Don’t mind me, I’m an oxymoron. Or at least, I think I used to be – which is as much as to say I wasn’t really anything at all. But perhaps I’m oxymoronic no more. I can stand up if I want to and say, hey, everybody, get this – I am an English Scot.
There’s still a good chance that anyone within earshot, even if listening and inclined to give a toss, would be hard pressed to say what that particular label means. It’s new, undoubtedly – it first gained currency during the independence referendum, when a group of English-born supporters of independence launched the group ‘English Scots for Yes’. Math Campbell-Sturgess, one of the group’s most prominent members and an SNP councillor, penned an eloquent account of his own motivations for Wings over Scotland. The label itself went largely unexplored, what with the pressing business of the referendum and all that. Perhaps now, though, we can come back to it. What does it mean?
Who are We?
I’m sure those who have been directly involved in the campaigning work undertaken by English Scots for Yes will have their own sense of its significance. But there were plenty of others who found something in the label that resonated – and I was, am, one of them. I’ve always found the politics of identity interesting, even though some people think it the most tedious kind of navel-gazing. Now, clearly, this particular question doesn’t call for the usual kind of identity politics, which is tied to urgent demands for the redress of injustices perpetrated through the workings of identification itself. The voice of the English person in Scotland is not marginalised, oppressed, or in some way in need of a hearing. Scotland’s largest minority community gets on pretty well – we’re disproportionately represented in higher-paid work and positions of influence. At 8.37% of the population, we’re equivalent to a community of roughly 4,500,000 migrants in England – larger than any existing minority group there. We don’t have a problem. We’re fine. It’s more that the ‘English Scot’ perhaps shouldn’t be a thing at all, and yet it is. And our new existence might tell us something about bigger questions of nationality, and even point to future possibilities for Scotland and the rest of the current UK.
So who are we? Is there a difference between English people living in Scotland, and ‘English Scots’? There were 459,486 people born in England resident in Scotland for the 2011 census – the 8.37% of the population I mentioned above. That figure is sometimes bandied around as if all these folk felt themselves to comprise a homogenous bloc, which is clearly not the case. The census helpfully included a question on national identity – how people identify themselves – alongside one on country of birth, and that begins to break things down. Nearly 14% of those 459,486 identified as Scottish only, while 33% identified solely as British. Only 25% described themselves as simply English. 12% tried to hyphenate themselves as either Scottish-and-British or Scottish-and-something-else, while 15% said they were some other UK nationality or combo of nationalities.
English-born people living in Scotland, then, don’t all see their national identity the same way. And the way they see themselves doesn’t follow the pattern of Scotland-born Scots residents. Less than 6% of this group identify as ‘British only’, while only 0.07% go with ‘English’. A whopping 72% simply went with ‘Scottish’, while 21% opted for ‘Scottish and British’.
English, Scottish, British
Respondents are working with the categories presented to them, of course, so we need to be a bit circumspect about what we attempt to do with the data. But some questions readily arise. Why, for example, do those 63,000 English-born residents here call themselves ‘Scots’? For them, something other than birth is clearly key – most likely parentage or upbringing. So while some are born Scottish, some are able to achieve Scottishness, while others have it thrust upon them. For these people national identity certainly doesn’t depend on nativity, and is determined by other factors – and only some of these are just as ethnic or nativist as birth.
It also gets pretty complicated in a state which is in some ways multinational, as the United Kingdom has always been. So a third of the English-born in Scotland prefer to think of themselves as British, while only 17% of English-born residents of England and Wales gave ‘British’ as their sole identity. For some of those Scottish residents, Britishness perhaps speaks more clearly and simply of their cross-border life experience than either Englishness or Scottishness can. Britishness, in this usage, is something that transcends the identities of the component nationalities of the United Kingdom. It is both national and more than national. For some people, this is enough to make it the original civic national identity.
But what about those who call themselves English – only a quarter of the total number of English-born residents? What motivates them? And why so few? The census can’t help us here. But luckily there’s been a fair bit of proper research into what it’s like to be English in Scotland (though much of it predates socio-political developments since 2007), and one of the things some of this research identifies is the surprise felt by a significant proportion of English migrants into Scotland at finding themselves identified as, well, English. Prior to their move, their Englishness hadn’t been a thing – hadn’t been something with which they thought to label themselves. It’s what gets called an ‘imputed identity’. They weren’t necessarily aware that a move across the border would be in any way international, or that they might be identified as nationally different.
The National Gallery of Where?
From a Scottish perspective this perhaps seems strange. Scotland has a national existence that is an integral part of the country’s culture and self-consciousness, and is obviously not just a partisan or political thing. I can walk one mile north of my office in George Square and pass a National Museum, a National Library, a National Gallery, and a National Portrait Gallery along the way. The nation meant, and identified in the name of each institution, is Scotland. In central London I could try and join the dots between institutions like the Royal National Theatre, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and the British Library. So which nation do these embody? Only the final two make a claim in their name – the others don’t bother. Britain? Or England? How come they don’t feel the need to make it clear? England, Britain, it’s all the same, isn’t it? There’s a fuzziness about it that simply doesn’t apply to Scottishness, which is sharply defined against the alternatives precisely because their fuzziness both requires it and sometimes threatens to obscure it. (The same goes for Welshness, of course; Irishness is complicated in a different way.)
