England and Scotland: a personal reflection

by frankbeswick

The nations that are most likely to detest each other are neighbours, but they are often close and cannot truly live separate from each other.

The United Kingdom has undergone a referendum about Scottish independence and a general election in which Scots Nationalists, despite their weak showing in the independence referendum took fifty six out of Scotland's fifty nine seats to become the third largest party in the Westminster parliament. The two nations seem to be in growing tension with each other, and the Nationalists are talking of demanding another referendum, while many English resent Scots ability to interfere in English affairs, but in reality the two nations have much in common historically and ethnically. They also have a shared history, first as warring neighbours and later as partners in a unique coalition of nations.

Image of Hadrian's Wall, courtesy of Micky Zappa.

Ethnicity and History

The crux of the issue is centred on identity. English and Scots have different identities, and while some can see these two identities as being part of a broader British identity, itself a part of a wider European one, some cannot, and so they see their national identities as mutually incompatible and possibly antithetic to each other. 

 Certain people imagine that the nations of the British Isles constitute four separate races  and  identity in this case is based on a sense of race. Nothing could be further from the truth. The German journalist who challenged the Scottish Nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, with the observation that he could not see any real distinction between English and Scots, only to be brusquely  brushed off, hit the nail on the head. The difference is not  mainly racial, but mainly mental, for the genetic differences are small. As an Englishman who has learned that he is genetically far more Irish than English, I must admit that I don't have a great interest in the distinction between the two nations, as I am genetically distinct from both. My identity is English and British, with an additional  sense of a linkage to the neighbouring isle from which most of my genes come. 

Let's look at the beginnings of the two nations. Britain divides up roughly on the lines of what happened when the Romans left. England and Wales were part of the Roman empire, but England was where Anglo-Saxons settled and intermarried with Britons, whereas in Wales they did not. Scotland is roughly the area where the legions failed, either holding on to an area in the South of Scotland or not holding it at all. So even though the border does not correspond with the wall,  the Romans are still dividing us centuries later.

In the melting pot that was post-Roman Britain there was a number of separate kingdoms that slowly coalesced into three major countries, but the final coalescence was as late as the fifteenth century when Scotland took control of Shetland.  

Over centuries the boundaries of the two largest emerging nations altered several times. England once, till 1018  stretched up to Edinburgh [Edwin's Burgh] but Scotland once held Cumberland, now in England. Over the centuries the kingdom of Northumbria alternated between Scottish and English influence. Sometimes it was dominated by the overlord of the North, the king of the Picts or Scots, who exacted tribute, but at other times its political focus went south, and ultimately its heart was in England, which did not prevent the Scottish king David from trying to annex it. In mediaeval times the Scots attempted to swallow up Northern England, whereas the English tried to dominate southern Scotland. 

Had battles gone the other way I would have been Scottish rather than English, and in the light of this it seems that identity should not be as clear cut and simplistic as it is for many people. Our supposedly "solid" identities are the results of long gone ancient wars. 

Who were the Baddies?

Identity differences are often fossilized by the legacy of ancient grievances, as people nurture historical memories of past hurts and lay blame on their enemies, thinking themselves the wronged goodies.  Let's be clear, in the bloodstained history of England and Scotland there have been few, if any goodies. Both sides have invaded each other's countries, massacred each other's armies, slaughtered, plundered, tortured and enslaved. Both nations are as guilty as hell!  And I make no excuses for my fellow English. 

The misbehaviour of the English in Scotland is a matter of historical record. The Plantagenet king Edward the First, vicious thug, did much to harm Scots, and his atrocities in Berwick upon Tweed would now have been war crimes. His brutal treatment of the Scottish hero, Wallace, was an atrocity. 

Henry the Eighth also committed atrocities in Southern Scotland. What is known as the Rough Wooing, when Henry tried to force the Scottish king to wed his daughter Mary, later to be queen of Scots, to his son Edward was the source of much violence and injustice. Henry also launched an unprovoked invasion of Scotland that resulted in the English victory of Solway Moss, though the result was politically indecisive. It is worth saying that Henry killed more of his own English people than he did Scots. 

Yet before we start playing goodies and baddles we must recall that during the Norman period there were major Scottish raids on England in which thousands of Northern English were either massacred, robbed  or taken as slaves. In 1069 the population of Durham was cowering in Durham Cathedral from an attacking Scottish horde until the Normans arrived to defeat them. 

In the time of the Baronial Wars the Scottish king David, who held earldoms in Northern England tried to unite them into Scotland by invading, taking advantage of England's civil war, only to be defeated at the battle of Northallerton [1138] after which the Scots were harried back to the border by vengeful English. 

Scots were not subjects of the British empire. As much as the English they profited from it. Both English and Scots managed colonies and exploited the economic opportunities that empire brings. Both filled the ranks of the force of empire. Both Scots and English profited from the slave trade. 

Much injustice in Scotland was done in the Highland Clearances, in which Scots were unjustly driven from their lands, often into emigration to make way for sheep. But it was Scottish landlords who were meeting demand for wool from English merchants, so there were morally guilty people in both countries, and this is more of a class than a nationality issue.The clan wars that beset Scotland were Scots fighting Scots, and the English had little to do with them.  

It would be a good idea if some people who nurture historical grievances about each other's country grew up and realized that historic animosities must be put behind us. Our national identities are born of bloodshed, but bloodshed should not have the last word on them. We need to move on into a peaceful, shared tomorrow.  

