The warnings that Scotland's patient nationalism could turn nasty

Neal Ascherson
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:39

HOW agreeable it is to have a prejudice confirmed - a solid clunk-click in the mind] When Settler Watch, a group dedicated to driving English immigrants out of Scotland, appeared a few months ago, there were nods of recognition south of the border. The English have always assumed that Scottish and Welsh nationalisms are fuelled by ethnic Anglophobia. Most Scots, however, are appalled.

Settler Watch, in north-east Scotland, and Scottish Watch, which operates in the south-west, are tiny groupuscules that have raised a huge fuss. The Scottish National Party (SNP) expelled several Watch members, one of them a German woman, for anti-English leaflets and daubings. In Dumfries, an English student and her boyfriend are allegedly leaving college because of physical and verbal attacks. That is about the sum of Watch activity so far, but a ferocious controversy has broken out in the correspondence columns of the Scottish newspapers.

The Watch factions claim that Scottish cultural identity is threatened by a swamping tide of English immigration, and that - especially in the north-east, centre of the North Sea oil industry - the wealth of the incomers is denying houses to Scottish families. There has been ominous talk about a land 'suppurating with Sassenachs', and about the Welsh precedent for burning holiday homes. Iain Sutherland, of Scottish Watch, writes about 'cheque- book clearances' and blames the English for 'ethnic cleansing in Scotland in a civilised way'.

In his television series book about nationalism, Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff talks of 'the battle between the civic and the ethnic nation', between nationalism which is about democracy and nationalism which is about xenophobia and hate. Up to now, the Scottish movement for self- government has been almost exclusively 'civic'. It has a classically nationalist interest in cultural identity and history. But it has no language grievance (all Scots speak English, although some also speak Gaelic or 'braid Scots'), and the overtly anti-English element has been marginal. The critic Joyce Macmillan wrote recently that 'anyone who lives in Scotland is a Scot'. The novelist William McIlvanney was cheered when he told the great nationalist rally in Edinburgh a year ago that 'Scottishness isn't some pedigree lineage, it's a mongrel tradition]'

And yet, slowly and almost indefinably, the climate in Scotland is changing. To be a child with an English accent in a Scottish school yard was never an easy ride, but these days it is markedly rougher. Unexpected people will now talk of 'white settlers' or of 'rich folk from down South', and there is a new edge in their voice. An anxiety is breeding, down under the floor of liberal journalism or SNP manifestos, about a threat to Scottish life and 'Scottishness'. This anxiety crystallises around the idea of English immigration.

But the figures - such as they are - do not reveal any such inrush. In 1851, 91 per cent of the population was Scottish-born. In 1991, the figure had only diminished to 89 per cent, while the English-born percentage rose from 2 to 6 per cent. A breakdown by districts tells a similar story. The biggest change between 1981 and 1991 was in Badenoch and Strathspey (a Highland area), where the born-in-Scotland figure fell from 84 per cent to 78 per cent. In the North-east, on average, it fell by about 4 per cent. In Edinburgh, always thought of as an 'Englified' city, the drop was only 2 per cent. Between 1991 and 1992, 9,200 people left Scotland (population now just under 5 million), while 9,500 entered from other parts of Britain. Demographically, it seems, 'native Scots' still overwhelmingly dominate their own country. And yet the anxiety and the underlying resentment continue to spread. These figures are not telling the full story.

One reason is visibility. Let me coin a horrible but useful term: the English movement into Scotland is 'niche-conspicuous'. The new arrivals cluster in certain places and occupations where their presence is immediately felt. The Orkney 'Satanic abuse' scandal in 1992 showed this with glaring clarity. Almost all the protagonists were English, but from two very different niches. The children came from English New Age families who had settled as idealistic neo- crofters in Orkney. The social workers were, to put it crudely, persons surplus to requirements down South who had found a Scottish local authority less demanding. Small in numbers, both groups were locally conspicuous long before the scandal broke.

Niches of New Age and 'caring profession' incomers are widespread now in rural Scotland. But there are several other categories. One is the retired middle- class couple, thankful to find a cheap house in a beautiful place. Their dream is precisely to be inconspicuous; they are scarcely aware of what their purchasing power may have done to the housing hopes of local families. Another, highly conspicuous niche is the new cultural bureaucracy: in Scotland, the direction and management of theatres, galleries, orchestras, festivals, museums, the Scottish Arts Council and the whole plethora of scientific and conservationist quangos are dominated to a phenomenal extent by non-Scots. This has alienated many Scottish intellectuals, a vocal and unforgiving group.

The second reason for this new mood is simpler: sheer political frustration. It is now nearly 15 years since the Scots began to be governed by a party they did not vote for. It is longer since a majority of Scots began to repeat that they wanted a parliament - Home Rule or independence. Looking back, it almost passes belief that nationalism has kept its patient, 'civic' form for so many years. But for how much longer?

'Scottishness' used to be a private thing. Now, under the stagnant surface, it is being steadily politicised. It has come to include the sense of being governed against one's will by the preferences of another, larger nation. The fact that English incomers often enrich Scotland with their own confident, can-do approach to injustice - there are now groups of so-called 'white settlers' who actively support the cause of self- government - makes little difference. The thought: 'I am a Scot' increasingly floods over into a second thought: '. . . and the English are our problem'.

Nationalism in Scotland will never be captured by racialism. In Michael Ignatieff's 'battle between the civic and the ethnic nation', the civic will always win. So far there has been no contest: the civic nation has never seriously been challenged. But the emergence of groups like Settler Watch, grotesque in themselves, is another warning that ethnic prejudice is now present in the ground-water of public opinion. The concentration may still be low. The point, which no British politician should ignore, is that it is steadily increasing.

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