17 August 2014


"Get that tartan box of shortbread out of my sight. Bring me some from Dorset." "Ayrshire potatoes? I wouldn't sully my Cumberlands with that muck. Find my a good, English King Edwards to mash." "Tell me, are these Tunnocks teacakes? No, I think I'll plump for a Mr Kipling bakewell instead. He sounds like he's from Surrey." 

"I really don't believe in borders. I love you, and you're family. But unfortunately, if you Vote Yes, England's barbed wire and concrete bastion manufacturers are going to hit the Hadrianic mother load. It's nothing personal. We just find the free movement of Wildling foreigners through our borders intolerable." "Certainly, this currency union of yours may prove mutually advantageous. But the pound isn't about economics. It's about feelings, the belly. And if this belly demands its throat be cut, we'll damn well do it."

It is one of the weirder strains of referendum rhetoric: continuing Union is the one thing keeping the English-dominated polity (and according to the Scotsman today, the biscuit-consuming public) from shafting us. This, curiously, is presented as an argument against independence. In this anglophobic vision of the political instincts and passions of our southern neighbours, England is growling, irrational, small-minded and potentially vengeful.

Scotland is seen as a kind of good cricket on the shoulder of brooding, reactionary John Bull, taking care to avoid the balefire of his roving eye, and occasionally whispering constructive, moderating ideas into his shell-like. "With us or against us," might be its motto. We turn a blind-eye to his excesses, content in our sense of feeling somehow irresponsible for them, and congratulate ourselves on keeping our heads down and the pound in our pocket.

Unexpectedly, this idea finds enthusiastic proponents amongst some English liberal spirits. After the 2011 Holyrood election results, there was a rash of anxious pieces published in the metropolitan media, expressly incorporating these anxieties. Madeleine Bunting frets over the loss of the civic British identity, contending that "if Scotland goes, all we'll have left is the Englishness we so despise." David Mitchell warmed to a similar theme, arguing that "the British will have lost their country."

One iteration of the solidarity-Scotland-stay-and-keep-voting-Labour argument, reflected recently on twitter by Professor Mary Beard, essentially concludes "Scotland, save us from ourselves." As a way of persuading the overwhelming majority of voters in England to back the People's Party, this is terrible politics, but the Unionist mistrust of England undergirding it is striking.  On the 18th of September, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards London to be born?
I concede without reservation that this kind of mischief finds little purchase in the sunnier climes of happy unionism. But the positive case for the Union, which emphasises identity and belonging, Britain as family, sits uncomfortably alongside this nagging doubt about Uncle John's arbitrary temperament, blindness to his own interests and disposition towards petulance.

It's beyond question that what remains of the UK state will pursue its own interests in the negotiations with an independent Scotland in a hard-headed way. We can't expect David Cameron to privilege the interests of the voters of Wishaw over his constituents in Witney after independence, and we shouldn't think ill of him for doing so. That's democracy, comrade. But the anglophobic case for the Union, from biscuits to borders, family to foreigners, remains one of the oddest backnotes of this campaign. 


  1. I find it very odd that we get threats from Westminster,as to what they will do to us if we dare to stand on our own two feet,or declare independence.Now why on earth would I want to be in a union with these people who think so little of me/us,and will damage us if we don't do as they want,and yet they say we are better with them!!!

    1. It is a curious line of argument. The Better campaign seem largely oblivious to its risks, but I was recently talking to one No-voting Labour bod who was extremely worried about its potential impact. In its first iteration, the Osborne warning didn't exactly have a stellar or constructive influence on the No campaign's polling rating. It is difficult to say for sure, but it seems they may have overplayed their hand again with their post-debate spin, if the recent rash of polls is anything to go by.