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Tom Peterkin: The English-born on independence

Edinburgh-based Anya OShea will be voting No. Picture: Neil R Hanna

Edinburgh-based Anya OShea will be voting No. Picture: Neil R Hanna

  • by TOM PETERKIN
 

WITH a majority of English-born people in Scotland poised to deliver a No vote, Tom Peterkin examines a key sector of referendum voters

HAD an independence referendum been on the agenda when Andy Lythgoe moved to Scotland a quarter of a ­century ago, he would have voted No.

In 1989, Lythgoe was too preoccupied with raising a young family and his promising career in commercial property to concern himself with Scottish ­nationalism.

In any case, back in those days the Scottish National Party was nothing like the force that it is now. Written-off by many as a tiny blip on the political ­radar, the party had yet to embark on its astonishing rise to power.

What’s more, Lythgoe was born and brought up in Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, and was inclined to vote Tory. English Conservatives were not normally regarded as types who would choose to flirt with the Scottish independence movement and he was no exception.

Since then, however, Lythgoe has undergone a conversion – perhaps not a Damascene one but a steady one nonetheless.

These days Lythgoe can be found out on the doorsteps of Eastwood, to the south of Glasgow, campaigning passionately for the Scottish National Party and Yes ­Scotland.

Just occasionally, a Scot answering the door expresses surprise that this quietly spoken man in his 50s with the unmistakably English accent should be a ­believer in independence.

Lythgoe may not fit the stereotype of an SNP supporter but – listening to him describe why he came round to supporting independence – his sincerity is plain to see.

When he first moved to Glasgow with his Scottish wife Joyce, Lythgoe was of the view that Scottish independence did not make economic sense. “We had all been told that – propaganda is not the right word – but there is this mantra that has been around for many, many years that Scotland couldn’t survive on its own and that we couldn’t afford it and we are versions of a subsidy junkie,” Lythgoe told Scotland on Sunday.

“It is not just people in Scotland who have been told that but people in England have been told that all of their lives. After a while, when you hear something for so long for so often, you simply ­believe it to be true,” he said.

As he settled into his new job, heading the valuation department of the Scottish office of a major commercial property firm, Lythgoe found that he began to challenge the conventional wisdom of the time.

“My job involved me coming to Scotland, trying to understand what made Scottish commercial property tick,” he recalled.

In order to understand the market, he had to research the Scottish economy.

“I got our research department in London to help me build up a picture, which they duly did,” he said.

According to Lythgoe, the results of the company’s research caused some consternation.

“They confessed to having to look at the figures a second time, because they didn’t believe them the first time.

“They said, you are not going to believe this but Scotland provides a relative subsidy to the rest of the UK. That is not to say there is not a deficit, because there is. But in relative terms the greater deficit is actually south of the Border.

“That came as a surprise, because I had grown up thinking Scotland was a basket case.”

Lythgoe’s curiosity was aroused by his findings and by the mid-1990s, he had become a card carrying member of the SNP.

“I began to form the view that Scotland should be doing better than it was for itself. As it is in my nature, I became increasingly politically interested,” he said.

Five months out from the referendum, First Minister Alex Salmond must hope there are many more English-born people living in Scotland who are prepared to follow Lythgoe’s example. But that may be a vain hope.

Today’s ICM poll for Scotland on Sunday suggests that voters born in England have the potential to nudge the referendum in the No camp’s favour. With its findings suggesting that the gap is narrowing to 48 per cent Yes and 52 per cent No (when “undecideds” are excluded), every extra vote counts. The poll found that 15 per cent of the 1,004-strong sample were born in England. But voters such as Lythgoe are still in the minority, with only 28 per cent of people born in England saying they would vote Yes.

That compares with 58 per cent who say they will vote No – a ratio of more than 2:1 in favour of remaining within the United Kingdom. Fourteen per cent of English-born Scots residents remain undecided.

This is a very small sample, so care must be taken about drawing too many concrete conclusions. But it is broadly in line with evidence from other polling ­organisations.

There is a completely different picture when Scottish-born voters are posed the independence question. Forty-two per cent of those born in Scotland say they will vote Yes – a higher proportion than the 40 per cent who say they will vote No. (Eighteen per cent are “don’t knows”).

In a close contest – as the referendum looks likely to be – it could be argued that the fate of Scotland could depend on the views of its English-born ­residents.

That impression is only emphasised by the overall trend revealed by today’s ICM poll results. The evidence of a significant tightening of the gap between the Yes and the No camps means every vote – English included – is crucial.