What of the Future

I will be clear. I am an internationalist, a Liberal Democrat, a member of a party that stands for breaking down barriers between nations. For me nationalism is abhorrent, and I dislike English nationalism at least as much as I dislike Scots Nationalism. I have no time for the United Kingdom Independence Party, which I see as a form of British nationalism quickly morphing into an unpleasant English Nationalism. 

What Britain needs is a long national and rational conversation in which people hammer out their problems without resort to attempting to break the country apart, as the Nationalists want to do. 

Britain needs people to reflect on their identities and realize that just as Americans can be e.g. Californians and Americans, everyone in Britain can be both English/Scots/Welsh and British, and that's without the other local variants of identity that go to making a diverse nation:white,black, Asian, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim etc; and these complex identities are part of a wider European identity. 

The United Kingdom is facing a crisis in which there are fissile tendencies threatening to rip it apart. This would be a disaster for the whole island, as division would be created where there was once unity, and our contribution to Europe and the world would be marred by the sundering. Whether anyone likes it or not we share the same island, and while there is vast scope for devolution that gives autonomy to each of the countries, we must be aware that our local identities are part of something greater. The wrong path would be for one of the nations to separate off merely for short term economic gain, for that will result in long term damage to all. 

Updated: 05/15/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 06/20/2015

I am not totally opposed to the Barnett formula, as it takes into account the fact that Scotland is poorer than England is and also the difficulty that, as Scotland is a country where population outside the main urban centres is widely spread, services are more costly per head to deliver. Furthermore, the rule that letters of a given size always cost the same anywhere in the UK benefits remote areas, as a free market approach would make them pay more for their delivery. But I am content with the present system, as it is a means of subsidizing the extremities of the country, which suffer economic difficulties. However, I note that were Scotland to leave the union, the residual UK would be under no obligation to continue with either Barnett or the universal postal service, so Scotland would lose out.

But like you, Veronica, I object to the injustice that England is the only one of the four nations without its own parliament, and I am incensed that the Scots Nationalists, who are eager for more powers for Scotland, are objecting to the very small reform of English votes for English laws. It is a serious injustice against the English.

frankbeswick on 06/20/2015

Well said, Veronica.

Veronica on 06/20/2015

Having had my ethnicity DNA genetics done recently, I learned that there is little to distinguish English, Scottish and Welsh DNA. They are grouped together, so Frank's comments about North West England make sense to me. Irish DNA is distinctive from the other 3 nations. I am mainly Irish by genetics.

Our system in UK is rather unfair I think. English MPs are not allowed to vote on any Scottish issues but the Scots MPs have a right to vote on English issues. Under Barnett Formula funding by the government, the Scots have more paid to them per head for their public services than England and Wales people. For 2012/13 the funding per head for each person in UK to have spent on their public services was,

England £8,529.00
Scotland £10,152.00
Wales £ 9,009.00
Northern Ireland £ 10,876.00

Looking back at recent Prime Ministers, we have, ...

David Cameron whose family are Scots
Gordon Brown who is Scots
Tony Blair who is Scots
The Queen is half Scot
John Smith who was former Labour Party leader was Scots.

Our leaders are Scots and have been for decades. The Scots leaders of England give extra funding to Scotland.

frankbeswick on 06/20/2015

Absolutely right

blackspanielgallery on 06/19/2015

Interesting. Now that Scotland has voted against independence I believe England still has the same question before i, but for either to go alone would probably be an economic disaster.

frankbeswick on 05/15/2015

Thanks Mira, so do I.

Mira on 05/15/2015

Interesting reflections, both in the article and the comments. I hope the UK stays in the EU.

frankbeswick on 05/13/2015

I look at my own area, North West England, and see that it was Wales until 627 AD, when the Northumbrians absorbed it, and then had the Scots won the battle of Northallerton in 1138 it might have become Scottish. So I could have been Welsh, Scottish or English, and anyway I am genetically mainly Irish, so I take a lighter view of the divisions in the British Isles than some other people do. They don't seem as real to me as they do to some others. Add that to the fact that my son is marrying an Angolan and my daughter married a man who is half Sri Lankan and now lives in Wales, so divisions between nations and groups seem very insignificant

happynutritionist on 05/13/2015

Thank you for this history information about Scotland and England...I am Scottish on my mother's side and enjoy learning what I can about where my ancestors are from.

frankbeswick on 05/13/2015

I wish there were. The word Britons might work. There are here in Britain millions of people who believe in having a diverse society, but there are too many people who have base their lives on narrow sectional/national interest and dislike the others. Us versus them sums it up nicely. I have always celebrated all the nations of the British Isles and passionately believe in their relationship.

UKIP takes an anti-immigrant and anti-European Union line, and this affects me, as this year my eldest son will wed a black Angolan immigrant. I am happy for member of another race to marry into my family, and the coming grandchild is going to be mixed race. But my son is saying that if people like UKIP get their way and Britain leaves the European Union or makes life harder for immigrants, he is emigrating to Portugal, of which his bride to be is a citizen, to protect her and the child. Knowing that bigotry might drive your eldest child and your first grandchild to emigrate is not a pleasant thought.

What is really annoying me is the Scottish Nationalists opposing extra rights for English. They have their own devolved parliament, but want to prevent the English determining purely English issues. This is racial discrimination against the English.

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