The Saturday Essay: Gavin Esler - A peculiar journey into the heart of my homeland

When it suits us Scots, we are Rule Britannia British, but turn us the other way and we claim a different country
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MY WORKING life has been spent as a foreign correspondent exploring the world's strangest places - up the Orinoco river without a paddle, in darkest Peru and on the edge of the Arctic in the Aleutian Islands. But on the eve of the election of the first Scottish Parliament in three centuries, the world's most exotic land turns out to be here, at home. I left Scotland years ago, part of the Go-Go tradition which believed that to Get On you had to Get Out. I therefore planned the exploration of my homeland as you might in the Amazon, buying maps and a guidebook, and seeking advice from anyone who could spare me time. I was searching for the solution to our age-old national conundrum. Can we be Scottish and British and European? Or do we have to choose?

The guidebook began with a warning that Scotland has an inhospitable climate, though a unique beauty and glorious wilderness. Geography was never our worry. It was history. The guidebook said it centred around "Scotland's problematic relationship with England". Oh, yes, I thought. That. Our daft vice of seeing ourselves only in relation to them. The best of Scotland has always been when, from Andrew Carnegie to Alexander Graham Bell, an insignificant part of a small archipelago in a remote corner of Europe measured up against the best in the world. The worst was when we compared ourselves only to the elephant in our bed, the English next door. Our unpleasant secret was a split personality that enabled us simultaneously to think ourselves superior to the English, and inferior. We resented England as richer, more powerful and more successful, yet as Scots we convinced ourselves we were always, indefinably, better.

Edinburgh, where I grew up, is a monument to this national dilemma. Drive down Princes Street from John Lewis to Marks & Spencer to Burger King and look north and you are in Anytown, UK - the same shops, same products, same prices. But look the other way and you could be in only one place in the world, the most beautiful capital city imaginable, with Edinburgh castle, Princes Street Gardens, the Scott Monument and the Old Town. Since the invention of Great Britain 300 years ago, we Scots have perpetually been walking down a street with two views of who we are. When it suits us, especially in wartime, we are Rule Britannia British, like Bristol, Liverpool or Newcastle. But turn us the other way and we see a different view, and another country.

I was driving down Princes Street looking both ways, wondering whether our idea of Britain was really dead, and travelling to meet a remarkable guide to the new Scotland, David Murray, the owner of Rangers Football Club. In my childhood Rangers symbolised Scottish Britishness, working- class Scots waving Union Jacks and singing "God Save the Queen". Today it is often the Scottish flag and "Flower of Scotland". "I'm proud to be British," booms David Murray, a big man in every sense, a self-made multimillionaire with businesses from Norway to New Zealand. "But I'm Scottish first. It's a great country, there are great opportunities," - though he does admit, "we are something of a whingeing nation".

Murray is an archetype of who we Scots think we are, a canny world-beater with a streak of sentimental patriotism. Scots, he said, in Africa, North America and the Pacific, "invented the world. Now we've got to reinvent Scotland." Above all, he maintained, the new Scottish Parliament has got to "do something".

This was a constant refrain. Every Scot I talked to was convinced of the historical significance of this moment. But the catch is whether we have the wit to seize it. The Scottish parliament will be, they said. But it also has to do - do something, almost anything, to live up to the twin burdens of hope and history. Yet if Scotland is so wonderful, I wondered, how come the Rangers team that once had players called Baxter, Brand and Waddell, now reads like the United Nations - Klos, Porrini, Amoruso, Kanchelskis, Albertz, Guivarc'h?

"In a perfect world," Murray laughed, Rangers would field a team comprised of "11 Scotsmen earning pounds 50 a week". But if Scotland now wants to compete in anything, we have to take the best from wherever we get it. Murray worried that the new Scottish Parliament, which could prove a model for democracy, might instead become a disappointing clone of Westminster, filled with pasteurised politicians obsessed with political trivia.

"We cannot miss this opportunity," he insisted. If the Parliament doesn't work, Scots will have "run out of excuses."

David Murray, and Rangers, are proof that national identity is not like a hat. You can wear more than one at a time. It is more like the skins of an onion: you can be Scottish and British and European and other things beside. You can have many layers of identity, even if you call yourself a nationalist. Bashir Ahmed, of Scots Asians for Independence, is simultaneously a Scot, an Asian, a Glaswegian, a Muslim, a Scottish National Party candidate for the Scottish Parliament and a British citizen. "Scotland to me is everything," he says rapturously, recounting how he was welcomed after he left Pakistan in the Sixties. Un-self-consciously, Bashir Ahmed uses the word "we" to describe the new Scottish national mosaic of which he is a part. "After 300 years, we are getting our Scottish Parliament back. A short time ago we got our Stone of Destiny back. So we are getting everything back."

But one argument against independence has always been a simple piece of human geography. Drive north from Bashir Ahmed's Glasgow and in a few hours you are in the Western Highlands. Drive south and in the same few hours you are in the heart of England. In their daily lives Glaswegians such as Ahmed in fact have far more in common with London, Manchester, Belfast or Cardiff than with rural Scots in Ross-shire, Shetland or Orkney. And the Highlands are closer in lifestyle to rural Wales, Cornwall or County Antrim than to Edinburgh or Dundee.