Professor John Curtice, Strathclyde University’s political polling expert, agreed.

“If this poll is correct and overall there are 48 per cent going for Yes and indeed it is non-Scots who are responsible for pushing away [from Yes], if the vote is narrowing everything and everyone could be decisive,” he said.

Given the distinctiveness of the English-born group’s political leanings when compared with Scottish-born voters, Curtice believes their votes could prove “important” in determining the outcome.

The pro-independence camp faces a real challenge in getting members of that group to change their minds from No to Yes. It is a challenge that involves grappling with the issue of national identity – an emotive subject that is far from straightforward and is all too easy to reduce to stereotypes.

There are Scots – such as SNP Cabinet minister Mike Russell – who happen to have been born in England but were educated north of the Border and feel as Scottish as Irn-Bru. There are English people, such as Lythgoe, who came to Scotland as adults who think independence offers Scotland the best chance of progress.

Nevertheless, the poll identifies a clear and underlying trend, which makes harsh reading for Salmond.

“If people were born in England they are less likely to feel strongly Scottish, they are more likely to feel British. This is partly about identity: they are going to be keener to hang on to Britishness,” said Curtice.

Around three years after Lythgoe arrived in Scotland, Anya O’Shea was born in London. Now aged 22, she finds herself living in Scotland in the final year of her history degree course at Edinburgh University.

O’Shea may have been brought up in the Woodgreen district of North London, but she loves life in Edinburgh. She has a boyfriend from Glasgow and has every intention – like Lythgoe – of making Scotland her home.

Unlike Lythgoe, she is in the majority of English-born Scottish residents in that she would prefer Scotland to remain part of Britain.

And that’s why she is also spending much of her free time canvassing, but on the other side of the argument from Lythgoe.

“I don’t want to feel that I will change countries when I go home to see my parents and my friends in London,” O’Shea said. “Home doesn’t get any further away, but I think it would feel a lot ­further away if there was a border in-­between.”

As someone who is starting out on working life with ambitions to work for children’s charities, O’Shea also has concerns that the upheaval caused by independence could limit her career opportunities.

“There are a lot of young people who want to go and work for these big organisations that are UK-wide. What would happen to them in an independent Scotland?” she said. “You would feel like all the opportunities would suddenly go down south.”

But her political stance is guided by more than the arguments of the head. There are the complex matters of the heart. For O’Shea, her British identity is an important factor in the way she intends to vote.

Like so many people in the United Kingdom, O’Shea is the product of a mongrel nation – her own multicultural background fosters a deep sense of ­Britishness.

“My dad is Welsh and my mum is an immigrant from Poland and I have got an Irish surname, but I feel entirely ­British,” O’Shea said.

Her Britishness, she feels, is at odds with the idea propagated by many within the SNP that independence will give Scotland the freedom to pursue a distinctive set of Scottish values.

“I do feel that this sense of Scottish and the English having different values is nonsense. This sense of someone being different because they are one side or other of a mark in the ground, just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Alex Salmond seems to be one of the few people that thinks that, really.

“With the internet, people are coming closer together and working together on things – separating just doesn’t make any sense. Why would you isolate yourself when you can still argue for more powers and help people in Scotland but whilst having the strength of something huge behind you?”

Clearly, O’Shea is one of the 58 per cent of those born in England who intends to vote No. The strength of her conviction illustrates the battle Yes Scotland faces in what could be a weathervane group of voters.

As Curtice put it: “If you are saying to me, how do the Yes side try to appeal to them? Well I say I am not quite sure that I regard that as my top priority – if I am running the Yes campaign – there are probably easier targets to win over.

“It looks as tough as it is going to be – tough in the sense that the proportion of people who are born in England who are undecided is lower than that for those born in Scotland. They look quite set in their ways.”

And yet, at a time in Scotland’s history when much is made of national identity, and as feelings of Scottishness and Britishness collide in the political arena, Lythgoe’s journey is a telling one. His strong attachments to other parts of the United Kingdom (he grew up in North Lincolnshire, studied at the Polytechnic of Wales and worked for the British Airports Authority at Gatwick and Stansted), do not sway him from his commitment to independence.

His argument for breaking up Britain is not one based on identity, it is based on economics and his belief that Holyrood is best placed to take all Scotland’s political decisions. “I think that decision-making that is both at home and much more immediate and much more appropriate is going to be much better,” he said. “It is not a heart thing for me. If it didn’t make sense economically and fiscally, I would be a No voter. «

Twitter: @TomPeterkin

 

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