I came across this when I was tidying out earlier, a piece by A A Gill in The Times just before Indyref. Actually made me cry reading it.
The bridge at Coldstream is a braw and sonsy thing, spanning the swan-bobbing Tweed that slowly, elegantly and expensively patrols the border, where Englishmen pay Scotsmen to row them up and down, where they flagellate the water, stalking salmon they put back. It is from here that Robbie Burns crossed over so he could set foot in England. Then, looking back, became so homesick with awe and love that he threw off his hat and quoted himself: “O Scotia, my dear, my native soil!”
The sun dapples the Scottish bank, which is wooded and bosquey with daffodils and wild garlic and benches where you can sit and enjoy the schadenfreude of the view of England, which is cloudy and consists of a scrubby electricity substation and the road south. Bridges tend to go one way or the other, and this one goes from Scotland to England. It has carried away so much, so many Scots, so much hope and ingenuity, aspiration and muscle. Along with the first regiment of the English army, the Coldstream Guards, and the army of James IV that, just a couple of miles down the way, suffered the cataclysmically dearest of defeats in all of the many desperate fights between England and Scotland: at Flodden, where the flowers of the forest were cut down and are remembered in one of the most haunting bagpipe laments.
Someone said that Scotland doesn’t have history, it just has a longer memory for current events. Before talking about whether this uneven union should be split, it’s instructive to understand what forged it in the first place.
In the 1690s, the Darien scheme was Scotland’s attempt to bypass its cap-in-hand dependence on trade through and with England, by forming its own colony at Darien, on the isthmus between the Atlantic and the Pacific in what is now Panama. It was to be called Caledonia. Scots individually and collectively invested a quarter of the nation’s entire wealth in the project, which was an unmitigated disaster. Mismanaged, purloined and frittered by adventurers, romantics, crooks, murderers, and the wholly inept — the usual quorum of a Scots lounge bar.
It was effectively thwarted by the English who bullied and threatened European banks into withdrawing support, the East India Company who, fearing for its monopoly in trade, sued and King William who, having never bothered to visit his kingdom of Scotland, made sure that no neighbouring colonies offered help because he didn’t want to upset the Spanish. Scotland was very effectively bankrupted and England — ever helpful — came up with a plan: amalgamation, rationalisation, a one-nation takeover. They got it through the Scottish parliament with bribery. The Duke of Hamilton, an implacable anti-unionist, dramatically changed sides for cash. Others had their Darien debt repaid and members of the Scottish parliament would sell their country for as little as a fiver. As Burns had it, Scotland was “bought and sold for English gold/Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
The English, while offering gold with one hand, waved the cudgel with the other and passed the Alien Act, making any Scot not in the army or on business an illegal immigrant. London threatened tariffs on Scottish exports. So the vote was passed. As Daniel Defoe, an English spy, said, for every one Scot in favour of union, 99 were against. There had been hundreds of petitions agin it from every corner of the country, and not a single one in favour. There were riots in Edinburgh and Glasgow, martial law was imposed.
In the new parliament at Westminster, Scotland got 45 MPs out of 558 and 16 seats in the Lords out of 212. Individual Scots might find a voice, an advancement, and disproportionately, one at a time, they did, but the country would be drowned out. As the ancient Caledonian parliament voted itself out of existence, the Earl of Seaford, with a heavy heart, noted that it was the end of an auld sang. And at St Giles Cathedral, the national church of Scotland, where Knox had preached, the bells rang out. The tune was Why Should I Be So Sad on My Wedding Day?
Not many Scots, and even fewer English, know this story, the inglorious nuptials of the Union. But you don’t have to remember history to be affected by it. This act and all the bullying and perfidy, venality, weakness and snobbery that went before it has made the relationship between the two countries what it is. The informed view of Big Ben seen from Ben Nevis was never a love match, nor the uniting of mutually benefiting equals. It’s the English who roll their eyes at the raking up of the past and say, “Oh, get over it, move on. Stop being a victim,” which is what wife-beaters always say to their victims.
