Allan Massie: Scottishness can be a matter of choice, not fact

Bath fly-half Tom Heathcote joins the Scotland rugby squad. Picture: Getty
Bath fly-half Tom Heathcote joins the Scotland rugby squad. Picture: Getty
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Some of the most passionate Scots were not born here but contributed greatly to the nation, so let’s not get hung up on nationality, writes Allan Massie

Readers of the sports pages will know that there is now another English accent in the Scotland rugby squad, the young Bath fly-half, Tom Heathcote, having been called up. Heathcote was born in Inverness when his English father was stationed at RAF Kinloss, and so is eligible for Scotland. He has played for England’s age-group teams, and will surely come on for at least the last few minutes of the game against Tonga on Saturday, because this will mean that, in line with the International Rugby Board rulings, he can no longer be picked by England. Well, this is fine by me. He’s a good young player and I am happy he has opted to be Scottish. “Opted” is the right word, because, like so many people, nationality for him is a matter of choice.

However, though he may wear the Scotland jersey, he won’t be able to vote in the referendum in 2014, unless of course he has moved from Bath to play for Edinburgh or Glasgow and got himself on the electoral roll here. There’s nothing remarkable about this. Most of the Scotland football team won’t be able to vote in the referendum either. On the other hand, Scotland’s Dutch winger, Tim Visser, will be eligible to vote. No complaints there either; he is resident here.

Now this is not a piece demanding that the franchise be extended so that anyone who thinks of himself or herself as a Scot should be entitled to a referendum vote. No matter how aggrieved Scots resident in England – or elsewhere furth of Scotland – may be at being denied a say in the decision about Scotland’s constitutional future, any extension of the franchise to them would be fraught with difficulties, so many that it would surely be quite impractical.

The referendum will be decided by the people on the electoral roll here in Scotland, and there are no grounds for sensible argument with that. Many who will be entitled to vote were not born Scots. Some have no Scottish ancestry, or none that they know of. Some of them will vote for independence, either because they have identified with the nationalist cause, or because they have been persuaded that independence would be good for the country they live in, and others will vote against it, for the obverse of these reasons.

Nationality for millions of people is a matter of choice rather than of fact. I have long relished a speech that Bob Boothby (long-serving Unionist MP for East Aberdeenshire) gave to the London Scots self-government committee in 1938. He called himself “a rare type” because he was “an English émigré. I come,” he said, “from Denmark, via Lincolnshire and Derbyshire”. But his grandfather had come north and settled in St Andrews. His father removed to Edinburgh, and so, Boothby said, “I may be a mongrel by breeding, but I am a native of the capital city of Scotland, and as good a Scottish patriot as anyone in this room.” Later he would be disappointed that neither Churchill nor Eden made him secretary of state for Scotland. A pity; he would have been a good one.

“A mongrel by breeding” is a good phrase, if you don’t take it or use it pejoratively. There are, and long have been, a lot of them. Another was Boothby’s friend Compton Mackenzie. Born and educated in England, his family name was actually Compton and his first career was as a very English novelist. Yet, identifying with his Mackenzie ancestry, he chose to become a Scot, and was indeed one of the founding members of the SNP. Yet, till he was middle-aged, few, perhaps none, of his friends thought of him as a Scot.

A great many people who describe themselves as British and Scots – or British and English – are probably mongrels, but then many are not. Likewise, there are mongrels too in the ranks of the SNP , though I shall spare their delicate sensibilities by refraining from naming them. The fact is that in the world today, with all its diversity, rapid communications, ease of movement of people between one country and another, nationality for more and more people is indeterminate and often insignificant. Happily, the SNP, unlike many nationalist parties, is sufficiently mature to recognize this, and has never dabbled, except on its fringes, with any of the ethnic nationalism nonsense.

This has nothing to do with the matter that has been occupying the letters pages of this newspaper recently – that is, the number of top positions, especially in the fields of culture and heritage, which go to people with no Scottish background and no, or little, previous knowledge of Scotland. This is a delicate area and one on which it is difficult, and probably stupid, to generalise. There are many examples of Englishmen who have made a great contribution to cultural life here in Scotland. Professor Chris Smout, having been appointed a lecturer at St Andrews, transformed the study of Scottish social and economic history. Mark Jones, an Englishman with a Welsh name, born in Bogota, and educated at Eton and Oxford, as then director of the Royal Scottish Museum in Chambers Street, oversaw the creation of the new Museum of Scotland, one of the finest cultural achievements of modern times. We are in debt to both these men.

So, while one might say that a knowledge of Scottish history and culture is desirable, and might be one of the criteria for any such appointment, there may at any time be other considerations. Posts are advertised, as the law requires, and if there are half-a-dozen applicants, only one of whom is a Scot, and the Scot is manifestly less well-qualified than rival applicants in all respects other than nationality, does this mean he should nevertheless get the job? Nationality, however it is defined, is not in itself the best qualification, or even a necessary one.

To return to the matter of my first paragraph, Andy Robinson, the coach of the Scottish rugby XV is an Englishman, and few Scottish rugby supporters have thought his nationality should have disqualified him for the job. Perhaps the SFA might revive the fortunes of Scottish football if they found the right foreigner to manage the national team – no matter that he wouldn’t be able to vote in the referendum.