So are Scots really different from the English? Not as much as you might think, says the Edinburgh University professor David McCrone who has researched voter opinion back to the Seventies. On most major issues, such as crime, health and the economy, there is precious little difference between Scottish and English voters. But Scots often interpret common values in different ways, seeing, for example, under-funding of the health service as stemming from Mrs Thatcher's out-of-touch Tory Englishness. "When the Scottish Parliament is opened," Professor McCrone suggests, "we should raise a dram to Maggie. She was the midwife of home rule."

The prospect of a Thatcher statue alongside that of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the pantheon of Scottish national heroes seems unlikely. But for 300 years the Great Game of British politics was for the English to submerge their national identity in Britishness for the sake of the Union. That game is now up. Traditionally, British Prime Ministers sucked up to the Celtic fringes through extra representation at Westminster and subsidies, plus strong royal connections: Queen Victoria at Balmoral, a Duke of Edinburgh, a Prince of Wales. But Mrs Thatcher and her suburban English Tories, Scottish intellectuals argue, failed to understand the Great Game, blew it apart, and possibly destroyed the United Kingdom too.

And that led me to the biggest surprise of my increasingly peculiar journey through the new Scotland. After years of thinking about competing nationalisms, Scots have settled comfortably into a many-layered identity, demanding a local parliament that is responsive to their needs, links to Europe, but not full independence - or not yet. As David McCrone wryly puts it, nowadays "to be a Scot is a matter of the head. To be British is a matter of the heart."

But almost every conversation I had with thinking Scots turned to those having the greatest problems of adjustment to the new Britain - the English. Seen from Scotland, the obsessions of the London media and political classes are not just from another country. They are from another planet. Rows about the Queen's head on pound notes, Second World War rivalry with Germany, resentment against Scots in the Cabinet, irritation over subsidies and confusion over what devolution may mean, are, in Scottish eyes, bizarre London insanities.

Yet in a world in which nationalism often means reaching for the nearest Kalashnikov rifle, I suggested to the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, English people were right to be alarmed by Celtic assertiveness. "The English have a great ability to catch up," he smiled. "There is a new debate starting about English identity. It ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, from Billy Bragg to Simon Heffer."

Salmond praised the common-sense talents of ordinary English people in accepting change. He, McCrone and others pointed to the relaxed attitude most English people now have towards black, white and Asian couples dating, living together and inter-marrying, and what an astounding change that is compared to 30 years ago. But if the English people can adapt, the SNP leader was utterly scathing about English institutions that could not. The Lords, the media and the political Establishment in England remained "geriatric, aristocratic, frozen in time", unable to cope.

I asked him whether any part of him was British, and he relaxed into an anecdote about the complexities of national identity. Alex Salmond says he was teased by Rangers football fans at a Scottish cup final who sang "Rule Britannia" to taunt him. But when he went over to talk to them, many Rangers fans admitted that they were, in fact, SNP voters. They could easily retain vestiges of Britishness while wanting independence. "Like my mum." "Your mum?" "Yes, my mum. Many older Scots have a sense of British identity," he insisted, "but still can vote for independence." When I left Salmond he was still smiling. Despite fluctuating opinion polls, he is the cat convinced of the inevitability of getting the cream- though perhaps not this year.

I had talked to businessmen, highlanders, football supporters, intellectuals, English immigrants and Scots Asians and discovered an extraordinary sense of confidence about the future and - to my surprise - a lack of anti- English sentiment. One of the half-a-dozen English expatriates I came across admitted that she had heard of anti-English football chants and read a few well-publicised cases of anti-English bigotry, but she herself had never experienced it. She thought her posh south-east England accent was as likely to attract hostility in Newcastle or Leeds as in Scotland. It was not nationalism, as she put it, but "a class thing".

Yet England's own national dilemma is made worse by the tightening squeeze on the Westminster Parliament. Scots repeatedly suggested that Westminster was too small for the big things in life, such as macro-economic policy and defence, and too big for the small things in life such as health care and education. Since the squeeze between Europe and devolution is likely to get worse, Britain faces a stark choice: reinvent Britishness, or eventually disintegrate.

Before I left I walked around the site of the new Scottish Parliament. Today it is just a desolate hole in the ground surrounded by rubble. Tomorrow, perhaps, it will be a model for democracy or maybe a disappointment. My old school is close to the site and I remembered the childishness of writing on schoolbooks an address that showed who we thought we were - George Heriot's School, Edinburgh, Scotland, Great Britain, United Kingdom, Europe, the World, the Universe. Maybe the next generation of Scottish schoolchildren will relocate their place in the world and rub out the word British, though it has not happened quite yet. As the historian Linda Colley puts it, competing nationalities on these islands are like the Holy Trinity. The British are Three in One, One in Three, and altogether something of a mystery.

As I waited for my return flight south the news was of the war in Kosovo and a bomb in London planted by racists, the angry fringe of insecure people who, unlike most of us, have failed to adapt to multicultural Britain over the past 30 years. The same people will find multinational Britain even harder to swallow. Alex Salmond's last words were ringing in my head. A Scottish Parliament had been achieved without a single bloody nose, he said. The main criticism was that the election campaign was boring.

As the plane climbed and the Scottish countryside fell away, I hoped that Salmond was right about the bloody nose. This is a world of interesting nationalists, from Slobodan Milosevic to Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Boring is good, I thought. Boring, in fact, is British.