But for the English migrant, finding England, Scotland and Britain unfamiliarly distinguished can be a strange or discomfiting experience. The journalist Trevor Ward, for example, published a lurid piece a few years ago recounting his unhappy experiences since moving to Aberdeenshire. The abuse to which he was subjected, and which he recounts in his article, was obviously completely unacceptable, and rightly the subject of legal action. Ward seemed not just taken aback, though, but positively offended, by the sheer Scottishness of Scotland – the sense of national distinctiveness he encountered. Things take a turn for the ironic when he lowers himself to using derogatory national stereotypes to indicate his anger at, and contempt for, the country in which he now lives.
Is it needless to say that but for one incident – the recall of which got me weirdly blocked on Twitter by St J K Rowling – I have never had any problems on account of being English in all my time living here? I, too, had to navigate my way through national differences whose shape or form I wasn’t necessarily expecting. But it never felt uncomfortable. And I never had any problem with thinking myself English – nobody had to impute it to me.
That’s perhaps because I was already used to defining myself that way. I was unusually keen to make it an alternative to Britishness – I’ve never been much of a fan of that since I was a teenager in the 1980s, when for me it came to be associated with the higher echelons of state, the sneering dominance of a particular class, and the sometimes brutal exercise of their power both at home and abroad. I retain an inconsistent fondness for the Royal Air Force – partly because of a childhood fascination with the Battle of Britain (empire’s redemption), partly because I’d love to swagger about in a Wing Commander’s uniform, but mostly because they’ve always had these powerful planes which are thrillingly noisy. Oh, and there was Airfix and Revell and Humbrol too.
My version of Englishness, on the other hand, is given voice by people as diverse as E. P. Thompson, Eliza Carthy and Billy Bragg – recalling the lineage of a radical England, a popular culture set apart from, and sometimes directly opposed to, the British state and the aspirations to empire in its DNA. I can belt out ‘Jerusalem’ and mean every minim of its utopian charge – and cringe when I hear it sung by smug Tories unfit to clean William Blake’s brushes.
For my first few years here, working on a temporary contract with the very real prospect of having to move back south, none of that really mattered. Then the magnetic field of my inner geography began to shift – Edinburgh, and Scotland, began to feel like home. We bought a flat; we had children. I found myself sidling up to Scottishness. I have no Scottish roots, I began to tell people, but I do have Scottish branches.
But if I wasn’t going to escape into Britishness, how was I to fit these two identities, English and Scottish, together? Was I going to be an Englishman abroad, in different ways at odds both with the place where I started and the place I’ve made my home? Or was I going to be a ‘plastic Scotsman’, an inauthentic try-hard identifying way too much? Or was there some better way to make sense of this?
In the Crucible
This wasn’t, it turned out, a question for me to answer. The crucible of the independence campaign did the necessary smelting instead. It has been said that September 18 2014 was the day – the only day – on which the Scottish people have been properly sovereign – the day on which they determined the entirety of their own political future for the first and so far only time. I say ‘they’ – but I should say ‘we’, because I was one of them. (I remember my unionist neighbour saying to me, ‘so – I suppose you have a vote in our referendum’, and thinking ‘what do you mean, “our”?’.) So were all the other English-born Scottish residents who chose to vote that day. In taking part in that referendum process we all became Scottish in a way that was only made possible by devolution, and reached its initial apex in the invitation to determine whether or not political Scotland would become something more than a component part of the UK. The majority of English-born voters appear to have opted to stay politically British, but they voted as Scots.
Well, we all know how things turned out. But this political – constitutional – way of being Scottish didn’t go away when its initial moment passed. It persists, as the 2015 and 2016 elections and the EU referendum demonstrate. The new intelligibility of the previously oxymoronic label, ‘English Scot’, is a minor witness to that persistence. An English Scot is not just a hyphenated identity, not just a mix. We’re not necessarily Scottish in the same way that we’re English. The label recognises that Scottishness here is a rival to Britishness as a ‘civic’ identity, one tied particularly to the idea of the citizen – the participant in the political business of the community or commonweal in which she lives. Such a person qualifies as a citizen on the basis of that commitment, which should really be understood less abstractly as a lived sense of belonging.
Under these conditions, something happens to Britishness – it is no longer the only or default label for a national identity that rejects ‘narrowness’ or the earthy tang of blood and soil. For many on the English left in particular, this has been, and remains, its saving grace. (It is also what the remnant of the unionist Scottish left wraps itself in to find warmth in the lonely cold.) But I for one am happy that this is no longer the label which those of us with complicated national-cultural histories have to reach for. It offers some resources of hope for a leftwing version of Englishness that needn’t be either buried in the past or a compromise with darker forces. And whether they like it or not, the English left is going to need such resources as the current UK continues on its disintegrative path. If political Britishness is what you cling to in order to contain more atavistic forms of identification, what are you going to do when such Britishness finally ceases to be roadworthy?
Just as importantly, an inclusive civic Scottishness makes room within Scotland for a minority Englishness – an Englishness that ought to be sharply at odds with the majoritarian Anglo-Britishness of a dominant elite, a million miles away from notions of the ‘settler’ or the ‘colonist’. We can accommodate it to its new home, to a place in which it can genuinely be at home. In fact, that is already happening. Recently, it led to what is for some the surprising spectacle – utterly unintelligible under other circumstances – of marchers carrying St George’s cross flags on Scottish independence rallies. In the future, as more of us stake our claim as English Scots, I hope we can come to regard such a spectacle as not in the least surprising.