Scotland and England in Britain – a changed perspective

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by Sue Varley{jcomments on}

It was suggested to me that I might contribute an article on how my understanding of England, Scotland and their respective places within Britain has changed from living in England to living in Scotland. This is a personal opinion piece from my own experiences – please take it as such.

I was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire, went to school there and then lived in various parts of the south of England until moving to Ross-shire in 2003. I had only moderate interest in politics, and like so many English I thought devolution was a pointless waste of money if I thought about it at all. I’m not sure it even registered with me at the time that it had happened.

There was very little if any coverage of the devolution issues in England, it didn’t affect the English so was not important. At the time I would have thought that this was fair enough, but now can see how short-sighted this view really is. It’s not really anglocentric because we don’t do it deliberately, it’s just lack of vision. But I have come to wonder why the English generally have this country-blindness to the other countries in the United Kingdom, and how does it come about that we are so woefully unaware that we have it?

We grow up knowing that England is a country, we live in it, learn its history at school, we pass seamlessly from English history pre Queen Elizabeth to British history post 1707. We call it all English history and we don’t know that there is any difference. Welsh and Scottish history don’t exist, the first event of importance that happened in either of these countries was joining with England, and after that we’re all one country so whatever is important to us must be important to all of us. History covers the Empire and military might of bygone days and we are quietly proud that we were “Top Nation”. The Civil War is the English Civil war, the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic wars were fought against England, the agricultural and industrial revolutions happened in England and a few Scots invented a machine or two to help it along.

Broadcast media reinforces this hidden assumption since news coverage is mainly about London: economics is London; current affairs is what Westminster politicians are doing and saying to the rest of the world; we have our local news coverage in a separate programme after the important bit. Local events make it into the national coverage only if they are deemed to be of national importance. Since this holds true for the other countries of the UK, it carries the implication that they too are local regions rather than countries.

Sport is about English teams or personalities, England is the national team. Even when we compete in the Olympics, we are Britain meaning England. A few of us are smart enough to notice the Scots sportsmen and women being British when they win and Scottish when they lose. We mostly don’t have the nous to spot that for there to be Home International games against Scotland they must be a nation – it’s a sort of courtesy title to make the matches possible. And even if the Scots are a “nation” it doesn’t mean they have their own country.

The occasional cultural programmes about Scotland were quaint kitsch like the Hogmanay Show and the White Heather Club, with one rare and memorable exception. I saw “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil” on BBC in my early teens. It made me angry for the way the Scottish people had been treated in generations past but I had no understanding of the contemporary issues. And a one off programme was sadly not enough to spur me to find out more for myself.

In terms of national wealth and control over resources, England generally appears far more prosperous than Scotland, so it must be because the English are far better at generating wealth and therefore have a right to say how it is spent. Scotland must be economically inferior to England because it doesn’t have the same level of infrastructure, the cities, the trappings of wealth. Geographically even, England dominates the land mass of the British Isles, Wales is the tiny bit in the west, Scotland is the slightly bigger bit to the north and Ireland is the troublesome bit across the water. England is geographically diverse, with a wide variety of landscapes, cultures and industries, Scotland is nothing but mountains, heather and sheep, coastline and fishermen.

As for aspirations, the Scots are part of Britain and that’s the same as England so Scots are like us, and must want the same things that we are taught to want, and when we find that they don’t we can’t understand it. And so we blame them for being difficult and awkward.

We’re aware of the stereotypes, we tell the Englishman (smart and successful), Irishman (idiot and a failure) and Scotsman (tight-fisted and helped by the Englishman to be better than the Irishman) jokes, we laugh at the deep fried mars bar stories, and we wonder what is wrong with the Scots that they resent us. Maybe they have no sense of humour. We English pride ourselves on our sense of humour you know.

Right from childhood the terms England and Britain are pretty much interchangeable and because we hear almost nothing about Scotland, this never gets challenged. We see the Union flag, we hear the National Anthem at all national events whether they are English or British. The Queen is the Queen of England. Anything about England is English, anything about the rest of the UK is British.

If I had thought about it at all, I would have assumed it would be the same here, only with Scotland and Britain. News would therefore be mainly about Edinburgh and Glasgow with local bits for the other parts of the country, politics would be about the Scottish parliament with only the reserved issues being about the UK as a whole, sport would be about Scottish teams and personalities, art and culture would be Scottish art and culture. And so on.

Far from it. You don’t learn Scottish history at school, UK government is given precedence over the Scottish government in news broadcasts, the British state broadcaster trivialises or opposes the national government at all opportunities, reporting of devolved issues is often telling what is happening outwith Scotland. You get the England national football games (I still can’t get my head round that one), very few entertainment programmes are set or made in Scotland. The true state of Scotland’s wealth is kept obscure so Scots won’t realise their country is impoverished to support London and British political aims. You get snide put-downs and undermining of national identity and confidence from your own people. This is all so unnatural it takes some getting used to.

I have discovered how arrogant and alienating the ingrained English assumptions and automatic responses are because I now find myself reacting to them as well. English friends wondering why I was talking about the general election because it doesn’t affect Scotland since we have our own parliament; Highland food products being referred to as English; blatant bias in the media; SNP and Plaid Cymru being marginalised in a UK context although they are governing in their own countries. And of course the greatest propaganda piece of all – the great subsidy myth. I challenge it whenever I see or hear it. What I hate most is that I still sometimes find myself responding to the early conditioning – thinking England when I mean Britain, and even worse sometimes I think England when I mean Scotland.

It is in the interests of the British to keep this confusion in all our minds. Scotland in subjection and England in comfortable ignorance allows them to pursue their own agenda of WMD for the influence at the UN; illegal wars to impress Uncle Sam; keeping Europe at arms length to prolong the belief in self sufficiency; fostering cynicism in the political process so change will not be demanded.

I started by saying that devolution didn’t affect the English. Since we now have a government with Scotland’s interests as the driving force it can be seen that devolution does indeed affect the English. They are seeing that there are better choices available than the ones being made on their behalf. At the moment they just want this privilege removed from Scotland. If they ever look beyond resenting what we now have and wake up to how the British state uses them personally, they will want the Union ended too. I hope for the sake of Scottish self belief, we gain our freedom before England starts demanding it for herself.