John Major is on record as accusing Scottish nationalists of exploiting anti-English sentiment for their own political ends and of trying to deliberately “irritate and enrage”. Andrew Marr said recently that “there is a very strong anti-English feeling” in Scotland. Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has pointed to an undercurrent of anti-English sentiment in Scotland. Scottish commentators have complained recently that London-based journalists are sniffing around for expressions of anti-English sentiment while covering the Commonwealth Games.
For me, there is enough anecdotal evidence from both Scots and English to give consideration to the issue of anti-English sentiment, but in two different contexts. My preferred context for discussion of the issue is some time after the referendum when the political temperature has dropped. Then, we will be in a better position to examine the roots of any such sentiment at leisure. At the same time, an English / Scottish dialogue could look at the corresponding issue of anti-Scottish sentiment in England, for which I believe there is also enough anecdotal evidence to justify further study. There is every reason to have this discussion in order to improve bilateral relations, especially as our relations look set to change whatever the outcome of the referendum.
The other context for discussion of alleged anti-English sentiment is the present one i.e. in the middle of the independence referendum campaign. I will focus on this here. The danger is that this issue can turn into a political football which cheapens the whole debate and damages relations between England and Scotland.
To investigate the issue more deeply, I suggest that we test the following hypothesis:
“Anti-English sentiment in Scotland is now sufficiently serious to be a significant factor in voting intentions in the referendum”.
As with every hypothesis, we need to look for evidence to support or refute it and also the quality of that evidence. The evidence on such a touchy-feely issue will mainly amount to the positions of the major players in the referendum debate, the facts as to whether their actions are consistent with their opinions, and anecdotal experience from a fair cross-section of the electorate.
On the “No” side, the UK Government has made no formal allegation of anti-English sentiment. The Better Together campaign alleges that the policies of the Scottish Government erect unnecessary barriers against the English and this indirectly stokes anti-English sentiment. But they don’t allege any campaign from the “Yes” side to generate anti-English sentiment.
On the “Yes” side, the Scottish Government and Yes Scotland makes a political case for rejection of the current Westminster political system, rejection of the policies of recent and present Conservative governments, and the re-balancing of the British economy to reduce dominance by London and the South-East of England. They do not make this case by using any language suggestive of anti-English sentiment.
From my limited experience of the blogosphere, arguments rage mainly between Scottish nationalists and unionists and less so between Scots and English. Opinions expressed are largely consistent with the official campaign positions I have mentioned above. On occasion, a nationalist makes a crude comment to the effect that the Scots are better off without the English but other nationalists challenge and moderate those comments. Supporters of independence are often scrupulous in distinguishing their political differences with Westminster and English Conservative policies from their feelings about English people. I have not seen any forum where anti-English sentiment is the orthodox position.
So if my analysis holds true, there is no significant evidence that whatever anti-English sentiment that might exist is a significant factor in referendum voting intentions. If I am right, this calls into question why some English and Scottish politicians and broadcasters would raise anti-English sentiment as an issue during the campaign. There are several possible reasons:
1) At worst, it is a pure smear tactic to scare voters towards a “No” vote. Obviously, this would be reprehensible and I hope it is not true.
2) They may genuinely believe that there is strong and persuasive expression of anti-English sentiment in the debate but they have not tested their own opinions against the facts. As professionals in their fields, they have a duty to do their research before speaking out. Not to do so is just laziness.
3) They may genuinely believe that there is a deeper undercurrent of anti-English sentiment which is never made public, but have no evidence to support their position. If they speak out on this basis, they are just casting aspersions and poisoning relations between us.
4) They may have actual evidence of a deep and wide undercurrent of anti-English sentiment which Scots never express publicly. If they do, they need to be very respectful as to how and when they broadcast this and also examine their own motivations for doing so during the referendum campaign. Anything short of this would also poison the debate.
The reasons for strong anti-English feeling (if it exists) would, in my view, be better explored outside an election campaign. If Scots really don’t like us so deeply, they are entitled to their feelings – there is probably something behind them. But we shouldn’t try to expose them or embarrass them into changing their views about us, especially during a political campaign about their future. The best we can expect is that they speak respectfully to us and about us. And they have the right to demand the same from us.
So English politicians and broadcasters need to be aware of their own roles as ambassadors for England when they venture into Scottish politics and discuss Scottish national feelings. If they idly accuse Yes-voting Scots of being anti-English, then they can expect them to be upset. If they then translate this upset into evidence of anti-English sentiment, then their own actions are fulfilling their own prophecies. In so doing, they are poisoning relations between the peoples of England and Scotland and engaging in gutter politics. They should ask themselves if in fact they are anti-Scottish.