An Englishman abroad


Take Down The Union Jack is a song by my friend Billy Bragg, who writes stirringly and without hysteria in today’s Guardian about not just the Scottish Referendum, which takes place tomorrow, but about the differences between English nationalism and Scottish nationalism; one essentially rooted in ethnic cleansing and misguided nostalgia for Empire, the other in civic determinism and forward-facing pride. It’s no wonder that those on the English – or British – left gaze in awe and envy at the currently animated, consumed, fixated Scots, whether they are YES or NO voters. Even the crucial undecided – the YES AND NO campaigners – are statistically likely to turn out to place their cross tomorrow, such is the engagement with the debate. Registration to vote in the referendum in Scotland is a heart-stopping 97% among those of voting age (a demographic which is in itself refreshingly inclusive, welcoming in 16-year-olds). In the European election in May, the turnout was 34.17%.

I am the Scots’ worst nightmare: an Englishman with an opinion on their nation’s future. But my opinion is almost 100% heart, as I don’t get a vote, so there’s no point in engaging my head. My YES is hypothetical. I’m not Scottish, I don’t live in Scotland; the fact that I love Scotland is frankly immaterial. I know Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as I know, say, Manchester or Bristol, and better than I know Oxford or Newcastle. This is mostly because I visit Edinburgh every year for at least a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and have had consistent cause to visit Glasgow in my adult life, too – drawn up there to commune with the many Glaswegian bands that have risen in the city’s suburbs, and more latterly to work with The Comedy Unit, Scotland’s premiere comedy production house. I like Scots. My most recent trip to Glasgow – last Tuesday – was to attend the autumn season launch of Scottish Gaelic language broadcaster BBC Alba at the Royal Concert Hall. To drink deep of this ancient language was to brush past Scottish history and its future in the same spectral moment. They served excellent breakfast baps, too.


You do need a weatherman to know which way the wind will blow tomorrow, as Scotland stands on the precipice of history. The polls have been kissing each other in the middle for weeks. All I can do is observe. I felt that the UK establishment’s last-minute surge north was mismanagement and hubris in a grey Westminster suit. However, I was wrong when I guessed that the “effing” David Cameron’s arrival, shoulder to confusing shoulder with Gordon Brown, Lord Reid, John Major and Nick Clegg, would surely, counterintuitively, clinch the YES vote.

It had the opposite effect and nudged the blue-faced YES-sayers back into second place. It may have been a pathetic, transparent last-ditch attempt to stem the tide of Scottish dissatisfaction with being run from a weekend barbecue in the Cotswolds, but the scaremongering worked. It’s still too close to call. Alex Salmond is clearly no angel – he’s cosied up to Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch in his time as First Minister – but his belief that Scotland should govern its own affairs is more compelling than the man.


When the only Scottish newspaper with an opinion to back the YES campaign is the Glasgow Sunday Herald (not the weekly Herald, which is NO), and the UK print media almost multilaterally in the “Better Together” camp (expect the Guardian and the aptly-named Independent, unless you know different), we’ve had to cover our eyes and ears to the again belated chorus of disapproval, half-truths and apocalyptic predictions. At zero hour, the likes of the Telegraph and Mail are now desperately gunning for Salmond’s personality, as if that’s the only factor that’s driving Scottish overtures for divorce, and obsessing over a loud-mouthed faction in St James’ shopping centre in Edinburgh – a display or boorishness that did the YES camp no favours, even if it was unrepresentative. (Pat Kane was on Sky News last night “defending” the actions of a scrum of compatriots when it wasn’t his job to do so, and he was the very opposite of the Tory media’s caricature of a YES man: cool, calm, collected, oh, and gung-ho for the New Scotland however the vote plays out.)

I have no idea what will happen if the Scots vote YES. Nor does anyone in Westminster, or Holyrood, or at the Bank of England, or the Royal Bank of Scotland, or on the board of Asda, or Irvine Welsh, or Eddie Izzard. Martin Amis was eloquent on Channel Four News when he observed that his preferred NO lobby was saddled with a semantic dead weight: “You can’t campaign for a negative.”

But the UK establishment, as I keep calling them, the keepers of the status quo, have been all about the negatives. Never mind “Better Together”, the message I’ve been hearing is “Worse Apart.” Whether it’s the NHS, pensions, oil, water, Team GB, the BBC or the money it will cost to redesign that nice Union flag, all have felt like threats. In the past few days, the Government and the opposition have reverted from stick to carrot, offering more devolved power if the Scots vote NO. But surely, with a binary YES or NO vote (and one sensible enough soul on Twitter suggested there should have been a third, grey option on the ballot for “a bit more devolved power, please”), any Scot interested in more autonomy would vote YES, not NO. And isn’t Westminster giftwrapping autonomy and making you beg for it like Greyfriars Bobby precisely why independence seemed so attractive in the first place?

Whether, as Billy Bragg and my other left-wing friend who writes for the Guardian John Harris suggest, the referendum will encourage further positive independence campaigns in favour of conscious uncoupling from the Bullingdon hegemony in England and Wales and even Northern Ireland, I don’t know. This whole thing may blow over. But to have galvanised an entire nation in debate, discussion, leafletting and – alright – the occasional scuffle in the street, the referendum, or #indyref, has been a force for good, I think.

Here is a picture of some lovely people queuing up to see me for free in Scotland in 2010. (Warning: some of them might not be from Scotland.)


