Neal Ascherson

For the last six months, a Scot reading the London papers, or watching London-made political TV shows, could only conclude that a sharp dislike of Scots and Scotland is spreading across South Britain. The reports suggest a bout of Scotophobia without parallel since the violently anti-Scottish mood of the English mob in Lord Bute’s day.

The ignorance and nastiness of some of this journalism have been startling. The Daily Telegraph wrote that Scotland was ‘trapped in the squalor of dependency’. ‘Until recently,’ the paper asserted, ‘an English voter hearing Gordon Brown’s Fifeshire accent would simply have said to himself, “Labour”; now, he says: “Scottish.” The lopsided devolution settlement has created a sense that the Scots are having their cake and yet guzzling away at it.’ The newspapers accuse a Scottish mafia of dominating the cabinet. They suggest that Scottish ministers, from the safety of northern constituencies, are driving through measures such as university tuition fees that are hateful to the English. They picture Scotland as pampered by unjustified subsidies from English taxpayers and yet nagging for more. Some Tory MPs and their commentator friends proclaim that parliamentary government will be destroyed if an MP from a Scottish constituency becomes prime minister.

On the Daily Telegraph website, hatred of Europe is closely associated with resentment of Scotland, so that ending the older Union is seen as the condition for ending the newer one. ‘Time to disband the Union, let the Scots join the euro, kowtow to the French for extra subsidies etc and let England move on to its destiny.’

How real is this fury? Does it reflect what English people really think about Scotland and the Scots? I am certain that for the most part it does not. Southern views of the Scots over the last hundred years have been faintly sceptical – chippy, lacking in humour, slow to unbend – but on the whole affectionate. (Contrast English attitudes to Welshness which, for reasons I am not sure of, are often genuinely hostile.) And the English have shown noticeable tolerance, appreciating that some Scottish touchiness was justified. The days when an Englishman could comfortably refer to the Highlands as the most beautiful part of England are now unimaginable (though not that distant). As for Scottish independence, polls as far back as the 1970s have shown that most English people thought it would be ‘a pity, after all we’ve been through together, but if they want that, I suppose they have a right to it.’ Unionist politicians must have found that absence of panic unnerving.

In other words, the present flare of Scotophobia began as little more than a media ramp, fuelled by and to some extent co-ordinated with the Conservative Party. Its motives are transparent. When the bombardment opened last summer, it was obviously targeted to damage and disable Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ future adversary, as he scampered across the open ground towards the safety of Number Ten. It’s fascinating that professed Unionists should be ready, in order to knock out an adversary, to touch off this barrage against those damned Scots who are such fragments of grit in the otherwise creamy perfection of Britain’s constitutional arrangements.

Nonetheless, relentless repetition begins to wear a dent. Iain MacWhirter, the excellent journalist who writes political commentary for the Herald papers, received a torrent of cross and sometimes abusive posts – more than 1300 of them – when he tried, late last year, to explain Scotland’s political and financial realities on the Guardian’s website. Guardian readers retorted with the usual stuff: the Scots whine while they grab our money, abuse our parliamentary system and take over England. As MacWhirter comments, ‘the idea of a Scottish raj running England is . . . so extraordinary that it’s difficult to say anything coherent about it.’ But the interesting thing about these emails, like those on the Telegraph site, was this: all but a handful of them saw the solution to their complaints in ending the Union.

This isn’t Scotophobia. It’s Anglophilia. Last November’s ICM poll suggested that 59 per cent of English respondents would prefer Scotland to be independent, while 68 per cent want a parliament of their own. While the media and political campaign against the Scots has not apparently made the English more anti-Scottish in any general, xenophobic way, it has accelerated the slow resurgence of English national self-awareness.

Was that effect intended by the new Tory leadership? It’s hard to know. In the short term, there are Tory votes to be gained in the South by calling for a ban on Scottish MPs voting on English matters. But in the longer term, the prizes the Conservative Party could win by evicting the Scots from British politics are enormous: at the 2005 general election, the Conservatives won more English votes than Labour. The lesson is that any serious Tory revival could carry the party to an almost impregnable domination of English politics.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail King Arthur rides up to a muddy peasant and announces: ‘I am Arthur, king of the Britons.’ ‘King of the who? . . . Who are the Britons?’ The king answers rather uncertainly: ‘We are all Britons!’ Well, perhaps we are now all muddy peasants, because the notion of Britain is plainly growing less convincing. The last British Social Attitudes survey showed that, in the ten years up to 2005, the number of English people who felt they had a British identity had declined by 8 per cent to less than half the sample, while primary identification as English had risen by 9 per cent. (The far steeper decline in Scots prioritising British identity – now down to 14 per cent – has been known and written about for many years.)

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in