The occasion for this moment of revelation came in the Assembly Halls of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. I was in the audience of TV bigwigs to hear Suzanne Moore and Christopher Hitchens, among others, debate the Diana, Princess of Wales phenomenon. Had it been something real, as Suzanne persuasively argued? Or half media construction and half obscurantist hysteria, as Christopher elegantly opined?
And then the Scots woman (let us call her Morag), stood up. Reminding us that our bums were parked on hallowed leather (the Assembly Halls will serve, pro tem, as a meeting place for the new Scottish parliament), Morag angrily denied the relevance of the debate. There had been, she said, no Diana stuff in her country. She had herself, she told us, gone to the coach station in Edinburgh a year ago to watch mourners depart for the funeral - only to discover that they were all bound for Blackpool. The hysteria had all happened "down south". She made London sound like Alabama.
Morag's assault was two-pronged. First, she was cross about metropolitan and London bias. Fair enough, but she was also saying, in effect, that the Scots would not be, could not be, stupid, superstitious or hidebound enough to fall for the Diana con, like the silly English. "We up here," she insinuated, "are superior to, and more progressive than, you. And the sooner we are shot of you the better."
Such an attitude of cultural superiority demands a history, or rather, a mythology to sustain it. And the construction of a mythology is what the Scottish National Party, among others, is all about. In order for nationalism to be regarded as something other than a mad, romantic movement wishing to return to medieval times, Scots nationalists require the painting of a picture of progressive, modernising Scots held back by the reactionary English.
The myth starts in 1320 with the Declaration of Arbroath. "Parallels between this... and the later American Declaration of Independence are clear," says a nationalist website, because "enshrined in the declaration is the principle that sovereignty rests with the people". The declaration says that the King of Scotland can be deposed if he hands power over to the English. "There you have it,' exults the author. "That Declaration of Scottish Independence, 675 years old, states clearly that the people will choose their king... This contrasts markedly with the English concept of sovereignty where the monarch is sovereign over the people and the land. The two philosophies collide after the Treaty of Union (1707) to the point where the Westminster Parliament now considers itself to have absolute sovereignty."
Get it? The Scots are into the rights of Man, while the poor old Saxons are still bending the knee. And it is ahistorical tosh. The England that Scots increasingly seem to believe in is their own (and Hollywood's) fiction. I love Scotland and I'm happy that there'll be a Scots parliament, and I could even cope with Scots independence. But somebody really ought to tell our Caledonian brothers and sisters that they are going to miss us. For, while English people do not, whatever the tabloid press say, think that Coronation Street is true, the Scots give every impression of accepting that Braveheart and Rob Roy are.
So let me reintroduce my Scottish friends to the real English, the radical English, the English who existed before the Act of Union made us - willy- nilly - British. One hundred and five years earlier than the Declaration of Arbroath, at Runnymede, King John was forced to sign Magna Carta, giving subjects rights including that of habeas corpus, and establishing that monarchs rule because they are allowed to. It was in England uniquely that, in the wake of the Black Death, feudalism began to crumble. An English poet wrote the subversive words "when Adam dolve and Eve span, who was then the gentilman?" some three centuries before Burns agreed, with "a man's a man for a' that". In 1381 England witnessed the Peasants' Revolt, when Wat Tyler took London and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury. The folk hero of emergent England was Robin Hood, a premature redistributor. Those of Scotland, by contrast, are almost always feudal figures.
The folk culture of England, from the earliest times, was infused with notions of freedom and justice, of bowmen in green cloth against knights. It was to that sense of Englishness that the revolutionaries of the 1640s looked when fighting against their (Scottish) king. It was the English who decapitated their tyrant, 144 years before the French got round to it. The Diggers and the Levellers were English, inviting their followers to acts of radicalism in the name of the "new St George". Cromwell's famous beseeching "in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken" was addressed to the hopeless sectarians of Scottish Presbyterianism.
It was in England in 1689 - 18 years before the Act of Union, that the Bill of Rights enacted the supremacy of Parliament over the King. It's little wonder, then, that many Englishmen opposed the Union; they weren't keen on being yoked to feudal Scots, lots of whom seemed intent on restoring the Stuarts. English progressives were also aware that the representative element had always been much weaker in the Scots parliament than in the English, and that Scotland was largely run by great estates-holders.
England, too, was (as it is now) a much more heterogeneous and polyglot place. Defoe characterised English genius as being created through a "mongrel, half-bred race". London was a haven for successive generations of immigrants - I should know. England gave birth to Tom Paine, to the common law, and to Blake's vision of Jerusalem, a radical notion of paradise on earth - England's Green and Pleasant Land. One day, when Britain is gone, it'll be our national anthem - not "Rule Britannia", which was written by a Scot.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were English, as were most of the Chartists, as were the Jarrow marchers. As is - and here's the rub - Margaret Thatcher. For progress cuts all ways, and England, far more open to the world, has been the home of radical change and ideas, not always of the left. Scotland, on the other hand, has been comparatively conservative. It retains to this day land rights that are relics of a feudal age. Its Labour councils are like baronies, run by latter-day thanes and lairds. It harboured, for many years, the worst kind of deferential Toryism. Until 10 years ago no Catholic had ever played for Glasgow Rangers.
No wonder the new Scottish elite would rather fashion a different history. Linda Colley, in her book Britons, describes some of the Scots of 1707 thus: "As for the wealthy or ambitious minority, they were torn between anger at the loss of Scotland's ancient independence and a natural desire for a wider stage than their own homeland could afford them. At one and the same time they resented the South and craved its bounty and opportunities."
They still do. Perhaps, after independence, they'll give over.Reuse content