Why the Scots need the English

Scotland defines itself against its neighbour: this week's vote could destroy its identity, says David Walker
Click to follow
The Independent Online
According to the polls, the residents of England are happy to let the Scots get on with it. The Scots' walk with destiny this coming Thursday hasn't much to do with them. Whatever the constitutional experts say, few English people are now - or are likely in future to get -exercised by the West Lothian Question or Barnett Formula anomalies giving those living in Lesmahagow a wee bit more public money per head than those in Littlehampton.

Yet the vote does concern the English. Everything to do with being Scottish is about not being English. The decision on opting for an Edinburgh parliament with all the trappings is more than just an exercise in identity politics - it is about the nature of Scottishness.

You can read the whole of Scottish history, at least since the first Stuarts in the Middle Ages, as the history of difference. To be Scots has meant, crucially once England's political and economic power was established, defining yourself one way or another as not English. Being not-English has involved varieties of whingeing, the construction of an ersatz Highland identity (why do Scots keep singing about buts and bens and glens when the vast majority live in cities?) and beating the English at their own games, rarely football. Being good in Scotland is rarely good enough. Why else have the brightest and best of Scots, from David Hume to wee Jimmy Naughtie, Robert Louis Stevenson to Iain Banks, David Boswell to John Lloyd (or Gordon Brown for that matter) just had to make it in London? Subconsciously there will be many Scots this week asking whether they or their children really want Edinburgh or Glasgow to be the summit of their ambitions.

This fact of Scottish life means - at least for me - the only plausible vote on Thursday is one that expresses the logic of three centuries of Scottish history since 1707, and probably a couple of centuries before that too. That is: Yes to a parliament. They are fashionable, inoffensive and free (the English will pay). But if Scots are true to themselves they will vote No to the second question about giving the parliament tax-raising powers, because that choice, whatever Donald Dewar may say, means facing the prospect of losing England. And that is impossible, for what else is there without having England, culturally speaking, to kick around?

The other week the Scottish singer Kenneth McKellar caused great offence among the devolutionists by urging a No vote. McKellar, old now, was a great kilt swinger in his day, forever taking the road to the Isles. Yet what entertainers of his ilk may realise is how much Scots like to grouse ... and against nobody more than the (archetypal) English. In popular song from Harry Lauder to Del Amitri and in Scottish fiction from Lewis Crassic Gibbon to Trainspotting, blaming and bemoaning the English is an old and much-loved ritual. When Die Zeit recently sent its correspondent to stroll the glens and Glasgow estates for devolutionist sentiment he puzzled at how they can be so conservative yet vote left. The answer, till recently, was that Labour's unradical collectivism cohered with the Scottish personality - with Labour you get more, but things do not have to change much, including the relationship with England. What the Scots have wanted is the fiscal and political status quo plus the chance to see a Braveheart or its cultural equivalent from time to time. Braveheart, an American film starring an Australian, gave Scots another chance to rake over the embers of their resentments. But the idea that you can build a politics let alone institutions on that old sentiment is ridiculous, as more and more Scots have recently come to see.

Formally there are two questions being put to Scottish residents (how many commentators have fallen into the trap of saying Scots, forgetting that the English, Chinese, Indian and other residents of Scotland are of course enfranchised too). Actually there is another question. It's, "Do you care?" and it is going to be answered in terms of the numbers who turn out.

Officially the size of the poll does not matter but politically of course it does. A turn-out of say 40 per cent, of which a majority votes "Yes, yes", won't be a ringing endorsement of anything except the status quo. Yet Thursday's legion of non-voters will be saying something intelligible, as will many of those voting "Yes, no". It goes like this. We like an occasional moan about the English but the idea that this means a profound desire for self-government, beyond a talking shop in Edinburgh, is deeply wrong.