Among all the conversations in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit victory, there are two emails which stay in my mind. One was from an Italian friend, the other from a Scot, and both were furious with England and by association, they made clear, that meant me. I have never had to apologise on behalf of my nationality to close friends. National guilt is familiar in many contexts – Ireland, India and many parts of Africa – but now it is coming home, sinking deep into the intimacies of where I feel I belong and my sense of self in the world as an English person. The Italian friend didn’t reply to my lamentations; the Scottish friend softened in our subsequent email exchange, but as someone who probably voted No in the Scottish independence referendum (he was discreet), who probably sees himself as British, his attitude was ‘who needs enemies when you have allies such as these’?
What the EU referendum sharply exposed was that Scottish and English political culture has diverged: they simply do not have the same conversation about power, history and identity. It is not just that Scottish politics revolves around Edinburgh, with a different parliament and cast; the divergence runs deeper than the day-to-day churn of politics. The Scottish political culture has its own reference points, language and meaning, which have taken shape since devolution. There were plenty pointing this out in the Scottish independence referendum, but it was possible to argue that it reflected the particular circumstances of a vote which was only taking place north of the border. On the EU referendum however, the two electorates were faced with the same question and landed very clearly on different answers.
‘The UK’s referendum debate,’ one Scottish observer told me, seemed to have been ‘beamed in from another universe’. Its themes, its tone and style were alien. Every voting area of Scotland was remain, with an overall majority of 62% remain to 38% leave; in England, the majority was 53.2% leave to 46.8% remain.
Scotland’s distinct political culture trumped all the factors identified as key to the Brexit vote in England and Wales – Scotland has plenty of deindustrialized areas of demoralized working class voters, and there are areas dominated by an ageing population with a strong streak of social conservatism. All these indicated higher leave votes in England, but not in Scotland. Not even Scotland’s deeply disgruntled fishermen delivered a leave vote in their core areas, such as Moray – albeit remain only scraped through with a majority of 122 votes there. Immigration was not an issue, despite evidence in polling that there are anxieties in Scotland similar to those in England. The subject just did not get traction on the political debate.
Obviously, one of the key drivers in the English leave vote was protest, but Scotland had already done that with the trouncing of Labour in the 2015 election, giving almost all its seats in the UK parliament in Westminster to the Scottish Nationalist Party. It brought to an end decades of electoral dominance by Labour. But it is still an under-acknowledged marvel that Scots lined up in their millions to vote alongside the much derided likes of David Cameron and George Osborne and the rest of the Westminster establishment. It seems they were prepared to swallow the urge to upend the London government for the sake of a bigger idea: Europe.
Scotland’s enthusiasm for the European project is one of the key characteristics distinguishing it from England, but that was not the case in the seventies. It’s interesting to remember now that the Scottish National Party wanted to pull out of the Common Market in the 1975 referendum, and Scotland’s vote in favour of staying in was behind the UK average. But in the forty years since, Scotland has seen considerable value in the relationship with Brussels as large local authorities such as Strathclyde realized the importance of regional identities within the EEC. Places such as Emilia Romagna in Italy, Catalonia in Spain and Bavaria in Germany were the key players in fostering economic development. The Scottish perception was that the predominantly social democrat EEC could be a crucial counterbalance to an over-centralised Thatcherite economics. European money was won for major projects in both deindustrialized Lowlands and in the Highlands and Islands.
The love affair with Europe went further, providing a broader framework for the developing national aspirations in Scotland as it looked to parallel other small nations. In the British Isles, Scotland has long experience of a ‘family of nations’ – a phrase coined by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister – since 1707; the EU offered yet another union, and the Scottish experience of the United Kingdom meant it did not share the particular English anxiety over shared sovereignty.
The comfort of Scotland’s fit with the EU has long historical roots. Scotland has had deep relationships with many European nations and, unlike England, celebrates that international influence. On frequent occasions, France has historically offered a counterweight to England (this was part of what lay behind Jacobitism), while Germany, the Netherlands, the Baltics and Scandinavia have been important trading partners, and shared ideas and faith followed trade. In a museum just outside Inverness, dedicated to the battle of Culloden in 1746, there is a dramatic story of the shifting European alliances and ambitions of which Scotland was a part. The great defeat of Jacobitism, when the 24-year-old Prince Charles Stuart led the Highland clansmen in a rebellion against the English Crown, was as much a story of French intrigue as Scottish rebellion.
