Why English people sometimes upset Scots and where this comes from

When I was growing up in London, I didn’t really understand why my Scottish relatives got upset at the English media making silly comments mixing up England and Britain and generally over-emphasising the English perspective on British affairs.  I thought they were being over-sensitive.

I’ve thought about it more again recently and I think that there is a sensitivity among Scots, but with good reason.  The issue is political and historical.  The UK was formed as a result of English dominance over Scotland and Wales.  There has never been any national reckoning in England of our role, with a corresponding dialogue with Scotland (and Wales), followed by a mutually-agreed adjustment of the relations between our countries. 

It’s a bit like a couple in which the husband forced his wife to marry him and used to beat her.  Over time, he stopped doing this but then wondered why his wife would still get upset at his crass comments about their relationship and her habits. 

Sorting out abusive relationships means having lots of time and space apart.  More often than not, it means divorce, especially if the abuser shows no sign of facing up to their actions.  Once a relationship is over, healing can begin.  Until then, the wounds of the past can easily be picked again.     

In Ireland, they’ll never forget what the English did to their nation, but they can move on from their past because they are getting on just fine without us.  Over time, we in England have come to respect them more as a sovereign nation and relations are now better than ever.  For Scotland, the familiarity of being together in the UK still breeds contempt, whether we care to admit it or not. 

Scotland needs loads of time and space apart from England to heal the wounds of the past and build up national emotional boundaries. You can call this separation, independence, self-determination or whatever you like – I don’t mind. I just don’t want us to prolong the pain of enforced togetherness. It doesn’t mean we can’t still get on in areas of mutual interest.

I wish the pasts of our countries had been different but we have to live with reality.  Our pasts live on in our feelings and our identities, whether we like it or not. 

And if you’re a pro-union Scot in Scotland and reading this, I am sorry but I just don’t get you.  I really don’t.   



What shall we do about supposed anti-English sentiment among Scots?

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.



Debating with people in England about Scottish independence

This is a serious article with respectful suggestions for people in Scotland and England about engaging with people in England on Scottish independence issues. I am writing as an English person with Scottish roots who has himself been persuaded by the case for independence by getting informed.   I am not suggesting that debating with people in England is a priority right now for Scots, so close to the referendum itself.  But the English are getting more interested.  Some are sympathetic.  Some are open.  Some are worried.  Some are hostile.  And some want to wade into the debate in Scotland to try and save the union.  

Scots have generally always had a keener interest in and consciousness of national identity issues than the English, being ever conscious of dominance by England.  With the referendum, the debate on national identity and independence has advanced much further and it’s great to see so much political interest generated.  Naturally, we in England have not given the issues the same attention.  Many Scots will have developed a well worked out narrative of their opinions but circumstances may not permit them to explain them openly to people they deal with in England.  Even if they can, it will be hard at first for many people in England to respond meaningfully as most of us are just not up to speed.  But it doesn’t mean that we will be convinced.

My own experience of talking about Scottish independence with people in England is that some are interested but don’t have strong feelings either way. Some just don’t want to talk about it.  Some are already sympathetic on political grounds and it is easy to talk at length.  I haven’t yet had the opportunity to talk to people who are worried or clearly against but who are willing to have a sensible discussion.  If I do, my strategy will be not to try to persuade.  I will see if I can first ask a few questions for the other person to ponder.  Hopefully this will then lead to a more constructive conversation. 

Here are some possible questions :

  1. How well-informed do you feel about the independence debate?
  2. What more would you like to know?
  3. How do you feel about Scottish independence?
  4. How do you feel about being British?
  5. Would Scottish independence affect your sense of being British and if so, how?
  6. Why do you think many Scots want independence?
  7. What is your response to those reasons?
  8. How do you feel independence might affect your relationships with Scottish people?
  9. What can we do in England to maintain good relations with people in an independent Scotland?

Obviously, these are just examples.  If any readers want to share their own experiences of engaging with people in England about the debate, it would be great if you would comment.  I for one would like to learn from others’ experiences.  Thank you for reading.

