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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A 'Devolving' Nation Asks Itself: Whither Britain?




EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Britain is going through an identity crisis that threatens to tear the centuries-old country apart.


Never was this clearer than a few weeks ago, when the British Broadcasting Corp. issued new reporting guidelines frowning on the use of the words "Britain" and "British."


Reporters were told that the Scots, for example, bristle when marauding English soccer hooligans are described as "British."


The argument went that Scots are British, too, and Scottish soccer fans are saints compared to their southern neighbors.


It got worse. Since Wales and Scotland consider themselves "nations" in the United Kingdom, the use of "nation" was proscribed. A BBC weatherman would describe rain "across the U.K." instead of "across the nation."


The irony was glaring: The venerable state-run broadcaster, the very symbol of Britishness for millions around the world, was declaring war on its own name.


"The nation that dare not speak its name," the Times thundered in a report on BBC's editorial changes.


Beneath the bickering about the new guidelines, however, lurked far more gripping and painful questions about the future of Britain, whose empire once spanned the globe.


Next Thursday, Scotland will elect its first parliament in 300 years. Wales will elect its first national assembly.


The move to "devolve" political power to Scotland and Wales from London is a gamble by Prime Minister Tony Blair that giving Scots and Welsh more say in their affairs will halt growing nationalism.


Claims that Blair's move was the death knell of Britain may be exaggerated. But the elections look at least to be the first skirmish in a larger battle for Britain.


Looming over the votes will be the fundamental question of what, if anything, it still means to be British.


To the outside world, Britain is alive and well through its clich?s f the Union Jack, the queen, James Bond, British troops fighting dictators from Hitler to Milosevic, the Beatles and Britpop, bad teeth, good manners, warm beer, wet weather.


But the death of the empire and more recent changes from globalization and the end of the Cold War, have left Britain strangely adrift.


"When was Britain? And how was it for you?" asked columnist Tim Williams in the Scotsman newspaper. Television host Jon Snow said: "I think Britishness died off in my lifetime and nothing has replaced it. When I was a child, it was Winston Churchill, beefeaters and lots of pink on the globe. Personally, I'm a Londoner living in Europe."


Former Prime Minister John Major's Britain of "long shadows on country cricket grounds" is scarcely recognizable in the more hip, multicultural, melting pot of places like London.


"Being British is about singing karaoke in bars, eating Chinese noodles and Japanese sushi ? using an Apple Mac, holidaying in Florida," wrote pop impresario Malcolm McLaren.


Polls show many Scots and Welsh f not to mention people in Northern Ireland f do not feel particularly British.


A Gallup survey that asked Scots their nationality found 62 percent said Scottish and just 36 percent said British.


Scotland and England were independent nations until they united to form Britain in 1707. But Scotland fiercely guarded its distinct culture as well as control over education and law.


Scotland and Wales have fielded their own rugby and soccer teams for decades. Britain competes under one flag in the Olympics, but the Welsh and Scots muster little enthusiasm for an event usually dominated by the English.


The rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism could have an unintended effect f English nationalism.


The English are stung by what they see as the ungrateful Scots and Welsh and wonder why England must do without its own assembly. The emblem of St. George, England's patron saint, is showing up more on flags and in greetings cards.


There are worries that devolving power to Scotland will only endorse it as a separate part of Britain and lead eventually to outright separation.


Already political parties are fighting for power in Scotland with names divorced from the rest of Britain f Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservative Party, the Scottish National Party.


Pro-independence nationalists admit they want to use the new parliament as a step to independence. While they appear set to lose to Labour in May's vote, they will be the main opposition and can launch a bid for control of parliament every four years.


Blair and his colleagues have defended the notion of Britain and Britishness. In a recent speech, Gordon Brown, the finance minister and one of many Scots in the Blair Cabinet, used the word Britain or British 22 times in the first eight sentences.


"I will suggest the whole of Britain will benefit from the birth of new centers of power. We can be proud of a Britain which becomes the first successful multicultural, multiethnic and multinational country in the world," Brown said.