I am English by birth and by blood. I don’t much care for the place, as, from where I live in London, the disconnect between Westminster, the City and the weekend oligarchs of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and what we’ll call The Rest Of The Country is toxic on so many levels, and it’s turning us on each other.

They say the vote tomorrow is one between heart and head. The UK establishment want it to be between heart and wallet. Because they would do, wouldn’t they? It’s the only card they’ve got.


I trust the Scots. And whichever way they swing, I believe Scotland will be a better place on Friday than it was before David Cameron noticed that its people were actually seriously going to be voting about something that they care about. Unlike, say, which MEP we “send” to the European Parliament, or who the next Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire will be. (I understand the last one has mysteriously stepped down; he won the vote in November 2012 with 51.35% of a 14.53% turnout.)

They have already taken away our freedom. I would like it back, please. And I’m perfectly happy to take my passport when I next go to Edinburgh or Glasgow or Skye.


6 thoughts on “An Englishman abroad

  1. I believe I read that the Sunday Herald went for yes some months ago, but it’s the only one. The other Scottish papers have tended to stay neutral – perhaps with an eye on sales, therefore not alienating any of their readership.

    Whatever the answer, Britain is going to be different Friday morning. The Westminster elite (and how many in the rest of the country would love to be shot from them forever, I wonder) had better take note for all our benefits.

    • I’ve amended the newspaper bit to include the Sunday Herald, which has declared its own independence from the rest-of-the-week Herald. Interesting.

  2. Andrew, can I give you a NO from the heart? I think there are very good reasons why the current prospectus for iScotland doesn’t stack up. Economically it looks like a disaster waiting to happen and a step that would undermine the provision of services that people rely on for their daily lives. In my sector, Higher Education, the end of the Union would have serious consequences for how universities received funding for research and what arrangements their would be for non-Scottish students – a significant component of modern University economics. None of this really seems to have been thought through and any questioning of what happens after YES is usually brushed aside with a panglossian it will all work out and be great. What if it isn’t?

    But from the heart, I come from the Labour movement. One of the first meetings I attended was listening to Mick McGahey (the leader of the Scottish NUM) during the miners’ strike. My Labour movement was and is one that sees beyond nationalist differences. We are all workers together and when we work together we achieve great things. It wasn’t England alone that stood up against fascism, built the welfare state, and created the NHS. It was Britain. And I would be devastated if my home turned its back on those shared achievements for the shake of a nationalist agenda, whether that be the Little Englandism of UKIP or the Little Scotlandism of the SNP.

    Last night I sat and watched the film Pride. At the end Billy Bragg’s There Is Power In A Union struck up. I probably wasn’t the only one with damp eyes. And while Billy was clearly not addressing “the Union” there was part of me that reflected that if Billy had his way now there wouldn’t be solidarity crossing our nation borders. We’ll be in our designated national slots. Divided. Weaker.

    • A fine and rousing defence, Robert. I would hope that solidarity among workers would continue across a border – it’s just a dotted line. (I always find it thrilling to cross an international border. It certainly won’t stop me making regular trips north.) An independent Scotland would be free to thrive as the more socialist, compassionate, egalitarian and Trident-free nation it always wanted to be and was at heart. England without Scotland might be weakened, but unless you’re going to turn your back on Scotland, then neither am I.

      I will add, though, that in my bones I feel the NO vote will tip it, as many voters fear economic strife more than they desire change.

  3. A great piece, Andrew. It’s not about Alex Salmond (I’m not an SNP voter, or someone who would describe himself as a nationalist) and it’s not about being anti-English – I love England; I’ve spent more time on holiday there than in every other country combined; I’d happily live there if circumstances were different.

    Nor is it necessarily about creating a socialist Utopia, something in any event I probably wouldn’t want – not that it’s about me, of course – I’m on the soft side of soft Left. In fact, there is of course a powerful strain of free enterprise thinking in Scotland, and it seems to me that post-independence there would be a centre-right vacuum for a Scottish political party to expand into, free forever of the toxic Thatcher legacy. (And the current Scottish Tory leader is intelligent and interesting, and Salmond aside the best of the Scottish party leaders by some distance.)

    It’s a simple question: how do I think the place where I live, the place where my children are growing up, can best be governed? And the answer to that lies in a Yes vote, which is what I will do with both optimism and trepidation, because I don’t think that the setting up of an independent country will be as easy or as quick as the SNP suggests it will. But I think that it’ll be a narrow “no”: 47/53, something like that.

    On Friday morning work takes me down the M8 to Edinburgh. I will be driving into the capital of a country which is going to be changed one way or another.

    (Incidentally, the reason that “a bit more devolved power” – probably the wish of the majority of the people in Scotland, when all’s said and done – isn’t on the ballot paper is because the Prime Minister wanted a simple yes/no question, figuring that would improve his chances of a straightforward rejection of change. His belated and panicked agreement to increase devolution and safeguard Barnett suggests that he realises he got that wrong; whether it’s enough to sway the referendum in his favour remains to be seen.)

  4. Only 3% of people currently back independence in Wales, so it looks like we’ll be in the union for a while yet ( Which is a bit crazy when you consider the pledge to keep the Barnett formula for Scotland means that on a needs basis Wales will continue to be worse off. Bit depressing that the UK parties agreed to continue to shortchange Wales and showcases the worst rather than the best aspects of the union.

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