I come from a heavily Anglicised Scottish family. My mother is from Sussex. Although born in Scotland, my late dad was educated in Yorkshire and Cambridge and lived in England until he was in his late twenties. My sister has lived in Berkshire for the last four or five years, with her English partner. My aunt and uncle and cousins are from Harrogate. I have spent a fair chunk of my (still relatively young) life in London. I feel, to some extent at least, culturally English, and I’m quite happy to describe myself as “British”.
Until recently, I didn’t think any of this was particularly relevant to the debate over Scottish independence. I had assumed that, like me, most people looked at the issue in strictly political terms: how well is Scotland governed now and could it be governed better in the future?
I inherited this attitude from my dad, who, as an influential figure in the SNP during the 1970s and ‘80s, argued that independence was about transforming Scotland’s social and economic landscape not, as the traditionalists insisted, reviving some long-suppressed sense of Scottish national pride.
I still agree with my dad. I’m not voting Yes in September in order to feel more Scottish, or to make other people – people I don’t know – feel less British. I’m voting Yes because I think Scotland has been systematically mismanaged by successive UK governments, and because I think the Scottish people – however they choose to define themselves – would benefit from taking responsibility for their own future.
I was wrong, however, to assume that identity was irrelevant, because it isn’t. Identity matters. This point was hammered home last weekend when the Sunday Times published a provocative story about the overwhelming opposition of English-born voters to independence. According to the Times, 66 per cent of “English Scots” intend to vote No, compared to just 42 per cent of “Scottish Scots”.
In some respects, this shouldn’t have been all that surprising. There is a well-established link between an individual’s national identity and their views on the constitution. The more assertively “Scottish” a voter is, the more likely he or she is to support independence. Likewise, the more assertively “British” they are, the more likely they are to back the Union.
Nonetheless, I didn’t realise the divide was so pronounced. What, exactly, makes English-born Scots so anxious about independence? Are they frightened a Yes vote would seal Scotland off from the rest of the UK? It’s possible there is a class dynamic at work here; that Anglo-Scots tend to be better off, making them disproportionately hostile to constitutional change. But this is just conjecture, based, anecdotally, on my own experiences growing up in middle class south Edinburgh (where there happens to be a lot of English accents).
Another explanation – a more troubling one, from a Yes perspective – is that many English-born Scots remain deeply uncomfortable with Scottish nationalism.
There has been a lot of debate recently about the “civic” credentials of the SNP (and of the Yes movement more broadly). Quite a few unionists – Tom Gallagher, George Galloway and the entire editorial board of the Daily Telegraph, for instance – seem absolutely convinced that Alex Salmond is just a glossier, cannier version of Ratko Mladic. Others are more sensible. Mainstream unionists such as David Cameron and Douglas Alexander generally avoid trying to tie the SNP to blood-and-shortbread nationalism – although that doesn’t stop them from playing the identity card.
The leaders of the No campaign regularly present the referendum as a choice between competing identities: compound “Britishness” on the one hand (Scottish-English, Scottish-British, English-British etc.) and monochrome “Scottishness” on the other. The implication is pretty clear: the break-up of the political union means the end of the social one – vote Yes if you want to, but don’t go thinking you’ll still be British afterwards, because you won’t.
This is more or less exactly what David Cameron said in February: “The United Kingdom is an intricate tapestry, millions of relationships woven tight over more than three centuries. That’s why, for millions of people, there is no contradiction in being proud of your Scottishness, Englishness, Britishness – sometimes all at once. Some say none of this would change with independence, that these connections would stay as strong as ever. But the fact is: all these connections – whether business or personal – are eased and strengthened by the institutional framework of the UK.”
It becomes easier, in this light, to see why so many Anglo-Scots back the Union. They don’t want their “personal connections” to be “weakened” by separation. Who would? But it puts me in an awkward position. According to Cameron, my support for independence represents a direct threat to my sense of “Britishness”; I can have a stronger and more responsive Scottish democracy or a dual Anglo-Scottish identity, but not both.
At one stage, it would have been the nationalists who cast things in such binary terms. These days, it is the unionists who seem obsessed with flags and symbols and “belonging”. Identity shouldn’t matter in the referendum debate, but for as long as Cameron and others act like “Britishness” is something they can give and take away, it’s going to.