The lives of Scots, past and present, are inextricably intertwined with the history of Great Britain. It seems to me that they can no more escape that intertwined fate than than Scotland itself can leave its island home.
Watching the Scottish independence debate from the border city of Carlisle has been a fascinating, occasionally maddening, at times downright emotional, experience. Though I grew up in Kent, I have spent most of my adult life in the Borders, and have lived on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall. In that time I have grown to love the people of Scotland, for, among other things, their toughness, lack of pretension, fierce intelligence, and unforgiving humour. My own loyalties – bonds of family and friendship – my life – straddle the border. Scotland is my second home.
When the referendum was announced, I was rather looking forward to seeing my Scots friends engaged in thrashing out the various arguments. They are an intelligent and fiery bunch, and love a good debate. For most of this year I have been impressed with the overall tenor of the conversation, too, as it seemed passionate but largely free from hatred or bitterness. All that has changed in the past few weeks, however, as the polls have narrowed, the stakes have risen, opinions have become entrenched, and the tone has become increasingly rancorous. Paranoia has become endemic, with each side accusing the other of all manner of dirty tricks and underhand tactics. Obsession has replaced passion. Reason has flown. Many Yes voters seem monomaniacally fixated on BBC bias, for example, as if that is the reason so many of their fellow Scots are voting No. One of the most ardent Yes voters I know seemed convinced that Facebook was deliberately removing pro-independence posts. He also darkly hinted that the timing of government announcements about ISIS was “suspicious”, as if events in the middle-east were being coordinated in order to distract people from events north of the border.
This is a shame to me. As I know reasonable, principled people on both sides of this issue, I find the tendency towards demonization that now accompanies much of this rhetoric very ugly indeed.
I wouldn’t dream of telling the Scots how to vote. I am, however, entitled to my own feelings on the matter, not least because any changes will surely affect me, and one of the unexpected outcomes of watching this debate, for me at least, has been discovering just how fond I am of our (admittedly imperfect) Union. I like the idea of different peoples sharing risks and rewards across borders. My instinct, that is to say, is for unification, rather than fragmentation; shared sovereignty, above nationalism, which I’ve always distrusted as an inherently reactionary tendency. As a man of the left, I have been surprised at how easily nationalists have been able to sell the urge to retreat behind national boundaries as the progressive option.
No one would describe the history of our Union as a marriage built on love and mutual understanding. The English were worried about a Catholic ascending to the Scottish throne; the Scots needed bailing out after their imperial misadventures in Darien. Yet the result proved beneficial in ways its designers could never have foreseen. In many ways the Union was the making of Scotland. Access to the markets of the British Empire saw Scotland going, in less than two centuries, from one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of its richest. It is impossible to imagine the triumphs of the Scottish Enlightenment, which did so much to shape the modern world, without the Union. Though nationalists like to describe the English as their would be colonial masters, when it came to matters of Empire Scots were often the first in line, as a simple glance at the surnames in the phone books of Canada, New Zealand and Australia would attest. As the historian Graham Stewart noted, “[a]s soldiers, traders, financiers, engineers, politicians and missionaries, Scots were preeminent in pushing the perimeters of the British Empire to their furthest extents.”
The most profound and lasting benefit to unification, though, was peace. In the centuries before the 1707 Act of Union the Borders were a lawless warzone and Carlisle a fortress. The Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 aside, no blood was spilt keeping two nations of vastly unequal size and power together for three centuries. That makes the United Kingdom among the most successful political entities in modern European history. While all across the continent political partnerships came and went, often dissolving violently, our experiment, with all its inherent tensions, contradictions and ironies, endured.
Until, perhaps, now. If I could press upon the minds of my English compatriots just one thing, it would be the degree to which the Union feels different north of the border. How could it not? For all that Scotland has given to the Union, and benefitted in return, it is still very much the junior partner here, and that fact can give rise to an inferiority complex in some Scots that is hard for many English people to understand. Scotland, that is to say, feels the presence of its rich, populous, powerful and assertive southern neighbour far more keenly that the English feel the presence of Scotland.