Part 1: Towards a healthy English national identity …

(… and how to be better neighbours with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)

This is the first in a series of articles published on my other blog – englishnationalconversation.wordpress.com.  Have a look if you like!

This is Part 1 of a 5 part series on issues connected with the British and English national identities, with special reference to the Scottish independence referendum.  I’ve put them all online at the same time on englishnationalconversation.wordpress.com, so you can read them at your leisure!

A good place to start talking about national identity is one’s own personal identity story.  So in this article, I’d like to share my own.

Part 2 is an exploration of what I call the national “bile” of English people, vis-a-vis the Scots.

Part 3 is a rough historical sweep over the circumstances of the formation of the UK, and how they have helped to shape our modern national identities.

Part 4 is where the rubber hits the road with some thoughts on the emotional attachments that the English have towards being British.

Part 5 proposes an English national “conversation” about identity issues, particularly in the light of the Scottish referendum.  I finish by outlining some potential benefits from such a conversation.

My identity story

I’m fascinated by the concept of identity.  I was adopted as a baby in London by Glaswegian parents.  My blood is a mixture of English, Scottish and Irish.  I was raised a Catholic in London and the Home Counties.  I have moved around England a lot and in my early 20s, I lived for several years in Glasgow.  I have addressed some of my own identity issues in psychotherapy. Figuring out who I am and where I belong has been a lifelong process.

I grew up with mixed feelings about Scottishness. My father was a post-war Scot who gave me the impression that Scottishness was a superior form of Britishness.  He was middle-class and totally lacked the kind of inferiority complex about being Scottish which I later came across among working-class Glaswegians in the mid-1990s.  My father would call me a “higorant Sassenach” as a joke but I was sensitive and it bred a reaction in me.  I even developed a slight complex about being English.  I supported Rangers instead of his team – Celtic – which he took well enough.

My father is long dead and times have changed.  There seem to be few Scots around now who have held on to a similar perspective to his.  He grew up learning British colonial history.  He lived through the Second World War as a teenager and did his National Service afterwards.   Of course, he later moved to London. I never heard him utter a bad word about the English or England.  But Scottish independence was just never an issue for him. 

As a result of my background, I grew up feeling acutely English but also British. Being British was a convenient label to describe my ethnic and family mixture.  But when meeting English people with more stable attachments to their English families and communities, I could tell I had missed out on something.   

The Scottish independence debate has re-ignited my interest in understanding issues to do with personal and national identity.  I can’t claim any academic expertise in the matter but in this series, I’d like to share some thoughts in subsequent articles about the English and British national identities.

In Part 2, I’ll examine what I call the differing national “bile” of the English and the Scottish, as a way to express our national distinctiveness.

Goodwill messages from England to Scotland

Today’s post is a short and simple one.  I thought it would be nice for people in England to send brief, personal messages of goodwill to the people of Scotland as they prepare for the referendum. You can do this here by leaving a comment in response to this article.  If there are enough responses, I’ll collect them and write another article about them. 

If you are in England and don’t feel goodwill towards the people of Scotland because of the prospect of independence, then it’s good to talk too.  I’m up for a respectful dialogue with you.   I’ve copied this post onto my other blog englishnationalconversation.wordpress.com So if you are in this category, please leave a message on that blog rather than this one.

Thanks for reading.   

Here’s my message for Scotland:

“I’ve learnt a lot from following the debate and am excited for you.  If there is a Yes majority, I look forward to continuing good relations between our countries – hopefully even better than they are now.  Wishing you the best in the referendum.  James (Birmingham)”

Response to Better Together’s latest PR video produced by an ordinary supporter

Better Together have started to publish videos from ordinary people in Scotland explaining why they intend to vote “No” in the referendum.  The first one of the series that they announced today is here:


I think this lady is very brave to go public with her views and they should not be dismissed lightly.  What she is saying is that she worries that independence will put at risk the access to free education and healthcare that she benefited from.  She fears that her younger brother and sister might not have the same access in an independent Scotland that she did.    

