The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “British”

Scottish Independence, English identity and World reputations

UK GB diagram by CGP GreyShould Scotland vote to secure Independence from Great Britain and the United Kingdom in September 2014?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron thinks not. As reported by MSN news: In a speech at the Olympic Park in London, Mr Cameron will summon up the spirit of patriotism of the 2012 Games as he argues that the whole country will lose if Scotland votes to leave the UK ….. Independence would be bad for Scotland but would also leave the United Kingdom “deeply diminished” and would “rip the rug from under our own reputation” in the world, Mr Cameron will say … At a location carefully chosen to symbolise the successes of the whole United Kingdom working together as “Team GB”, Mr Cameron will say that the Olympic medals were won under the banner of a Union flag that was not only red and white but also blue. And he will say: “It’s Team GB I want to talk about today – our United Kingdom.” … He will stress that the decision on independence is “squarely and solely for those in Scotland to make”, saying: “It is their choice, their vote”. But he will add: “My argument today is that though only four million people can vote in this referendum, all 63 million of us are profoundly affected. “There are 63 million of us who could wake up on September 19 in a different country, with a different future ahead of it.”

The British Government has been strangely silent on the subject of the Scottish Independence vote. I’m glad Mr Cameron is at last speaking out and I agree largely with the sentiments he is expressing here.

But what has Scottish independence got to do with social work you might wonder?

In particular, picking up on the last part of the quote, the identity of 63 million individuals may be affected overnight. In fact, it may be even more that figure, as others from places within the Commonwealth Realm, Crown Dependencies and the British Overseas Territories may also feel they have a legitimate opinion on the matter (see CGP Grey’s video graphic for more about the differences between the British Isles, Great Britain and the United Kingdom etc).

The English have long been poor at having their own identity, images of dancing Morris Men and maypoles not having quite the same lure as the deeply patriotic celebrations of the Irish and Scots, the English preferring instead to consider themselves ‘British’ first. But things are changing. Anyone interested in football and rugby at least will already have noticed some of these changes. The Union Jack, once the dominant flag at English football matches has been increasingly replaced by the flag of St George in recent years. And maybe that’s a good thing. (See below for a little more information and a link to the history of the Union Jack.)

I will be sad if Scotland votes for independence in September. As David Cameron states, it will affect the identity of 63 million people, although some may feel it more than others. For myself, with an English mother and a Welsh father, as a child growing up I always identified as British, and I was proud of my Celtic heritage. Over the years I became aware of anti English sentiments among some quarters in Wales, and being of ‘mixed heritage’ (part Welsh) doesn’t make me any more welcome. With the setting up of the Welsh Parliament, or National Assembly for Wales, I have found myself increasingly replying that I am English first, British second (and European third). My Celtic heritage is being denied. My identity is changing. It has felt like a loss.

Which brings me back to the relevance of social work. Our identities change throughout our lives: from child to teenager to young adult, middle aged and older adult; from single to in a relationship, partnership or married, to divorced or widowed; to become parents or not, or step-parents; moving through education, work and retirement. These are all identity changes that affect people from all cultures in some way or another, developing over time as we are aware of growing older, plan getting married or having children, move through being a pre-schooler to student to graduate to worker. Together they form a raft of changes, that make us a part of the society we live in, and they are happening also to the people around us. They are changes that are expected. Sometimes we face them with trepidation or excitement, such as the first day in a new school or at work, a wedding or the birth of a baby, others we barely notice with the passage of time, until suddenly we realise we are not as young or fit as we were.

We may know of people, including ourselves, who have changed their religious beliefs and identity. But, with the exception of a few people who emigrate and take on the citizenship and identity of another country, it’s not often we experience changes in our national, cultural or ethnic identity. British history is riddled with such changes, as we have ‘conquered’ and ‘granted independence’ to what seems like half the world in the last several hundred years (again covered in the video link below). But that is not so close to home as the Scottish Independence issue.

All the opportunities to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds, races or religions, to ourselves, all the training in understanding diversity, cannot give us the experience of what it feels like to struggle with your own ethnic identity. So, whether you consider yourself English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British or European, even regardless of whether you are white or BME, now is a great time to ask the question: how does it feel to have someone else in control of my racial and ethnic identity? Four million Scottish people have that call over 63 million people in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Maybe answering that question will add a chink of understanding and empathy to the subject of diversity.

As an aside, the quotes from David Cameron indicate a confusion in the terms GB and UK – “It’s Team GB I want to talk about today – our United Kingdom.”

UK or GB who knows the difference?

Well one man does, thankfully. But perhaps not David Cameron. In trying to draw on solidarity from the Olympic Games, in his speech he will mix the terms: “It’s Team GB I want to talk about today – our United Kingdom.”

In his rapid-fire video graphic on YouTube CGP Grey explains the difference (apologies: all attempts to embed the video here failed, please follow the link to YouTube instead – the image at the top of this blog comes from this video).

The Union Jack

The “Union Jack” as it is commonly known.

The history of the Union Jack can be found on Wikipedia, however summarised it is the “Cross of Saint Andrew counterchanged with the Cross of Saint Patrick, over all the Cross of Saint George”, in other words, a composite of the flags of Scotland, England and Ireland. The origins of the flag date back to 1603, developing through various political changes into the version shown here that was adopted in 1801. As Wales was already part of England when the form of the flag began in 1603 the Welsh flag is not included. Discussions have begun in some quarters as to changing the Union Jack should Scotland vote for independence.

Other countries still sufficiently identify with their history linked to the United Kingdom to include the current Union Jack within their own flags: Australia, Hawaii, Niue, New Zealand, Tuvalu, Fiji, Cook Islands, Bermuda, British Columbia, British Indian Ocean Territory and various States within the US and provinces with Canada.