What is so surprising about crossing the Coldstream Bridge is that within 100 yards you know you are in another country. The distinction between Scotland and England remains clear and marked as the Scottish lilt becomes a Northumbrian twang. You can move from Venice into Italy without ever noticing that these were once different nations, or travel through Germany’s city states and principalities without any sense of crossing borders, though this is a country half the age of Great Britain.
Still, despite 400 years of patronage and propaganda, Scotland isn’t the heathery extension of England. It remains stubbornly and grimly, often amusingly, a different place. Its humour, its character, its stories, its expectations, how it gets married and celebrates, how it gets buried and sees in the New Year, what it sings about and fights about, are all markedly, noticeably, fiercely different. Indeed, this quiet river divides two of the most distinctively separate nations in Europe.
Along the empty high street of Coldstream, most of the shopkeepers say they will be voting for the union. It’s better for business. “And anyway,” says an antique dealer, “we’re Borderers. This is neither Scotland nor England, it’s reavers’ country. We have more in common historically with Hexham and Alnwick than Glasgow or London.”
Travelling along the winding border, it is difficult to see that anything even a little bit important might be in the offing. Some Scots have pointed out that this is an independence struggle in which no one has been killed. Perhaps it would be more to the point to say that no one has thought it important enough to die for. It is also one in which no one has bothered to pick up a spray can. There is no independence graffiti, no posters of born-again defiance. The occasional saltire flutters for the benefit of the tourists.
Berwick, where the river meets the sea, is a small, pretty market town surrounded by an enormous, bombastic battlement, like an Elizabethan Camp Bastion. This was once the second largest town in Scotland. Its football team, though geographically in England, still plays in the Scottish league. It was annexed by Edward I as a base for punitive invasions of the north and to deny the Scots a southern trading port looking east. It feels like a frontier town. In the local pub, most of the people I ask say they wouldn’t mind independence, that it would be good for the border. There is always money to be made out of differences in tax and VAT, the possibilities for smuggling and laundering. Which side of the border? I ask. “Oh the English side, obviously.”
The arguments about independence are all small change. How much will this cost me? Is my pension safe? How will house prices be affected? It is as if being a nation is such a daunting enterprise that we would rather concentrate on the esoteric detail. In fact, most people say they don’t know or won’t vote.
A mother pushing a pram says: “It’s such a big thing, so complicated, so many risks, I don’t feel I can decide.” A man — possibly the pram father — adds: “Seriously, someone should just make a decision. Someone who knows what’s best.” And then adds: “But if we were being invaded by the English, I’d be the first with a blue face and a Molotov cocktail.”
There is a constant hum of doubt, not in Scotland’s ability to be Scotland, but in the Scots’ ability to make the right decision on behalf of Scotland. Scots history is a long succession of people jumping to their feet, waving their banner and making exactly the wrong decision, usually for precisely the right reason. Scotland’s motto is romantic but wrong. The nation’s long reputation for pessimism is, as one bar blether put it, just miserable realism.
“How different would my country be,” a man delivering parcels asks, “when I wake up on the day after independence? What would have changed? My job? My kids’ school? The shops? The things I buy in the shops? The TV? The neighbours? The weather? It would all be exactly the same, except we’d be smaller, and I’d have the mither of all hangovers.”
We drive up the coast road to Edinburgh, the city that has been capital of an independent country for longer than it has played second fiddle to London. It is by a considerable vista the most beautiful city in Britain and, contrarily, the most English city in Scotland. It sits politely but awkwardly at arm’s length from the rest of the nation. The New Town is stamped on every corner with the names of fat, chinless Hanoverians; a reminder that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s romantic-but-wrong tartan flounce for power wasn’t on behalf of independence, it was for the throne of England. If his army hadn’t turned back at Derby, Scotland would have never seen him again, like all the other Stuart kings.
