Do the Scots really hate the English?

If the Scots hate the English so much, why do no Scottish comedians mock the English, while English stand ups are more than happy to laugh at their northern neighbours?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
4 October 2013

Jubilee crowd - but what do the people of Britain think of each other?/National Collective

There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. The Irishman did something stupid, then the Celtic Tiger thing happened and we stopped making jokes about them. The Scotsman was stingy but these days is more notable for his diet. But what about the Englishman? Well, he's the one telling the joke.

(The Welsh, of course, are mocked alone, while the Cornish, Manx and Channel Islanders face the ultimate school yard peril, and are ignored.)

As a Scot in England as our referendum approaches, I have had questions about whether and how much the Scots hate the English. It seems it's not just me. Andrew Marr said recently “There is a very strong anti-English feeling (in Scotland), everybody knows it, there always has been”. I think he missed a more important point.

I lived in Scotland the first 24 years of my life. In that time, I had, for reasons I will come to later, an accent most would describe as English. Yet I can only remember one occasion when someone who, on thinking I was English, reacted negatively. Speaking to my brother about this, who has the same accent and who lives in Dundee, he said the same. But he pointed out something else too.

Earlier this summer, comedian Marcus Brigstocke did a series of jokes about the Scots. Apparently our bagpipes and obesity are still funny. I pick on Brigstocke because he is the sort of stand up who tends to avoid making punchlines from those less powerful than him.

Among the English comedians more prone to mocking the weak (to steal a line from the great comedy commentator Stewart Lee) the joke about the (implicitly working class) Scots and our tartan rapped heroin dunked deep fried Mars Bars is more common these days than any laughter at the supposedly ill-educated Irish. I googled the names, for example, of the first three prominent English stand ups of this type who came to mind. I was able very quickly to find such jokes made by all of them. In fact these types of joke have become so predictable that Stewart Lee has a sketch in which he parodies the mocking of Scots by English stand up comics. Or, at least, that's what I think he's doing.

The Scottish equivalent of Brigstocke or Lee is, I suppose, Armando Iannucci. So, as my brother asked me, here is the question: can you imagine him doing anti-English jokes (or parodies of anti-English jokes)? Of course not. Nor Billy Connolly, Rory Bremner, Fred MacAulay, Elaine C Smith, Susan Calman nor Janie Godley.

Now, there certainly is an anti-English sentiment at some level in Scotland. It's just that it doesn't seem usually to take the form of widespread nastiness to English/English sounding people (though I'm sure this sometimes happens), or of regular jokes from comedians surfing the undercurrents of society.* But I think form matters.

There is one exception to the comedian trend, and I think it casts a clear light on what the rule is. Frankie Boyle has a joke that goes like this: "In Scotland we have mixed feelings about global warming, because we will get to sit on the mountains and watch the English drown".

The parameters are clearer when you consider the most common type of Scots anti-Englishness I can think of: Argentinian football memorabilia. Walk around any Scottish town during a world cup for which Scotland hasn't qualified (every one since 1998) and you will soon find that the dark blue of England's neighbour has faded to the light blue of their great rival.

What does all this tell us? That Scots anti-Englishness is contentless. Scots will say that we support 'anyone but England'. But there is no English stereotype we pick on. Whilst American films have a clear set of oft represented English characters, Scots culture doesn't. Because that's not the point of it. Supporting 'anyone but England' is not a comment on them. It's a comment on us.

Likewise, the punchline of Frankie Boyle's joke is not the drowning English, it's the heartless Scot. These laughs are part of the same national in-joke which includes see-you Jimmy hats, kilts without boxers and haggis hunts. It's about Scots accepting a parody version of ourselves and repeating it. Baudrillard would be proud.

The anti-Scots sentiment among the English takes a very different form. For a start, there certainly are comedian stereotypes: Scots are pictured as heroin-using deep fat fryers, bedecked in a set of bizarre traditions of which we are sentimentally proud. We are Rab C Nesbits who dream of being Braveheart. As Stewart Lee astutely implies there is no female form. In many ways, the Scots represent an identifiable but distant version of the working class about whom middle class English comedians can make jokes without being seen to be snobs. But we mustn't ignore a nationalism that sits comfortably with classism.

And there are other anti-Scots sentiments found in England. There is the bitterness you sometimes hear about Scots free public services. This found ridiculous form in Matt O'Connor's 2008 London Mayor broadcast, but is an opinion I have heard voiced more often - much more often - in the four years I've lived in England than any anti-English argument I heard in 24 years living in Scotland.

