Loyalty of the borderlands

Identity, not economics, should direct the debate over Scottish devolution
February 22, 2012
Hadrian’s Wall marks the ancient border between England and Scotland

I live in the northern English borders and I am the only MP whose constituency has the word “border” in its name (Penrith and The Border). Our northern boundary is the Western March: a territory which for four centuries had its own government and law. Like many of my constituents—and much of the British population—I am both Scottish and English. Two years ago, when I walked from my parents’ home in Scotland to my house in Cumbria, I was walking between two nations but I never felt I was leaving my country.

Our modern England-Scotland border is a Renaissance compromise finally brokered by a French ambassador to resolve the wild “debatable lands” that lay between the nations in 1552. But the constituency contains earlier borders: ten miles south of the modern line is the monstrous military encampment of Hadrian’s Wall, ditched, spiked, revetted, and manned by 10,000 for 300 years. Twenty miles further south is the Anglo-Saxon border at Eamont Bridge, from a time when all of Cumberland was outside England (it is not even in the Domesday book) and where the Kings of Britain met in treaty in 927. I have stood on each frontier, and stayed in farms on both sides and never seen a country’s difference between one patch of wet grass, one limestone crag, one nimble black-faced sheep, and another.

It was different when I walked across the frontiers between Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. In each case, within a few yards, I felt I was in a completely foreign land, in which every detail of manners, language, cuisine and context was altered. Related people lived on each side, but the change was final: for 400 miles across Turkey people drank coffee, 100 yards into Iran coffee had been replaced by black tea; green tea began only in Afghanistan.

In Britain, by contrast, the border forms more a unity than a division. For 700 years till the early middle ages we were the independent Kingdom of Cumbria and Strathclyde, stretching from Glasgow to Penrith—separate from Scotland and England, with a single Celtic language, laws, literature and dynasty. We were torn apart into two separate peoples by the propaganda and finance of Norman aristocrats on both sides of the border, who worked (often with the support of foreign powers) to deepen the divisions for four centuries, in order to sustain cross-border raids and proxy wars. The M6 may change its name at a shining sign saying “Failte Gu Alba” in Irish-influenced Gaelic (that no one ever spoke at Gretna), but that does not make that modern border any less artificial.

History, language, landscape and culture are strangely absent in the debate about the Union. Alex Salmond promotes Scotland as a virtual, high-tech economy, floating freely between Europe and the global markets. (His party’s website talks of “better, healthier, wealthier, greener, fairer, smarter… Scotland”). English opponents of the Union talk about money: about Scotland’s free eye tests, prescription charges and tuition fees. These should not be the arguments on which Great Britain is broken. This is not only because Scots have yet fully to digest the advantages of an independent sterling, UN security council membership, the British banking system and credit rating. Nor is it only because the English often forget that transfer payments happen all over England and (even if you discount North Sea oil) the total amount the southeast gives to Scotland is two years of winter fuel allowance, or about 1 per cent of the national budget. It is because a debate about the union is not about economics. It is about identity.

Alex Salmond has surprisingly little to say about Scottish identity. Even his Hugo Young lecture on“Scotland’s place in the world” is little more than a list of technocratic policy choices on welfare and economics. His final flourish from the Scottish national poet Burns is a quote not about Scottishness but about social equality: “for a’ that an’ a’ that, it’s coming yet, for a’ that.” Yet he still proposes a referendum to take the lively, powerful and flexible material of Britishness and tear it apart. He would force us each to choose an exclusive and separate identity, and in doing so split my family and indeed tens of millions of individuals like myself. This is false to who we are: not because we are free-floating cosmopolitans, too elusive to be pinned, but because we are British. And Britain is not a bland and placid unity: but a vigorous community, built of different nations.

No two British identities are alike: but all are invigorated by contradictions. My English nationalist neighbour’s contempt for the bagpipes, the Scottish rugby team, and Scottish politicians, seems not to affect his admiration for marching Scottish regiments, Eric Liddle’s triumph in Chariots of Fire, or David Stirling, the founder of the SAS. My 89-year-old father looks like a comic book Scot—he wears tartan trews and a tam o’shanter every day, eats haggis once a week, and did not go south of the border until he was 18. His study is piled high with Gaelic dictionaries and accounts of Bonnie Prince Charlie. He is certain that the Scottish education and legal systems are better than the English, and that the Black Watch was the greatest regiment. But he enjoys being part of a minority in Britain, made his career outside Scotland, and believes that independence would leave Scotland, diminished—in his words “a country of mini-men.”

Most of us can find Cumbria more homely than Scotland but the Highlands more invigorating than Devon, appreciate the architecture of Edinburgh but find London the greater city and our capital. We experience this both as members of nations and as citizens of a larger country whose geographical limit is the shores of our islands. Each of us feels an outsider in some part of our country, and is challenged by the pride of our fellow nations. Such contradictory energies are not a threat to Britain but have been, for centuries, the key to our vitality. This deep and flexible identity is true to our natures, and to the modern world. Reducing our identity reduces ourselves.