The only monarch to visit Scotland between 1603, when James VI took the low road as fast as his little mincing legs would carry him to be James I of England, and 1822, when George IV turned up in a puce kilt and pink tights, was Charles II, who arrived running away from Oliver Cromwell. George only came because Walter Scott had invented the modern novel and, along with a fake Scottish Homer, Ossian, had made the noble savages in skirts romantic and fashionable.
Edinburgh is my city. I was born in the old Royal Infirmary where Burke and Hare, the body snatchers, sold their cadavers to help make this a world centre of medical research. We lived in Northumberland Street, in the new town, surrounded by stuffed heads, Indian brass, gothic mahogany, burgundy velvet and my grandmother’s piano. I was baptised on Princes Street, where my parents had been married: my dad just out of university, my mother an ingenue star of the Scottish theatre. But before I had a chance to pick up the sing-song accent of polite dissent, we moved to London. Andrew Neil, who brought me into this paper and who used to send me back to do Scottish stories, would say that he was a real Scot and I was a reel Scot.
My social links to the country are few, but they’re fierce and they’re blood. This is the place where I feel the choke and the pulse of my creation myth. My first memories of the seaside are North Berwick, the first food I remember is warm breakfast rolls with my grandmother’s porridge and Scots tea, which is a finer drink than any concoction you can brew south of Ecclefechan. I’m just Scots enough to make me immune from ever being English, but not so much that I can’t also feel equally European. The English grab at canapés of Scottishness, or Scotchness as they say, corners of bright culture to intimate some shared collective togetherness: Auld Lang Syne, a dram, the myth of stubborn bellicosity and mordant wit.
Last Burns night, I had dinner at Brown’s Hotel in London, where the broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli, in a kilt and a turban, delivered the address to the haggis, demanding it vote Yes in the referendum. I had to deliver Burns’s Selkirk Grace because nobody else at the table knew it. The piper was off to serenade other pluck steaming puddings. It’s a rich night for pipers; the rest of the year it’s mostly funerals. And then onto a ceilidh at Hammersmith Town Hall, where the moves for the reels and country dancers were called out across the loudspeakers for a jolly international crowd of drunk students and immigrant workers. It was like a series of musical bonding games for an international get-together of travel reps.
Scottish culture has always been equally romanticised and mocked south of the border. An awful lot of it was invented specifically to ingratiate the English, to facilitate acceptance, generate goodwill, to dispel fear and draw in revenue: shortbread, tartan, meanness and funnymen from Harry Lauder to Rab C Nesbitt.
Scots are conflicted over all the bagpipes and sword dancing, eagle feathers and badger-faced culture. So much of it was made up to sell tea towels and Dundee cake. It’s humiliating and infuriating. You won’t see many kilts today at SNP meetings. The Edinburgh Tattoo is our version of the Black and White Minstrel Show. All Scots find themselves hung between the real and the reel, moved to tears by Runrig, overjoyed when anyone beats the English at anything.
This United Kingdom was never ever a marriage of equals, not socially, economically, or of opportunity, but it was of intellect. Edinburgh became a city of eminent culture and civility. Out of the patronised, mocked and ignored darkness of the north came the golden Enlightenment. Adam Smith, David Hume, Allan Ramsay and the Adam brothers met at The Select Club. The breadth of their interests, from economics and philosophy to art, design and architecture is astonishing for a country ignored and starved by its fatter half, who looked east and west but never north. And the first thing they collectively did was take elocution lessons to lose their embarrassing Scottish accents. And that is the authentic cringe of the city of my birth; simultaneously you are a cut above and not quite enough. It is no accident that Jekyll and Hyde was written here.
The debate on independence is ferocious, personal, but delicately polite, like a lost sequel to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I have a lunch in The New Club, an old establishment Tory eyrie for lawyers, politicians and journalists, with an exterior that looks like Poundland and an interior that looks like St James’s. These are mostly unionists, believers, and there is a panic. Their “Better Together” slogan is widely seen as meaning “too frail, stupid, poor and insignificant to make it on your own”. The Scots have taken agin it. It triggers a nationally contrary cussedness and there is one huge problem: no one can come and talk about the union from the union. The prime minister of the collective nation knows he has to keep his mouth tight shut, even if he is a Cameron, because anything the Tories say up here is like pissing in the soup. The campaign is being fronted by Alastair Darling with the help of Gordon Brown. And though a pair of recognisable Scottish types — dour, dry, crabbit denizens of the kirk and the school room, offering hellfire, hard work, hardship and selfless self-restraint and judgment — it is not a look that most Scots warm to.
