Article excerpt


DURING World War II the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders endured a challenge to its identity that some veterans considered almost as threatening as the presentday plan to merge it into a single super-regiment. So many English recruits were absorbed into its ranks that it became known as the Argyll and Bolton Wanderers.

The reason for this unprecedented mixing of soldiers from separate parts of Britain was compassionate. In the Great War of 1914-1918 friends from single towns, villages or even schools had all volunteered together. Mobilised as units, they died together amid the grim, mechanised slaughter of the Western Front.

The effect on their home communities was devastating. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of families, would learn of the death of loved ones at exactly the same time.

By 1939 it was recognised that mixing recruits into different units would be less cruel, at least to those left behind. With conscription in force from the beginning, as it had not been in World War I, the objective was easily achieved.

This blending together of servicemen produced an additional benefit. As Britain stood alone against the mighty Nazi war machine, Prime Minister Churchill and his Cabinet recognised the importance of creating an unshakeable sense of national unity.

But Britain was still a country of distinct regional identities. The majority of its people never travelled beyond their immediate neighbourhood.

Generating the understanding that bombs dropped on Clydebank harmed the interests of people in East London was not straightforward.

The warm solidarity of Britons standing together, a determined island race united in defiance of evil, was one of the most enduring legacies of war. The Ministry of Information worked assiduously to promote it, using radio, cinema and newspaper advertising to popularise the ideal of people from all classes and regions working in unison.

BUT the proud feelings of Britishness experienced by the wartime generation were not artificial. Scottish men who served in battle with comrades from England, Wales and Ireland also shared tea and friendship with them. The bonds forged by enduring shared danger were very real. So were the friendships formed by young Scottish women who moved south in their thousands to work in ammunition, light engineering and textile factories in England.

These life-changing experiences, together with the shared realities of rationing, blackouts and omnipresent wartime bureaucracy, created the indelible impression that Scotland was an integral part of Britain.

In his excellent history of modern Scotland, Richard J Finlay of Strathclyde University writes that these experiences 'did much to enhance the sense of British identity in Scotland.

The effect of mixing so many men and women from all over Britain had the effect of introducing Scots to a wide range of people from south of the Border.

The English were no longer an abstract concept: they were chums, comrades and friends.' Last month, as he set out his vision for the future, Chancellor Gordon Brown, the man most likely to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister, sounded as if he was talking about the same country.

Calling for a 'British decade' and proclaiming his intention to make this country 'the best place to grow up in, the best place to study, the best place to start a business and to work', Mr Brown promised to 'build a Britain that makes us even more proud to be British'.

It was an impressive speech, but the depressing flaw is that enthusiasm for Britain is no longer widespread. Too often these days it feels as if our shared heritage has been forgotten.

Those who can still remember how it felt to realise that national survival was not guaranteed remain proud to call themselves British and Scottish, British and Welsh or British and English. A younger generation is much less enthusiastic. …