Dear England, please listen to what the Scots are actually talking about

A leading figure in the debate around Scottish independence writes to our English readers and asks them to listen to what the debate is really about.

Robin McAlpine
30 September 2013

a National Collective placard at the March for Independence

A question for my friends in England; what is it that the Scots call the English when we wish to be unkind? You routinely call us 'jocks', so routinely that I doubt you really notice you're doing it any more. So you roll out the rhyming slang of 'sweaty sock' to really ram home the insult. So what is our word or phrase of contempt for you?

It's going to shock you, but we don't have one. If you think we call you sassanach, then you're living in some sort of 1950s time warp. If you think we've got a really good one, have you heard it? Do you think we're just keeping it to ourselves? The simple fact is that there is no term, no phraseology, no usage of any description that Scots use to denigrate the English.

It doesn't say much for the intensity of the race hate that you assume Scots have for the English that we've not come up with a name for you. I suspect it would make you the first group to face apparent ethnic animosity in which your nemesis calls you by the name you call yourself. Or you could just be completely wrong.

In the last year I have spoken at events in the independence campaign from conference venues of 1,000 delegates to small village halls with a dozen people on a wet Tuesday night. These events are mainly designed to be highly interactive so I've heard scores upon scores of comments and questions – and probably as many different speakers on panels with me. I have not yet heard a single word from a single person which could even at a push be construed as any sort of comment about the English as a people.

I was at the march and demonstration at the weekend – except it wasn't a demonstration because we weren't complaining about anything. We were supporting something. There were 20,000 of us (for scale, this would compare to 200,000 marching in London). I dodged between a number of different groups behind a number of different banners. I started at the Women for Indy group of feminists to say hi to my sister. I said hi to people behind many of the YesScotland local campaign banners – good friends in North Edinburgh and Leith, people I spoke to in Glasgow and Lanarkshire groups, my own Clydesdale contingent. Then I made my way up to National Collective, the joyous and plain brilliant group of (mainly) young artists and creatives who have made this campaign fun (I urge you to check out their website before you draw another conclusion on Scotland from your own media). I spent a little time with Scottish CND which is backing a Yes. The Radical Independence Campaign is a giant group of diverse social progressives ranging from the SWP to green economics professors. There are thousands of us and in a year we've not had a fall-out. You may wish to read that sentence again. I know a couple of the Gaels for Independence people and they had the best pipers – but I couldn't join in the Gaelic singing so moved on to the Greens who were in good fettle too. And in this list I've not even mentioned the SNP which was in a pretty small minority of the total, the Scottish Socialist Party who must have arrived late because they were right at the back. And I'm just skipping over the very large contingents of Basques, Catalans, Sicilians, Corsicans, Venetians, South Tyrollians and many other friends from overseas who flew in specially to join us with their wonderful banners and often in their national costumes. Oh, and the Cornish, the Welsh and the Irish were there too.

Did I forget the pandas? I think the whole parade had their photo taken with the two men dressed as pandas. They also had my favourite banner of the day; “eats, shoots and believes”.

I doubt you could find a single person in that long line of humanity who would have a single bad word to say about the people of England. If you are offended by the extremely popular singalong of 'I'd rather have a panda than a prince', then it's not because of your nationality but your politics. An elderly couple in the Green Party contingent started chatting to me having seen me in a TV debate. Their message was simple; “I've been marching for 50 years and until today I've always been marching against something, not for it”. They were very misty with emotion, inspired by the incredible number of young people around them. From their accents I think they were English; it of course never occurred to me to ask.

Oh England, this isn't about you. Not at all. I must have told dozens of meetings that if the people of England get a chance for their own independence from the London ruling classes I'll be the first to be down there putting leaflets through doors with you. It has got a cheer every time I've said it. This is a political campaign, and it is a very specific political campaign. If you are in England you will have no chance of knowing this, but had you stood on Calton Hill on Saturday you would have heard only one message; we're sick of the inequality, the social breakdown, the decline of the public realm that Westminster has imposed on us. Not England, Westminster. You may not know this but it is the biggest campaign against neoliberal politics that Britain has seen. From their words alone I would challenge you to work out which of the speakers was the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, which was the Deputy Leader of the SNP, which was the leader of the Scottish Greens, which was the convener of Labour for Independence, who the peace activist, who the feminist.