Scotland is a country which owes its religious faith in large part to a French theologian – John Calvin – and that has brought close relationships with other Northern European Calvinists. Its industrial heyday owed much to the Irish migrants who arrived to work down the mines, in shipbuilding and in the steel works. The two Celtic nations – and two of their biggest cities, Glasgow and Belfast – are only a short ferry ride apart. Scotland shares the linguistic roots of Gaelic with Ireland and English with England. The many cultural debts owed to its close European neighbours (Norway ruled the Orkneys until almost the sixteenth century) occupy an unarguably large dimension of Scottish history – but this influence has not for the most part been perceived as a threat to Scottish identity.
Even more importantly, for a country welded from a Celtic–Gaelic seaboard once ranging from Norway to Cork, Scotland is well used to shifting geographies of power. The former SNP leader Alex Salmond used to sketch the links between Northern European nations from Norway to Iceland and Ireland, offering a vision of economic dynamism across the North Atlantic; the fallout from the crash on the economies of Iceland and Ireland left the concept tarnished but not entirely discredited, leaving open the idea of a different axis from the dominance of South East England. Unlike England, Scotland is not fixated on an aspect of geography – the white cliffs of Dover – as a critical component of self-definition. In contrast to England’s use of its geography as the source of an inviolable image of island separateness, Scotland perceives its long coastline and their seas as points of connection. It’s a perception which dates back to the sea roads of the Gaels and Vikings along the Hebridean archipelago, and gathered force with the entrenched patterns of Scottish emigration over several centuries, forging connections across the globe, from Canada and Australia.
If England and Scotland have been travelling in increasingly divergent directions, Brexit feels like the points on the line where the gap between the two nations yawns wide. The Shakespearean drama of the aftermath in both the Tory and Labour party leadership appeared to provide ample confirmation of a long-standing Scottish Nationalist critique of an intellectually and ethically bankrupt Westminster elite. Columnists north of the border were apoplectic with horror and revulsion at the political shambles playing out in London.
But what dwarfs even the drama of Westminster is the enormous and fiendishly difficult questions which now confront Scotland. It has found itself catapulted into a painful choice between two ‘families of nations’. Either way, the economic costs are daunting, as even the bravest optimists acknowledge. While there was appreciation that one of Theresa May’s first actions as prime minister was to get on a plane to Edinburgh, even the evident rapport between May and Sturgeon cannot eliminate the intractable differences between the people they represent. One of the effects of Brexit will be a hardening of anti-English sentiment. Some nationalists are celebrating the prospect that Brexit may prove the catalyst for a second – and successful – independence referendum, but others know well that it was the economic arguments which lost the last one, and two years of falling oil prices later, they look even worse now. Analogies are being sought in obscure detail of anomalies of EU history, such as Greenland’s negotiation of an opt-out of the EEC in 1982; could such an arrangement be reverse engineered to allow Scotland to remain in the EU as part of the UK? Another analogy being discussed is how Turkish Cyprus is outside the EU while the rest of Cyprus joined in 2004. And there is a constitutional crisis brewing around whether or not the UK can legally force Scotland out of the EU.
Perhaps most emblematic of the current situation is the anxiety about customs posts at Berwick in the event of independent Scotland becoming a member of the EU. When asked about the issue, David Davis, now in charge of Brexit negotiations, said that he already had the difficult challenge of the Northern Irish border to deal with. Indeed. But Davis may no longer get to decide how many difficult border issues land in his in tray.
What was so disturbing about Davis’ response is the vacuity which lay behind it. The Brexit leadership were not concerned about the impacts on Scotland and Ireland; their arguments were a form of English nationalism with little regard for Britain. Brexit demonstrates one of England’s most trusted strategies of power: deliberate forgetfulness. The nineteenth century historian John Seeley famously wrote, ‘we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind’. Even the hesitant syntax here reflects that English upper-class style of entitlement – effort and ruthlessness must be concealed or disavowed. The acquisition of empire, the unseemly speed of its end and its long legacy, have all been shrouded in forgetfulness. No other nation has made ‘absence of mind’ part of its statecraft. It goes even further, this national forgetfulness is also part of how the English define their identity. When writers attempt to describe England, the tone is often elegiac. Something has been lost. ‘Forgotten England’ is a term of approbation used in tourist literature to describe picturesque rural areas. Churchill commenting on this national trope maintained that even the word ‘England’ had been forgotten. ‘There is a forgotten, nay forbidden, word which means more to me than any other . . . That word is England.’
What Brexit illustrates is how forgetfulness is still both a style of government – look at Boris Johnson – and a political strategy towards England’s closest neighbours, but it is no longer a means of national definition. The Brexit sentiment was about wanting ‘our country back’; its project to ‘take back control,’ to resurrect this forgotten England. But these vague sentiments sound dangerously like a proposal of the impossible, the rewinding of history.
Photograph © Steve Schnabel, ‘Abandoned’