On Being British

Peter Pomerantsev

If Scotland votes ‘Yes’ to independence, Scots and English will both lose a country, Great Britain, but also gain a new one. I will lose one, but what will I gain? As a first-generation immigrant I can be British but never English (or Scottish or Welsh or Irish). It would be the second time I’ve lost a country. The first was the USSR. I don’t regret its demise but I’m still perturbed by airport visa forms that ask where I was born. I want to write USSR but am told to write Ukraine. Why wipe out history?

Growing up I didn’t think of myself as British. My parents could have ended up in Germany, the US, Australia. It was a fluke my father got a job at the World Service. I was a Londoner, part of the immigrant, post-national, post-everything blur. Part Jewish, part Russian, part Ukrainian, with American family and a English accent which, as I learned the language, flickered along the class spectrum depending on who I was talking to. When my father worked in Munich or Prague I lived there too. The only time I had any sense of being English was when I studied in Scotland. Once, as I was riding my bike through Edinburgh on the day of an England v. Scotland rugby game, a man wearing a St Andrew’s T-shirt ran up and screamed at me: ‘English go home!’ I hadn’t said anything. Was it the way I cycled?

After Ieaving university I moved around the world for a decade. I went from being an immigrant to an émigré. I tried to give an honest answer to the question of where I was from but it just confused people. I sometimes thought about saying: ‘I’m European.’ I spent a couple of years at a ‘European School’ in Munich, set up by the founding fathers of the EU. The idea was that pupils would ‘become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to bring into being a united and thriving Europe’. Most of the pupils’ parents were bureaucrats; some of us were the children of journalists. The school was divided into different language sections: English, German, French, Italian, Dutch. We learned the core curriculum in one language, history and geography in another. All the pupils were multilingual but the experiment flopped: instead of becoming ‘in mind Europeans’, many pupils instead retreated into national stereotypes.Gustavo, a puffy Italian boy, refused to speak other languages out of patriotism: he had grown up in Frankfurt and never really lived in Italy. At the European school I found I was no longer a Londoner or a Russian-speaker but merely ‘of the English language section’.

As I moved across the world I began to tell people I was British. At first it seemed the legally accurate thing to say. But after a while it grew on me. Loose enough to include all my pasts and presents, but structured enough to be recognisable. Could Britishness be expressed in aesthetic terms? When my father worked at the World Service he told me the main thing he had learned was how to put together a BBC radio programme, how to get the right structure to achieve the polyphony of different voices. He also told me that Britishness for him was encapsulated in those odd park benches with the individual seats separated by a little arm.

So if Scotland votes ‘Yes’, then England and Scotland can crash their Union; it’s their country, their choice. But I’m going to keep Great Britain for myself – I won’t find another shape that fits so well; the rump of South Britain will feel a lot more cramped – even if it means I end up living in airports, stubbornly writing ‘Great Britain’ as my place of residence on visa forms, kicking up a fuss when they don’t let my old passport across the border, dragging my park bench around the Duty Free, ranting and drunk, as if I were the last Great Briton in the world.


  • 3 September 2014 at 10:45pm
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    "The United Half a Kingdom, Principality and Province of Great Britain". Has a certain snappy ring to it.

  • 4 September 2014 at 5:30pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Buck up, old chap - things could be lot worse. What if the increasingly fissiparous politics of "identity" continues? England itself might be further divided, with the first pass being Camelot-Cash-Cow in the south and Sting-World in the north.

  • 5 September 2014 at 11:37am
    Jab ur Waqi says:
    Peter Pomerantsev's experiences and attitudes are shared more widely than even he may suppose, by (besides those caught in the immigrant-to-Britain dilemma) many too who still live in or are clossely associated with the nations of the Commonwealth, both native and emigre/expat. It's certainly a (perhaps wilfully) under-discussed phenonmenon, how much support and admiration there is for the concepts of Great Britain and Britishness (and indeed even aspects of empire) there remains among the people of the Commonwealth, even those who in all other ways may oppose the UK's arrogance on the world stage and political drift (into Americanism/globalism and its concomitant anti-intellectualism and flippancy among the political eites).

  • 8 September 2014 at 9:24pm
    Orson Presence says:
    Like you, I was in the English section of the European School, the one in Luxembourg in my case. A total guinea pig, my year was the first at the school after the UK and Ireland joined the EC. Again like you, I had a completely foreign name, although born in London to a (vaguely) English mother.

    It had its charms of course, but I left completely clueless on issues of identity, although I could discuss it fluently in four languages.

    Later on, I got a Norwegian passport, on the basis of being tired of ever closer union, but therein lies another tale.