The Aye campaign may have had the best tunes, but the words to go with them are miserable, little and unappealing. Both sides argue over pennies like a couple of old misers. The referendum has shown that Scottish politics is quite unlike English. This is a united kingdom disunited by a venerable old political system. There will never be a Tory government in Scotland. The Labour party is a separate animal up here. Half of them secretly see a redder socialist future in devolution. Scotland can vote, but it will never see itself adequately represented. All too often it is governed by politicians who have no resonance or traction in this country.
The democratic problem is not the Epicurean debating point of the West Lothian Question, but how can you have a whole nation whose views never get listened to or acted on? But then the thought of Scottish politics is enough to make some vote for the union as the lesser of two evils. I spoke to rural workers in the Highlands, all of whom said they would rather stick with London because they mistrust Glasgow.
The tight political pleats of the central belt aren’t exactly corrupt, but they’re small, close, clubbable, inward-looking, sweaty and vicious. There is an old Seventies collective socialism about the centralised bureaucracy that favours the urban and industrial over the rural. “We’re better off under Brussels,” said a forester from the west coast. “Europe has been good to us, built roads, handed out grants. If we get independence, the SNP will be like the MacANC — we’ll have a Nelson Salmond statue in every village, and it’ll be hand-outs for the faithful and a reckoning for the traitors.”
Outside the eccentric new parliament building that cost a ridiculous fortune, just along from the new tram system, which cost an even more ludicrous fortune, neither of which inspires a belief in Scotland’s ability to be trusted with its own chequebook, I meet Blair Jenkins, the journalist who is running the publicity for the Yes campaign. He says: “You know, there is a particular Scottish mentality. We’ll run towards a fight, there is a sense that we can endure anything and it would only take a small turn of the dial, just a little look up, and we could turn that enduring into achieving. We could achieve anything.”
Scotland has seen its kith and kin achieve amazing stuff. You can get tea towels on the Royal Mile with lists of home-grown inventions, discoveries and creations, but the common denominator in them all is that they were Scots, and they left. The biggest donors to the campaigns do not live in Scotland. It would be a brilliant thing if the country could move the dial and do something for itself that was amazing, and not for London.
I should come clean and declare that if I had a vote, I would vote for independence in a heartbeat, and if Scots take what is theirs I’ll be the first in the queue for a passport. But like all expats I do not have a vote, and our view looking back is more tweedy and heathery and smells more of shortbread than that of people who have to live there. I do know that making a nation is more than just your pension and your water rates, your fear about a currency and whether or not you’ll be able to get the BBC. A country isn’t just for life, it’s for all the lives to come, and the final lesson from history is not actually Scots, but from just over the way.
Ireland had a far more fraught and aggressive struggle for independence. They did not have oil and they don’t even have a fishing fleet, they’ve got second-rate whiskey and tweed and, finally, they gained a grudging and penurious independence without the EU, with a currency that was tied to the pound, and they immediately fell into a vicious civil war and then a depression. The new Eire had precious little goodwill from London or the continent. The Republic will be 100 years old in eight years, and if they had a referendum and were asked “Look, you’ve had a century of this, wouldn’t you rather come back and be part of the UK again?” do you imagine there would be a single vote for yes? Because whatever happens, it is always better to be yourself.
And when you ask, “Will it be different the morning after?” well, everything will be different and how fabulously exciting will that be? And if you have a vote, how will you be able to turn to your grandchildren in years to come and say: “Well, I did have the chance to right an old wrong, but actually I couldn’t be bothered. I was a bit scared.”