Neil Oliver expresses a Burkean understanding of nation and country in his own way. Nations, according to Burke, are moral incorporations that have grown over time, usually on particular land determined by physical coordinates, The moral incorporation includes families within families, and sometimes (like Australia) are linked to a familial incorporation outside it.
NEIL OLIVER’S PAEAN TO BRITAIN
28 November 2020
An emotional paean to Britain and to union, by Neil Oliver.
I was born British and as a British citizen I will live out my days. My nationality is a state of mind and I have no intention of changing either. I know who I am and what I love – and what I love is Britain, the whole place, every nook and cranny. This is my island. 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 or any other country, not really. 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 someplace 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. 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 percent 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.
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.”