Friday, 23 August 2013

Thinking about citizenship and identity

"CITIZENSHIP - it's what we do," said Moira Tasker of Citizens Advice Edinburgh, introducing tonight's conversation at St John's on identity, citizenship and the 2014 independence referendum.

Moira is chairing the discussion, and the speakers are Iain G. Mitchell QC (in a personal capacity) and Perry Walker (New Economics Foundation, and a leading proponent of citizens' democracy).

Iain Mitchell started by talking about the debate of the head and the heart, and the very different feelings which people have about Scottish, British and European identities, individually and collectively.

"If we conduct the debate on independence without mutual respect from each others' identities, it will be very sterile," he declared.

Perry Walker began to look at the different 'narratives' involved. The pro-independence one might be, for example, "it's time to grow up". The counter-narrative would be about constraints from London and the EU, in terms of ownership.

On the pro-UK side the narrative may be about "the family of Britain". Again, the counter-argument might be about the suppression of the Scottish part of that identity as part of empire.

"Identity is about where we are comfortable being at home," Iain Mitchell responded. "But yer ain folk might be  the whole world, or a significant part of it."  History has a part to play. "I do have difficulty with the quasi-mysticism of identity with the land... because at its worst it can become exclusive."

At present, people born here or with the right of citizenship actually have two such legal citizenships - British and European - though many are not aware of this. Independence might, Mitchell suggested, challenge that. But to what extent is the sense of being a citizen a legal or a participation one?

He added that, with the possible exception of the EU, where he suggested that the broad legal consensus is that Scotland would be a new member and the other parts of what is now the UK would be a continuing member, Scottish membership of other international treaties and organisations would not be especially problematic under independence.

However, Mitchell said, what was needed was to define the debate better - again, both at the heart and head level.

Perry Walker explained that, as someone based in England, his interest was in citizens' participation and engagement, and that the card game he has brought along this evening is based on trying to listen to a variety of views across the political spectrum.

"For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert, it has been said," he added. "The decision we take is partly going to be about choosing narratives."

On the economic front, there are choices, but also assessments about the political probability of moving one way or another, Perry suggested. Iain felt there was little real room for manoeuvre.

An audience member said that she felt, however, that decisions for public ownership and industrial/social support would be both significant and possible.

After engaging with the card game, people said that they wanted a less politically charged debate, more information, and an acknowledgement that the decisions involved confidence (or not) in those who would have to negotiate and decide at the governmental level - but with influence and participation of people and communities.

The aim of the evening was not to have a partisan argument, but to deepen understanding and the ability to engage. The sense was that those taking part were grateful for that.

[Image: Focus Scotland].

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