She has a different perspective to many because her family is from abroad and has benefited from access to public services which (I am assuming) they didn’t have in their country of origin.  So the contrast with a severe lack of access to healthcare and education is based on very real and personal experience.

I’ve laid into English celebrities on this blog for supporting “no” based on pure emotion and no analysis of the issues.  I guess I find it disappointing that Better Together is sponsoring a broadcast from an ordinary Scot which also has no analysis of the issues.  

It’s a good technique to start off discussing an issue by expressing fears, feelings, and impressions.  It’s also good to conclude by expressing opinions.  But between those two steps, there must be some kind of analysis to explain how you have formed your opinions.  Not doing so fails to convince the serious reader.  Or it convinces readers on the basis of emotion rather than reason.  This is at best, due to ignorance and at worst, manipulation. 

In this case, some consideration of the positions of both sides on healthcare and education would have been in order.  On healthcare, the Better Together website suggests that an independent Scotland will lose out on about an extra £1bn per year of UK government funding and current cross-border arrangements for some specialist care and medical research may be put at risk. 

On higher education, the Better Together website suggests that leaving the UK puts at risk free tuition for Scottish students and a disproportionate share of UK funding for research. 

But no-one in the official “No” campaign has suggested that independence could lead to third world levels of provision of healthcare and education.    Their estimated “union dividend” of £1,400 per person per year would not in any case be consistent with this.  This video is vaguely suggesting extreme scenarios for healthcare and education which are not in line with Better Together’s own predictions.

Anyone can upload a video on YouTube with their own opinions, normally with little circulation.  When it goes viral, this puts the broadcaster in the public eye and makes them vulnerable to criticism on a scale they need to be ready for.   And so, I have an accusation to make against the Better Together campaign:

You have sponsored a broadcast from one of your ordinary supporters for your own PR purposes and which will consequently be seen by a much wider audience than otherwise.   This video lacks any analysis of the issues. You could have informed her of your own campaign material, and coached her on how to make a reasoned contribution to the debate.  You could have added commentary to refer viewers to the relevant material.   I am sure you have people with the ability to do that.  If you didn’t have the time, you should have waited until you did or not bothered at all.

I hope your subsequent broadcasts improve upon this one, if only for the sake of the ordinary people who are putting their reputations on the line to help you.  In the meantime, please delete this video from your website.  If you do, I’ll pull this blog article so that we can all forget about it.   

Starting a “National Conversation” in England about Scottish independence issues

A big thank you to everyone who read my post a few days ago in which I replied to Eddie Izzard et al on their appeal to Scots to vote “no”.  Amazingly, I have now had almost 25,000 views of this blog, mostly of the post I mentioned. I’ve been “Freshly Pressed”,and the article has been re-tweeted and re-blogged across the blogosphere.  

An even bigger thanks to people who have left comments. I read them all even if I didn’t reply to every one.  It was lovely to have such positive feedback from so many people in Scotland.  I knew it before, but it’s increased my conviction that people in Scotland do want their nation to be good neighbours with England – for them, the referendum is not about saying goodbye to England. 

I want to capitalise on the sudden interest in this blog  by starting a new blog called English National Conversation.  It’s here:


The front page explains it, but briefly, I’d like the people of England to have a conversation among ourselves about the referendum issues and what they mean to us, specifically in England.  I don’t think people in England do this enough.  We are used to doing our English “thing” mainly as part of the UK – except perhaps when it comes to football and rugby.  

Scotland has been having its own national conversation about the referendum issues and the increase in political awareness of Scottish people has been tremendous.  We’re slower off the mark in England because we won’t have a vote.  But we’re now waking up to the real possibility of an independent Scotland  – and feelings and opinions are rising up. We’re having to think about our national identity and what independence for Scotland might mean for us.

So if you’re interested, please have a look.  Comments appreciated.  This site here is still open to everyone so I am not ignoring you Scots!