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In Britain, questions of identity loom

Scotland will hold a referendum next year on independence. And British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a vote on staying in the European Union.

February 10, 2013|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron, center, has promised if reelected to hold a vote on whether Britain should stay in the European Union.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, center, has promised if reelected… (Thierry Roge / European…)

LONDON — For David Cameron, the worst-case scenario for Britain's future looks something like this:

It's 2018, and he's in his second term as prime minister. Against his advice, his country has just ripped up its membership card in the European Union, alienating its biggest trading partner and closest neighbors. That prompts Washington to seek a new ally to advocate U.S. interests across the Atlantic; suddenly, the Anglo-American "special relationship" is a little less special.

Great Britain is also a little less great. To Cameron's dismay, Scotland has separated from England and Wales to become an independent nation. A marriage that had held for more than three centuries is over, the rights to North Sea oil are in dispute and Britain's four nuclear submarines have been banished from their home bases in the Scottish lochs.

The vision of a Britain diminished in size at home and in influence abroad is a bleak one. But it's a nightmare Cameron and his compatriots could wake up to, depending on the outcome of two momentous referendums that voters here could face in the next five years.

One has already been set: Scotland will decide late next year whether to embrace independence. The other has been promised by Cameron if he wins reelection the following spring: a vote by the end of 2017 on whether Britain should remain in the EU on renegotiated terms or pull out of the world's largest trading bloc.

Either referendum has the potential to alter this country irrevocably. Together, they could radically reshape it.

The dual plebiscites are not directly related, but they reflect the struggles of a once-mighty nation, which previously commanded a global empire, trying to define its place in a rapidly changing world.

"Bring the two together, and there's — I wouldn't call it a crisis of identity, but at least an uncertainty of identity," said Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, a leading polling organization.

Both issues have been brewing for a long time in the public consciousness. Nationalism has simmered — and occasionally boiled over — in Scotland ever since it formally joined up with England in 1707. British dissatisfaction with the European Union has also been building over decades, as integration between member states deepens, often against London's wishes.

That the two issues may come to a head within a relatively brief period is mostly political happenstance. In Scotland, a nationalist party's surprise victory in local elections two years ago gave it a mandate to call for a vote on independence. As for Europe, the Conservative-led government that took power under Cameron in 2010 is chock-full of "Euroskeptics" pushing for Britain to loosen its ties to the EU or sever them completely.

But complicated notions of identity are in play in both situations, raising questions Britons must wrestle with as residents of an island that is at once part of Europe yet cut off from it, and that contains three distinct groups within its shores — the English, the Scottish and the Welsh.

"There has always been, going back centuries, a certain level of ambiguity about our national identity in terms of whether we're English or British, Scottish or British, Welsh or British," Kellner said. "Add on to that the question of Europe. Here the problem is that there has never really been a sense of European identity, whereas on the Continent … there's a sense of European-ness."

Britain has traditionally been most comfortable with an arm's-length relationship with its neighbors across the English Channel, which for centuries served as a barrier against invading armies and ideas. In his long-awaited speech Jan. 23 pledging a referendum on EU membership, Cameron acknowledged that the histories of Britain and Europe were inextricably linked but warned that there was no escaping Britain's view of itself as a breed apart.

"Our geography has shaped our psychology," he said. "We have the character of an island nation: independent, forthright, passionate in defense of our sovereignty."

It's that last quality that fuels much of British hostility toward the EU.

Rules from Brussels limiting work hours, mandating environmental protections or even dictating the shape and size of fruit for sale have exasperated many Britons, who say they never agreed to give the EU such sweeping powers. What they signed up for was the common market — an economic convergence, not a political one.

"We're being precluded from our historical rights. The EU is trying to take away our identity and take democratic rights away from people," said Martin Kelly, 71, a retired banker. "It's most unwelcome and very dangerous. People don't realize it, and like lemmings are following the Pied Piper of the EU straight for the cliff."

Cameron vowed to win concessions and exemptions for Britain and then put continued membership in the EU to a referendum. He said he would campaign to stay in.

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