Tom Miers: Sliding into Englishness
SCOTLAND and Scots are becoming more and more Anglified, and even having our own parliament has not halted that trend, writes Tom Miers
Here’s a paradox: With every passing year Scotland becomes more like England. And yet, politically, the two countries are diverging to the point where nationalism, in one guise or another, dominates politics.
You hardly need a sense of history to notice how Scottish distinctiveness is fading away to be replaced by a bland modernity. The whole look and feel of the country is becoming more homogenous with the rest of Britain.
Take our towns and cities. Scotland has a wonderfully idiosyncratic architectural tradition ranging from the herring-bone layout of its old towns to its lumpish keeps and tower houses and the hard face of its Georgian buildings. Over the last century, though, Scottish architecture has lost its spirit. The same bland semi-detached estates curl away into the suburbs of both Lanarkshire and Lancashire. Tower blocks are drably British in their brutalist uniformity. Even central Edinburgh is now dotted with the same bland modern office buildings that you see in Leeds or Bristol.
Linguistically, a Scottish accent remains distinctive. But in its slang, its turn of phrase and its glottal stops it is starting to resemble universal cockney more and more. Meanwhile regional dialects are confined to the most rural retreats and the Gaelic language has virtually disappeared as a medium of everyday speech. There are no more Highlanders.
Christianity is in decline throughout Europe. This may seem par for the course, but Scottish Presbyterianism was a pillar of national identity, informing the rhythms of life as well as the country’s politics, culture and national attitudes.
A few months ago I asked the Scottish editor of a tabloid newspaper, who had had a long career on both sides of the Border, if he had to tailor his paper to the different cultural and political outlook of his local readers. Not a bit of it, he replied. Voting patterns seemed to make no difference. His Scottish readership displayed exactly the same (rather conservative) tastes and prejudices as their compatriots in England.
This is borne out by consumer surveys showing that Scots like pretty much exactly the same diet of TV, food, drink, music and shopping as other Brits, as any visit to one of our bland chain-dominated high streets will confirm.
Even in sport the residual institutional differences mask a quiet change in allegiance. There are just as many Chelsea and Man United shirts in those ubiquitous shopping malls as those of Rangers or Hearts.
Even our problems are alike. The patterns of single parenthood, long-term joblessness and social breakdown are common to the post industrial inner suburbs of all British cities. Alex Salmond’s wishful claim that the riots that afflicted parts of England last summer demonstrated a greater sense of community in Scotland was laughable. As one commentator pointed out, the rioters probably stayed at home in Newcastle and Glasgow because it was raining there.
You might have thought that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament would have enhanced the country’s institutional distinctiveness. But the main agencies of domestic government – the education system, the health service, the civil service – were run quite separately before devolution, and not much has changed since. The Scottish Parliament has been notoriously cautious in its policy making.
Except in one respect. Scotland’s separate legal system is probably the single most definitive institution that marks the country out. Law is the essence of the state. Yet last week a respected lawyer, Alistair Bonnington, made a startling accusation. He said that Holyrood had done more damage to our legal system than Westminster managed in 300 years.
“Without Scots Law,” he said, “the claim to have distinct nation status would be absurd. It is a paradox and a tragedy that since 1999 huge damage has been done to it by the Scottish Parliament.”
The legal code has been exposed to the activism of a self-legitimising set of politicians. They might sit in a separate chamber, but they are motivated by the same “tabloid agenda” (as Bonnington put it) as their busybody fellows elsewhere.
All of this is a tragedy for anyone who loves Scotland, whatever their point of view. The decline of Scottishness would have made both Scott and Burns weep.
This is not to deny all differentials, of course. Those same politicians come in a quite different range of hues from their counterparts at Westminster. Herein lies the paradox. Why is Scotland, convergent as it is culturally and socially, diverging politically?
It is not just the case of the success of the SNP. Voter attitudes to independence have not changed much over the last few decades, though the party has exploited its political opportunities expertly. Other changes have been just as dramatic. The collapse of Scottish Toryism has been spectacular and its implications go beyond the misfortunes of the Conservative Party. Unlike in England, Scottish Labour did not have to react to Tory success by developing the New Labour brand of centrist, market-friendly social democracy.
Instead, Labour has competed with the nationalists in emphasising its differences from England by instituting devolution. In rhetoric, if not in policy, Scottish Labour now feels very distinct from the party of Blair, Mandelson and Miliband.
How will this play out over the coming years, particularly with reference to the independence vote? Will politics follow culture or vice versa?
The commentator Matthew Parris wrote recently how a sense of identity can come from either “affiliation” or “affinity”. Football fans, for example, might hold very strongly divergent affiliations to different clubs – Dundee and Dundee United, for example. But their cultural affinity with each other would be obvious to any but the most partisan insider. A visitor to Britain would barely notice when he crossed the border from England to Scotland were it not for the trite Fàilte gu Alba signs that told him so. Scots and English have an ever greater affinity even as their affiliation is becoming more distinct.
Some of this may be connected to the decline of Britishness as an attractive national brand, whatever its temporary resurgence in this Jubilee and Olympic year. Regardless of the usefulness of acting together on the international stage, the days of glorious common national endeavour – the world wars, the empire – are fading ever further into the memory. Identity is becoming more local and more down to personal choice, and as a result the symbols of Britishness in particular attract less affiliation.
It is very noticeable, for instance, that David Cameron has been largely excluded from the independence debate in Scotland. His own side have shunted him into the sidelines as no more than, at best, a friendly onlooker.
Yet the Prime Minster could not be more British. He is certainly not from any particular part of England. A generation ago he would have been central to the debate. Now his posh British accent marks him out as an alien in the same way that wearing a Hibs shirt in Gorgie would.
So far, those making the case for the Union have been very circumspect about the identity issue. They have focused on hard-headed economics and nationalist muddle on the currency or North Sea oil. The nationalists have made most of the running on identity politics, though occasionally they have overstepped the mark in attempts to brand their opponents as anti-Scottish.
In truth, neither side has yet read the runes correctly, nor articulated their case convincingly in terms of national identity. The confused reaction to British success at the Olympics shows how easy it is to jump to the wrong conclusions, in either direction.
The key to identity is that affiliation is something that you choose, while affinity is something deeper, something that you are. Whoever plays that to their advantage could decide Scotland’s future for good.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West