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Anglo and other phobias

18/08/2014

I was taken by this piece by the redoubtable Lallands Peat Worrier, in which he ponders the fear of England – or, more precisely, of what England might become without Scotland’s apparent moderating influence – that influences some elements of Unionist thinking, particularly, it seems, among some of England’s more progressive voices:

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 have to concede, questions of identity always hit home for me, and this one has hit sufficiently hard that I’ve found myself dusting off the blog once again. Indeed, the layers of dust that have now formed an almost permanent skin around the blog originate from an identity… no, nothing so serious as an identity crisis, but certainly an identity assessment.

My identity – on a national level, at least – has always been muddy: I was born and raised in England and my mother is English. But my father is Scottish, and that has played a major factor, major enough that when I was deciding which university I went to, I didn’t have to think twice: I was always bound for Edinburgh, a decision which created some needle with my father who, having been raised in Paisley and being one of a long line of Rangers fans, would probably have preferred it if I’d gone to Glasgow. But still, Edinburgh felt like home.

So links to Scotland have always been a part of my life, and my family’s life: one of my earliest memories is of me as a toddler, hiding in the hall, away from the noise of the AM radio as my Dad tried to pick up Radio Scotland when Rangers were playing, as he tried to master the exact science of calibrating the dial to the millimetre while practising yoga with the aerial (on one occasion, we found we could get a better signal on the car radio, so we spent a good ten minutes driving up and down the street before Dad realised just how ridiculous this was). With Mum not interested in football, I grew up in a Scotland-supporting, Rangers-supporting house, where we listened to Radio Scotland, read the Daily Record, and took any opportunity we could to watch Scottish television. And so the house remains today.

Of course, as fathers are wont to do, mine wanted to take me to a football match, as his father had done with him, his father before him, and so forth. That said, Dad was realistic enough to grasp that a 400-mile round trip was probably a bit much to ask of a seven-year-old so, one Saturday in late October 1990, he started looking through the fixtures on Ceefax, and found that the nearest team to play at home that day was Wigan Athletic, so off we headed to Springfield Park, where Wigan beat Southend 4-1, and in so doing, entered my life to the extent that these days, I have a case to list the club as my “it’s complicated” on Facebook. What this meant, though I arguably didn’t realise it at the time, was that my identity was now a little more complex: before, I was for all intents and purposes (and despite my Mum being English and despite my Lancastrian accent, though even on that score, I tend to switch into Scots when I’m talking to my Dad) a Scottish child living in England, a second-generation immigrant. Now, there was a part of English life which was a part of my life. I was, I suppose, an Anglo-Scot.

So you’d think, living a cross-border life, with elements of both nations playing a part in who I was, that “Britishness” would come easily to me. That without the Union, I might not even exist, so surely I’d see us as Better Together, right?

Wrong. Whichever side of the border I’ve been on, I’ve sensed the things that make England and Scotland distinct, whether in sport, culture, history or politics. And at no point during my childhood did I ever really develop an English identity. Had the “Tebbit test”, proposed by Norman Tebbit to deport second- and third-generation immigrants who chose to support Pakistan in a test match, actually become a thing, and applied to England-Scotland games, I’d have been stuck on a train and sent north at the first opportunity. Hell, I was even a member of the “Anyone But England” brigade!

Looking back, I think about why that was. I was always the “Different Kid”, the one who stuck out, not quite belonging, Fair enough, I was (and still am) a total geek, but it was more than that. I did things differently, felt things differently. Could it be that my small-n Scottish nationalism (which morphed so very easily into a big N after I arrived in Edinburgh) was, in a way, an early expression of my sexual orientation? Not so much genderqueer (I still don’t identify as that), but nationqueer? Was the Saltire my Rainbow? Obviously, I’d spent my childhood coming out as Scottish, so that gave me plenty of practice as an adult coming out to new friends and co-workers as a gay man.

So why the identity re-assessment? I guess it’s been going on for years under the surface. Firstly, having long since come out to myself, and having had years to shape my own identity and individuality, it’s grown increasingly easier to engage with all aspects of who I am, including my English side. Of course, I do still cheer on occasion if England lose a football game, but that’s probably more likely than not because I’ve sensed a good opportunity to bet on the opposition, and I have to think about which pronoun I use to describe the team when talking with friends, but the fact that I will actually consider using “we” rather than “they” marks some progress.

And there’s a practical element as well: as much as returning to Scotland (and to Edinburgh) has been a big ambition since I graduated and went back home, events have played out differently to my expectations. Firstly, I moved to Berkshire to live and work there for a time, which ended when a homesickness which had festered inside me finally became too much to bear. It wasn’t Scotland I went back to, but Lancashire. Now, I live in Wigan and work in Manchester, and that suits me. Yes, Scotland has a place in my heart and I’m hoping that the people of Scotland will seize the opportunity next month and vote to determine their own future as an independent nation, my role is limited to watching and cheering from the sidelines. The next campaign I physically engage in will be here, as I look to take part in the community where I live. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the battles I fight now will be for Wigan and the North West. Of course they will, my life is here now. And I’m OK with that.

Yet you’ll notice that a local and regional identity comes more naturally than a national one: like those commentators that intrigued LPW, I’m still wary of Englishness. Perhaps it’s the sticker affixed to the lamppost on my way into work, depicting a St George’s Cross and the slogan, “We will have our country back!” Who are ‘we’? Who do ‘we’ want to claim the country back from? The implications are obvious: while Scottish and Welsh nationalism is linked with progressive thinking, English nationalism is more reactionary, a creature of the far right: the English Democrats (and other splinter parties) cast themselves and prospective allies of the SNP and Plaid, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric of the English Democrats jars with that approach. The 2008 London Mayoral campaign to “Chop Jock” and an irredentist campaign in Monmouthshire won’t have endeared English nationalists to their counterparts in Scotland and Wales, and when English Democrat candidate Peter Davies was elected Mayor of Doncaster, one of the first thing he had in his sights was the funding of the local Pride event.

No wonder I’m scared of Englishness! Well, I’m sorry, but England is, and in reality always has been, my country. So many people like me have let it go and allowed its identity to be seized by reactionaries and bigots.

No longer. I will have my new, old country back. Not from the EU, not from immigrants, not from the forces of political correctness,but from those who fly the flag and then presume to select who does and does not belong under it. We all do.

The English Left has surrendered the field. English identity has become the preserve of the Right, while progressives leave it to Scotland to speak for them. As a progressive in England, I would like Scotland to do one last thing for us: claim your freedom and give us ours at the same time. Force the English Left out of its complacency that if Scotland votes for independence or England votes Conservative, then they should simply be allowed an opportunity to correct their error. Force it to wake up and re-assess itself.

England and Englishness are not, in and of themselves, bad things to despise. It is how they are shaped and expressed which is good or bad. And if we do not like what we see, we have two options: we can keep on despising it and hope it goes away by itself, or we can step up and try to change it.

The longer the Union persists, the longer will stick with the first option. We need to stand on our own feet and it’s going to be the sight of Scotland doing just that which will force the issue. That is how, in the end, Scotland will save England from itself.

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