Growing up in rural north-east Scotland in the 1970s taught me a lot about nationalist bigotry. The first thing it taught me is that it didn’t matter where I came from, or what I considered my national identity to be. Although I considered myself to be British, this was not permitted as a response to questions about my national identity in the playground. Instead, the English accent originally inherited from my parents and the fact that they were English made me English. Whether I considered myself to be English or not. As it happens, my family all considered themselves British, but this was not a permitted response to the interrogation. It quickly became apparent that you could only be English, or Scottish. And if they didn’t consider you to be Scottish according to the normal ‘blood and soil’ tests of national identity (where you were born, where your parents were born), you were a foreigner. And if they regarded you as ‘English’, according to the same standards (as I was, despite being born in Asia), you immediately inherited the mantle of the ancient enemy in a competitive nationalist folklore defined by conflict between the virtuous Scots who were always fighting the perfidious English – Bannockburn in 1314, Culloden in 1746, etc, etc, ad nauseam.
In some respects this wasn’t an exceptional experience. I grew up in a rural area being transformed by immigration related to the North Sea oil boom, and some of this resentment was fuelled by economic frictions. These were triggered by an influx of relatively affulent external population into a conservative rural environment, and as a result points of contention such as increased house prices or a sense of displacement from tradtional norms would have been present regardless of nationalism. What made this exceptional from my admittedly subjective experience, was the level of venom and vitriol involved and the pervasive nature of the problem. The nationalist bigotry I (and other members of my family) experienced amounted to good-natured ribbing, grumbling comment, insult, outright verbal abuse and on more than one occasion, physical assault. Being targeted as a result of nationalist labelling which I had no control over was distressing enough. But what really determined my visceral hatred of it was the manner in which it was tolerated and accepted by otherwise decent people.
The most obvious example of this was being told that somehow it either wasn’t happening, or if it did we were exaggerating it, or even if we weren’t exaggerating we must have somehow deserved it as a consequence of our own behaviour. It took a while for me to realise the sense of denial involved in this ‘blaming the victim’ dynamic – as a small child exposed to this you really do question whether you are experiencing anything remarkable, wrong or undeserved when even the family doctor and otherwise friendly neighbours believe it’s nothing to complain about. Later I understood that it’s a fairly classic experience for anybody undergoing such prejudice even if my experience wasn’t on the same scale as other people’s experience of racial or sexual abuse. The critical point was that I soon realised that this denial, practised by otherwise responsible and decent people, was a cultural and not an individual phenomenon.
The extent to which this relied upon history, or a justification constructed upon a certain historical interpretation, was one of the main motivators for me to become interested in history, an interest that (much later) culminated in me becoming a historian. That interest allowed me to go to unversity, while my experience led me to try and go to the university furthest away from where I grew up as humanly possible within the UK. Another relative took this a stage further and emigrated after making it clear that he would never live in Scotland again – a view he holds to this day. Although I had plenty of good experiences as a child, and valued both the countryside and the friends I made in the North East, my first-hand experience of nationalist bigotry there was a formative one which was only confirmed by my (limited) personal experience of Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties. I could see in those places the logical outcome of the attitudes I had experienced, and I didn’t (and don’t) want that for Scotland. That might sound excessive, but I’m old enough to remember Alex Salmond speaking at SNP conferences using language about ‘British occupation’ lifted straight from the Sinn Fein speechwriter’s textbook.
Friends and colleagues involved in the ‘Yes’ campaign assure me that that sort of negative nationalism is long in the past. I believe they don’t share it, but they never seem to consider that my British national identity does not depend upon rejection of any other national identity – even if it has identified the Irish, French and Germans as the ‘other’ it defined itself against in the past – whereas theirs does. The grounds for that are almost always a distorted reading of history which ignores the historical context of the time. Bannockburn certainly ensured that Scotland avoided the absorbsion into medieval England experienced by Wales, but either way the country was run by, and for, an Anglo-Norman aristocratic elite. Culloden certainly involved the massacres of Clansmen by British soldiers celebrated by nationalist belief, but all it decided was whether an Italian Catholic dilettante or a German Protestant curmudgeon sat on the throne. Reading modern concepts of nationality, and nationalist competition, into history is an abuse of the past to service the politics of the present; an abuse which, more quickly than people might suspect, often ends up in legitimising violence. When I heard Bosnian Serb farmers explaining why their Bosniac Muslim neighbours were deceitful supremacists who had historically repressed the Serb majority, despite the fact that those neighbours had always been friendly and helpful to them as individuals, I could hear the voices of my childhood explaining why being called ‘English pig’ was nothing to take offence over, or why Scottish independence was the only way to end historical repression by the English like me. Or the voices of Irish farmers, explaining why the local criminal godfathers ordering locals at gunpoint to drive diggers loaded with explosives into vehicle checkpoints to blow themselves and British soldiers to pieces was a regrettable but inevitable outcome of eight hundred years of oppression by the British like me.
But if the past holds no veto over the present in my view, the referendum campaign in the present demands something more from independence than the indulgence of nationalist mythology. An independent Scotland requires more than a warm and fuzzy glow of self-righteous nationalist vindictation to succeed, and this is the area where, in my opinion, Scottish nationalism fails as a practical proposition. I don’t have any particular interest in the economic arguments as it happens. The golden goose of North Sea oil and the Barnett formula have long been used as sticks by both sides in this debate but national identity is, ultimately, an irrational construct. Frankly, I do most nationalists the justice of assuming that they would be prepared to pay higher taxes to achieve their goal no matter what revenue and independent Scotland receives from oil, and in return I believe my British national identity has significantly more going for it than simply bribing a sullen and resentful Scots minority to stay on board by means of a south-north flow of capital within the UK. But it does puzzle me that an ideology and political campaign built upon secession from Britain has to cling to such British totems as the pound sterling and the Queen. In the case of the pound, the ‘Yes’ campaign appear outraged by the fact that independence works in both directions, and in that event the Rest of the UK will be able to say ‘No’ to currency union. Still waiting to hear about Plan B on that one, I think. And, if they do say ‘Yes’ to currency union, you can’t claim any meaningful level of independence from the hated Westminster when if your financial policy is determined by the Bank of England.
What this means to me is that the ‘Yes’ campaign are arguing not for independence, but psuedo-independence; ‘The flag over the town hall will change, but everything will stay pretty much the same. Except for being better, obviously’. This is an argument which strangely lacks the confidence relentlessly projected by the ‘Yes’ campaigners. Maybe they dimly perceive the limits to which a political ideology ultimately based on nationalist bigotry can take a country.
In the meantime, and as a result of my formative childhood experiences, I will not only take great pleasure in voting ‘No’ in September, I will also continue to enjoy being both British and Scottish to annoy Scottish, English and Irish nationalist bigots.