Though my parents and most of my family were Scottish, I grew up in London and SE England. I didn’t connect well with my parents and I identified as English as a child, and this has stayed. However, I did live in Glasgow between the ages of 21 and 25 in the 1990s, and I found that, despite my Scottish roots, I had much to learn about what being a nation meant to Scots.
North and south
I had always known that Scots referred to the whole of England as “down south” – the same term which the north of England uses for the south of England. When I arrived in Glasgow, I discovered that Glaswegians referred to the Highlands as “up north” – the same term which people from the south of England use for the north of England. Also, “the north-east” was the Aberdeen area, not the Newcastle area.
The variety within Scotland
Scots were quite varied too. Edinburgh and Glasgow were big rivals and the people and places had very different feels to them. I once went to Galloway with a Glaswegian friend and neither of us understood the accent of the (very friendly) locals. People from the Highlands and Aberdeen were different again, in accent, manner, and attitudes. The numbers were smaller but Scotland was certainly a nation of regions.
Some Glaswegians couldn’t place my London accent, wondering if I was from Manchester. How bizarre! Scots read different newspapers – the Herald, the Scotsman, and the Record – and had different news and TV shows. They supported different football clubs. They supported any nation except England at football (including Germany in 1996, much to my shock!)
Scots were interested in lots of things about England but England was always a different nation – a close one, too close for comfort at times, and one which needed to be handled with care because of its power and size.
“Feeling” the nationhood of Scotland
I was in Glasgow before moves towards devolution had really started. Independence was a pipe dream and the SNP was a protest party often referred to as Tartan Tories because they scooped anti-Labour protest votes. I could not have imagined then how the political scene would change so much in 25 years.
Without my time in Scotland, I would not really have “felt” the nationhood of Scotland. I would probably have recognised its nationhood intellectually, and begrudged them a certain special place in the political order as more than just a region. But having grown up a Londoner, and unconsciously imbibed the long-established UK unitary constitutional system, I would probably never have grasped deep down that Scotland really was a nation, and not just a region of the UK.
When it comes to the House of Commons, Scotland is not even a UK region. Regions have never had any status or recognition in the membership of either House of Parliament. Until 2015, when the English Grand Committee was set up in response to devolution, nations had no status either. Commons constituencies have more or less the same number of electors across the UK.
In view of the UK’s constitutional order and history, and the deeply embedded cultural values of most English people, it is simply very difficult for us English to meaningfully embrace the reality of the nationhood of Scotland, and by extension, that of Wales and Northern Ireland too. This observation applies most acutely to people from the south East of England, being further from the borders with other UK nations, and closer to the corridors of power.
English attitudes to Scotland in the independence campaign
I observed the expression of southern English attitudes to Scotland during the independence campaign of 2014. In the crudest terms, Scots needed to get back in their boxes, not seek special status over English regions, and be grateful for English subsidies. Politicians obviously had to come up with something more positive, which was when we were regaled with spin about a “family of nations”, the achievements of Team GB, and open and tolerant British values (as opposed to nasty nationalistic ones). Beneath the feelgood bluster was always the dark spectre of financial penalties and uncertain consequences if Scotland broke away from the UK.
With wise leadership, the stirrings of English nationalism in response to the threat of Scottish independence could have been the beginning of a painful but cathartic journey towards recognition of our negative national traits, especially in the context of our relationship with the other UK nations. But sadly, once the referendum was over, we English returned to our proud, resentful slumber. Licking our wounds, we did not change for the better, and Brexit has shown the UK – and the world – that the beast of English nationalism is ready to hurt anyone who challenges it, even if doing so hurts England too. English nationalism now cares less and less whether Scotland leaves the UK.
English nationalism is the biggest barrier to a federal UK
The current government can only bang an ever-hollower drum as it reminds us Scotland voted to stay in the UK, the UK voted for Brexit, and so the future of the UK and its direction are no longer in question. The UK will disintegrate. The biggest barrier to a federal UK is a raging English nationalism which cannot see that other nations – in the UK and EU – have their legitimate rights too.