It isn't your fault you don't know any of this – there are a lot of people who want you to believe that we are haters, anti-English, small-minded. Funnily enough, they are precisely the same people who wanted you to believe that the anti-globalisation protesters of a decade ago were violent anarchists, that the environmental movement is virtually a terrorist cell, that peace campaigners are dangerous communists. My only big criticism of you England-based progressives is that when the Daily Mail tells you feminists are men-haters you kick back but when the Daily Mail tells you we are English-haters you take it at face value.

The forces opposed to Scottish independence have much to lose. The Labour Party thinks it needs Scotland's votes but won't break with the neoliberal doctrine Scotland rejects. The military knows that Scottish independence will result in the end of the UK's nuclear weapons in a space of a year or so. The Treasury knows that the only reason the UK's dire balance of trade figures are not a source of national angst is that North Sea Oil disguises the fact that the UK doesn't export much. The landed classes have been using Scotland's land as a safe investment opportunity, leaving Scotland with the greatest concentration of land ownership in the developed world. And all of your London elite are petrified at Britain losing its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, an inevitable outcome once you don't have nukes.

Up here, the No Campaign is indistinguishable in its tone, approach and strategy from years of Tory campaigning. So I can only keep asking progressives 'how come you're backing the campaign that deploys the usual neoliberal capital flight and economic insecurity threats in a campaign of fear to prevent the people gaining the confidence to challenge the economic orthodoxy?'. Surely all those years of being on the other side would make you think twice?

There is a joke I've heard. A foreign friend staying with family in Glasgow asks “what's this term 'weegie' which I keep hearing?” “It's what Edinburgh people use to insult Glaswegians” replies the host. “And what do you call them?” the guest replies. A pause. “They don't really crop up in our conversation” is the answer. It may be sad, but this is a much more realistic description of the relationship between Scotland and England. Decision-making on most of the social fabric other than the workplace is now devolved to Scotland and we are doing things diametrically opposed to what is happening in Whitehall. Universalism was recently challenged by the leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She had to retract within days. We don't use PFI and we don't privatise. It's a different world and we don't think much about the alternative because it scares us.

The big irony in this is that you think this is something to do with identity. But Scotland crossed that bridge ages ago. In the 1970s and 1980s we were challenged to decide who we are. In 1990, a group of people some of whom were high Tories (at least one of whom is now a leading light in the No campaign) marched onto the field at Murrayfield to sing Flower of Scotland before playing rugby against England. That was the moment Scotland's identity question was finally answered. We're Scottish. In the 1970s someone at a wedding wearing a kilt would be assumed to be making a point; now someone at a Scottish wedding not wearing a kilt will be assumed to have bad legs. We do not think twice about 'being Scottish', we just are – independence supporter or not. It's England that hasn't resolved its identity issues.

So please, for your sake more than ours, learn what's going on here. We have a political debate in which we're talking about raising tax and nationalising energy generation. If you fall into the trap of writing us off as ethnicity-based gripers, you will not only miss the best political debate Britain has had in decades, you will play a part in quashing it. Come up, offer your expertise, help us build. If we succeed, finally you'll have the proof that Thatcher wasn't right with that 'There Is No Alternative' stuff.

But whatever happens, at least be aware of who is damaging the relationships on this island. You probably need to take my word for it, but the sort of hate-filled commentary I read in your newspapers about 'scrounging jocks' and 'alcoholic subsidy junkies' could not, would not, should not get airtime in Scotland. It would be impossible to write about England in those tones; you'd be shunned and universally decried. Even the sorts of jokes about Scots you have on your comedy panel shows (which I greatly enjoy) could never ever be repeated in the opposite direction on Scottish TV. We'd find it to be unpalatable racism. Even the very worst of the independence debate (some of the unpleasant comments posted online) are Scot-on-Scot hate, not directed at the English.

If you allow this dual process – continuous denigration of the Scots combined with an unwavering narrative that in fact we are the backwards hate-mongers – then it is you who damage relations on these islands, not us.

And so, to anyone who believes this 'anti-English' nonsense and who doesn't know what is really going on in Scotland, stop using the Evening Standard (or, dishearteningly, the Guardian which isn't much better) as your source of information and please come and visit. You'll be very welcome indeed. And I absolutely promise you, you're going to feel foolish on your way home. Scotland is a tolerant, inclusive, progressive nation which gave up ethnic nastiness a long time ago and just wants a chance to be a modern, forward-looking country again. I know you sometimes think we're not as politically evolved as London. Then again, you still call India's independence movement a 'mutiny'.

Britain has a habit of imagining enemies in its head and accidentally creating them for real in the process. This is the chance to break a habit of a lifetime. Listen for a change. You'll be surprised what you discover.

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