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Who are the non-indigenous?

Modern society is coming to realise that the wisdom of many of the indigenous populations around the world has some profound insights into the damage done to our planet through the processes of industrialisation and subsequent technological developments.

Campaigns and advertising have highlighted the plight of those same indigenous populations, whose lands have been raped and their cultures all but annihilated.

But who are the non-indigenous who are getting the blame for the woes of the world and indigenous populations?

Travelling the world and meeting people from different cultures and lifestyles to my own has brought home to me just how much I have taken my country’s history for granted.  I may not have been a star in history classes but I can still rattle off references to Bede’s History of England; the Doomsday Book; and the time when the town of my birth was part of an actual island, the Isle of Thanet, separated from mainland England by the River Wantsum, until the monks of medieval times set about land reclamation, reducing the flow of the river water until what is left today is no more than a ditch in most places.

With Columbus discovery of the Americas in 1492 Europeans became the architects of invasion in the name of progress. From the early 1500’s the Spanish in particular were successful in colonising the Central and South Americas, most famously wiping out the Inca civilisations and leaving behind Catholic colonialism, Catholicism remaining the dominant religion to this day.  In the light of modern thought the methods of the conquistadors, the enforcing of their religion, seem inappropriate and unduly harsh.  Yet, for many, although trade was a part of their goal, what they did was in the sincere belief that the peoples in these countries needed to hear their message, needed the gift of salvation that they brought.  Their descendents can only trace their heritage no more than some five hundred years before they have to go to another culture to follow their ancestry.

The conquest of the North Americas took a little longer but still destroyed many of the native cultures.  The early settlers brought with them their developing knowledge of what would become the industrial revolution, along with guns and gunpowder and a determination to mine the ground for gold, silver and other precious metals.

Modern North Americans have a cultural history that goes back only a few generations in their own homeland.

The pioneers who broadened the early settlement areas to reach the west of the continent faced unknown dangers, crossing barren and hostile territory, carrying few possessions: blankets to sleep under, a few clothes, pots and pans for cooking, and, often, their Bibles.  They demonstrated physical and emotional strengths beyond imagination.  Many died before they reached their destinations, some from the harsh elements of the lands they travelled across, others at the hands of the various tribes of North American Indians (the local indigenous populations) who soon realised that the white man did not have much sympathy for either their lands or their cultures.

2011 02 25 (255) - Death Valley - Queen of Sheba mine

Mechanical relic at the Queen of Sheba Mine in Death Valley

The relics of the “forty-niners” who settled from 1849 to mine in the harsh dry desert of Death Valley still stand as a monument to their achievements: the remains of mine shafts, topped with the rusting hulks of the machines they used to ferry the rocks to the surface and begin the process of extracting the precious metals.

With those who settled on the west coast came new needs: communication with the east coast and Europe: friends and family left behind.  It could take several weeks for a mail coach to cross through the harsh lands of what are now the central states of the USA.  The Pony Express fast mail service, started in 1860, brought down the mail delivery time to just ten days.   But even this was not good enough for the new settlers.  Instead they developed the telegraph and railways, putting the Pony Express out of business in just eighteen months.

In doing so they defended themselves against the local populations who were alarmed at the changes being brought to their homeland, so much so that they all but wiped out the heritage of the indigenous North American Indians.  Their old lands have all but disappeared under the sprawling cities that have sprung up over the years, their old hunting grounds turned over to ‘management’ in the form of national parks.  The stories of their battles became the legends of children playing “Cowboys and Indians” for years to come, the stuff of John Wayne and spaghetti westerns.

Today, the descendents of those pioneers are the non-indigenous population of North America.  They are people who can only trace their history back a few short centuries before they have to look to the history of the cultures of their ancestors.  They are faced with the dilemma of admiring the amazing achievements of their forebears in overcoming tremendous physical difficulties, demonstrating amazing emotional and mental fortitude, against coming to terms with the cultural destruction of the indigenous populations that that involved.

But the North American population of today are not the only non-indigenous in a foreign land.

From the late 1700’s until 1868 those lovely British people decided they were did not have room to look after criminals of all sorts and so shipped them all off to live in another New World: Australia.  Their crimes might have been varied, from petty theft to murder and everything else in between, but these people had nothing to lose.  They may not have made the same choices as the pioneers travelling to North America but they too brought with them the knowledge of the developing industrial revolution and settled in to make the best of what fate had brought them.  Mostly survivors of the poverty wrought by the English industrial revolution they too were fighters and survivors.  Between 1851 and 1871 their numbers were swelled dramatically by the Australian gold rush.  But again, their descents, the non-indigenous of Australia, have only a little over two centuries of history before they too have to look to the cultures of their ancestors in Europe.

Whether by choice or force these were people who found themselves forging new lives in new environments.

But what of the non-indigenous today?  Their identities are rooted in short histories in their lands.  They have to live with the criticisms of their ancestors.  They are denied pride in the strength, determination and suffering endured by their ancestors.  They are left with the shame of the knowledge that their ancestors, despite what they thought were good intentions, caused damage and harm.  Will social workers one day ask questions about the emotional damage caused by current policies to the non-indigenous?!

In asking the question “Who are the non-indigenous?” there is no intention to undermine either the indigenous populations or their beliefs or cultures.  Only to recognise that there is always more than one side to a story, and to recognise the impact on the descendents of the perpetrators of the crimes against the indigenous populations.  It has taken many years but we should now know that everyone loses and suffers when it comes to violence and war, domination and destruction.

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