Growing up in Kent, I never once heard a properly anti-Scottish sentiment. Not once. All the people I knew either loved Scotland or were indifferent to it. Similarly, the Borderers I know generally have a high regard for Scotland and its people, particularly as, like me, many of them have ties that cross the border. If the English are guilty of anything, it is being neglectful of their northern neighbour, of taking Scotland largely for granted. The English may patronise manifestations of Scottishness – tartan and haggis and all the rest of it – but they do so without genuine malice. I don’t deny that the rabidly anti-Scottish Englishman exists – many of the Scots I know insist that he does – all I’m saying is I’ve never met him.
When I moved to Scotland, therefore, I was rather surprised at some of the bizarre views Scots attributed to the English, and their readiness to perceive hostility, slights and insults where often none existed. Living next to the English has produced a deep seam of suspicion in the Scottish character when it comes to their southern neighbour. The Scots are a remarkably proud people, but pride and sensitivity are often commingled, and it is clear there are many who view the Union not as a collaborative project between our peoples but as an English imposition that exists to subjugate them.
Several Yes voters have assured me that the push for independence is not “an anti-English thing”. I don’t quite know how seriously to take that, as it seems to me that the SNP have, quite deliberately, mined that legacy of resentment for all it is worth. Indeed, some of those same Yes voters have told me quite openly that they feel themselves in a fight to free Scotland from the English yoke.
This is the reason why attempts to persuade Scotland to stay are not received by nationalists as intended, as genuine expressions of how much the rest of the UK values Scotland’s contribution to Britain, but as a sinister and concerted effort to keep Scotland firmly under England’s thumb.
That kind of ultranationalist offense-taking seems faintly hysterical south of the wall. Fears of English domination are weirdly inflamed out of all proportion. Perception races far ahead of reality. For in what sense does political union oppress the Scots? Westminster may be the seat of power, but it has never been an all-England club. Britain has had something like eleven Scottish Prime Ministers, including, you can be forgiven for forgetting, the last one. As it stands, there are 52 Scottish MPs at Westminster, roughly proportional to Scotland’s share of the population. There are even 12 Scots in the hated coalition government. Scotland also has its own parliament, with considerable powers over law, health and education. The Scots enjoy free prescriptions, free higher education and elderly care. Though anti austerity rhetoric is driving the Yes campaign, Scotland actually gets over a thousand pounds more spent on public services per head than the English receive. I’m not saying the constitutional order is perfect as it is, or that Scotland shouldn’t seek to change things, only that the vision of the Union as the one thing that is holding back Scotland’s human potential is a bit daft. Indeed, one of the things I most admire about Scotland is the fact being tied to larger political entity has not come with a corresponding loss of identity or culture, but rather the opposite. There is such a thing as Scottish literature, Scottish music, Scottish film – Scotland’s is a culture that stands up to English dominance perfectly well.
Alex Salmond says secession would be good for relations between our peoples. I don’t see how that could possibly be the case, as this referendum has already inflamed divisions that had laid dormant, and created new tensions where none existed. It has exaggerated our differences, and focused attention on what divides us rather than unites us, in order to sell the idea that our two nations are no longer compatible, and that a Scotland free of England can be anything they wish it to be.
The problem with nationalism is that it breeds. A Scotland that turns inward will encourage England to do the same. Narrow self-interest will triumph. Our paths will diverge. Breaking the country up into smaller chucks is a recipe for parochialism and insularity. It will promote ‘us vs them’ thinking. All that we’ve shared will be easier to forget. This is how the wedge is driven in.
Discussing the referendum with a good friend and fully committed nationalist, he said to me, “the further and further down south you go, we’re nothing like those people.” He seemed to have momentarily forgotten that I hail from Kent, and that when he said “those people” he was meaning me. Out of all the strange and heady things I’ve heard during this long battle, that was the worst.