does seem misguided to rely on the British parliament to look after English interests – it makes it seem as if it isn’t truly a British parliament at all.
I really enjoyed living in Wales, and I do miss the banter, especially during the 6 nations (though I have never been more glad to have moved back to England than during the drubbing that Wales gave England in the final game of the 2013 6 nations – I wouldn’t have been able to show my face for weeks after that in Cardiff!). What I have taken away from my time in Wales is a greater understanding of the UK as a whole, and my own identity within that. I spent 18 years living in England with no sense of English identity – after 3 months in Wales that had all changed.
To give the UK it’s full title, it is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; Great Britain describes England, Wales and Scotland. This makes it a melting pot of different cultures and national identities under one flag. I only began to understand this by moving to one of the other countries of the UK, and so I think the UK must be a hard country for people from outside to visit and really understand. I think it would be difficult for people visiting to grasp the nuances of national identity and culture not just within the separate countries of the UK, but within the separate regions of those countries. And it will be the same for me when I am travelling abroad. A week here and there is not enough time to really get below the skin of a place and understand it’s culture. It takes time, and time is something that most people don’t have when travelling within a couple of weeks of annual leave.
The UK has so much to offer to visitors that if I had to plan a short two week break here, I wouldn’t know where to start. To try to get under the skin of the UK, I think you need to get out of England – visiting England alone will only tell one small part of the story of this nation.