And then there's the discrimination that comes from ignorance. Scots publisher Kevin Williamson describes how “If a writer is from Kenya, Canada, Italy, Belarus or Mexico City there is more chance of them getting a book deal, effective distribution, nomination for major awards, or national media reviews in England than there is for a new emerging voice from Scotland”.

Lynsey Hanley, in an otherwise good piece on snobbery and regional accents, wrote: “I interviewed a young band from Dundee who believed that the best way to show me how rough – how authentic – they were was to ensure that not a single word they said into my tape recorder was intelligible. I suppose their message to the kids was that they hadn't got one”.

A little research would have shown Hanley that Dundonian Scots is a sufficiently different language from her native Brummie that it's no surprise they couldn't understand each other. Implying they're stupid is just cultural imperialism. But it's nothing new.

It is important also to understand who the “English” the Scots are supposed to hate are. And in order to get our heads around this, I find it difficult to ignore a particular strand of history – one which entwines me. There is a reason, you see, why my family sounds like we are English. The Scottish land owning elite, of which my family have long been members, has been heavily, and intentionally, anglicised.

At the school I went to – in Scotland – everyone spoke like me. It was founded by Gladstone to bring the English public school system to Scotland, and is, apart from its geography, English in every way, from the exam hall to the cricket wicket. The school was designed to build an imperial elite. Key to this was continuing the broad process of building Britishness examined by Linda Colley and the specific project of anglicising the Scottish aristocracy made explicit in the 1609 Statutes of Iona. If this is all new to you, think about the fact that George Osborne's family is Irish.

When considering Anglo/Scots conflict, it's important to consider the attitude found among these anglicised Scots. It is perhaps best summarised with the fact that the ultimate insult at my school - 'Scoit' - was reserved for those who had a hint of a Scots accent, until it was bullied out of them. And this isn't just school children. Recently, I was told by an adult of this background that Scots are lazy. When referring to Scottish people, it is common for the class in which I grew up to talk about “them” rather than “us”. They are Scottish. We are British.

Scotland's aristocracy appears from the outside to be English - and to be the most loudly anti-Scots of the English tribe. For this reason, it is very hard to disentangle English/Scottish sentiments from perhaps class antagonism. I don't think that when the angry football fan shouts about "English bastards" or equivalent, she or he is referring to Geordies or to Brummies.

And this allows us to understand Scottish anti-Englishness and English anti-Scottishness much better. Because 'the English' whom we are told Scots hate are, in practice, a fusion/confusion of the Scottish aristocracy, the English middle and upper classes and perhaps much of the population of the South East. And this broad group are those who control, and patrol the boundaries of much of our culture.

This has specific ramifications. This group gets to be the norm against whom everyone else is compared. And if you define what's normal, then no one will mock you for it, because comedy is about contrast.**

Let me give one example. In a country with equal power relations, no one would think they had an accent – everyone thinks the way they speak is normal. It's others who have accents. But I have lost count of the number of times people have told me that I am the one with no accent, whilst they have a regional accent. I speak 'BBC English', so I am 'normal'. They are something other than normal.

People, almost always, are kind to strangers. I have rarely met vitriol on either side of the border, and the Scottish independence referendum has nothing to do with national animosity. But this doesn't mean that there isn't a power dynamic, played out every day, and best understood through the comedian's microphone and in the banter of football matches. In this imbalance, the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant speakers of BBC English are the norm. The Scots – in common with Northerners, Irish, Welsh, French, Jews, black people, and anyone who is 'different' - are the punchline: the butt of both the jokes made by the English and of their own.

Are the Scots anti-English? Are the English anti-Scots? No, not on the whole. But it's worth asking why we always talk about the former when there is far more evidence for the latter.


*Of course, people like the Spectator's steerpike tell us that it does take the form of SNP MSPs. I can only assume that this is a different kind of joke. 

**It's worth noting that this also applies within the ruling elite. Michael Howard and Ed Miliband (Jewish), George Osborne (Anglo-Irish), William Hague and Eric Pickles (working class), and Gordon Brown & Michael Gove (Scottish) are all in some way depicted as a little odd. No one ever asks 'odd compared to whom?'. Callaghan, Thatcher, Blair, Major and Cameron, on the other hand, all fit neatly into the 'South East or posh' category.

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