The view of an Englishman living in Scotland on the independence referendum

The Scottish Independence Referendum – Yes or No?

 I am a mongrel of the British Isles. Self-exiled in Lancashire throughout their married life, my parents were defiantly Yorkshire in origin and spirit. However, my father’s great-great grandfather had migrated with his sheep from south west Scotland to the West Riding early in the nineteenth century. And somewhere in my father’s pedigree there is the splendidly named Sabina Fury, from County Mayo in the west of Ireland. Born in Manchester, I spent most of my working life in London, but for the last 20 years I have lived in Edinburgh. I cannot claim to be a Scot, but I do not plan to return to England.

So, shall I vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the referendum on independence later this year? All the arguments about whether every family in Scotland would be £100 a year better off or worse off after independence seem to me to miss the point completely. The key issue is about national identity rather than a crude calculus of self-interest. The problem is that British identity has always been weak and confused.

Until recently, ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ were virtually interchangeable concepts. In the Second World War, we listened to Vera Lynn singing “There’ll always be an England”, an unofficial national anthem. Noel Coward’s patriotic play Cavalcade ends with the toast  – “Let’s couple the future of England with the past of England.” No mention, then, of Scotland, let alone Wales or Northern Ireland (which anyway has never been part of Britain). Even foreigners think of Britain as England. Napoleon derided England as a nation of shopkeepers, not Britain. In the First World War, Germany united behind the slogan “Gott strafe England”. In Mein Kampf it was England’s fighting spirit that Hitler admired and England’s empire that he envied. American friends send an email to say they are coming across to England when they plan to visit Edinburgh.

Scotland not only feels different from England, it is different. With overwhelming public support, there is a broad cross-party consensus that national and local public services need to be safeguarded and not outsourced or privatized. If the proposal to sell off the Royal Mail had been put before the Scottish Parliament, I doubt whether the number of votes in favour would have reached double figures. The great god mammon does not rule north of the Tweed.

In international affairs, Scotland does not have a post-colonial hankering to “punch above its weight”. Britain’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq got little or no public support, though there is sympathy for the soldiers – many of them Scots – who have been sent there. The absurdity of the Trident base on the Upper Clyde is seen to be self-evident, when there is no feasible target for nuclear missiles on the geopolitical horizon.

By contrast, Scotland’s commitment to the European Union seems to be secure. Perhaps this is a distant echo of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, but it is real enough. What would be the situation if the ‘No’ vote triumphs in the independence referendum and a majority of those living in Scotland vote to stay in the EU at a subsequent referendum, with a majority south of the border wanting to leave?

Finally, there is an intangible difference between England and Scotland in the way that people engage with each other. The idea that life is all about competition rather than cooperation seems absurd if you live in a crofting community on Skye or in a tenement or tower block in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Cooperation entails mutual respect between groups of people and between individuals.

Of course, things are not perfect in Scotland – Rangers and Celtic and Hibs and Hearts are witness to that. But going to meetings round a table in London is a shock to the system now. In Scotland, if you want to speak you wait until someone has finished before you intervene. In London, you have to interrupt before someone else does. The shouting, baying and derisory jeers at Prime Minster’s question time in the House of Commons only reinforce the view from Scotland that there are two distinct cultures.

So, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? With some sadness at the breaking of bonds forged by history, family and a shared island, for this Englishman living in Scotland the vote will be ‘Yes’.

This is a note prepared by my friend Jeremy Mitchell and published with his consent. If I was in his position, I would vote ‘No’. Six years ago, I wrote a short essay on the issue of nationhood which I believe is very relevant to the debate about Scottish independence. You can read it here.


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