I MISTRUST most forms of nationalism. I welcome the emphasis the SNP try to place on “civic nationalism”, but my own experience has left me wary. When I arrived in Scotland, some 23 years ago, people would often make assumptions about me based on accent. “You would think that, wouldn’t you? You’re English.”
At first, I would protest that I was Welsh. “Oh, well, that’s OK then. You’re Celtic. One of us!’” I soon tired of having to do this. Why did an accident of birth make such a difference to how I was treated?
Why was I more acceptable because I was born in Bangor, to Welsh parents? Never mind that Pan-Celticism is a pretty bogus 19-century idea, as much a part of the problem as English exceptionalism.
As a Welshman whose childhood was mostly spent in England, who lived for a time in Belfast, and who has stayed most of his adult life in Scotland, I felt more comfortable with the identity marker “British” than with any one of the UK’s constituent nations. I’ve always been a little bit outside each one of them, but more or less at home in them all. It sounds strange to say but people who never experience being an outsider miss out on something important about being human.
One of my first experiences on arrival was being told by a taxi driver (after the “you-don’t-sound-like-you’re-from-here” questions) that “at least we don’t have the ‘darkie’ problem here”. Racism exists in Scotland in many forms and sometimes nationalist sentiment can be its gateway; we must always guard against that. Nevertheless, when the referendum came, I felt a dilemma. My teenage girls would come home from school, fired with enthusiasm by the intense debates their teachers encouraged in class. My older daughter was in a minority in supporting independence (now the younger does too) and complained her classmates would ridicule her, rather than debate ideas. Most of them, she thought, were simply parroting their parents’ views.
Although I didn’t then share her position, I was proud of her for thinking for herself. So we would sit around the dinner table and I would offer suggestions for counter arguments she could make in response to prejudices her classmates had expressed.
It’s a useful exercise in testing one’s views to think through the opposing position. I could readily concede the SNP’s political agenda was mostly attractive, more progressive than anything likely to be achieved at Westminster in my lifetime. But Alex Salmond’s lack of clarity around currency and the economy worried me, as did the risk of exclusion from
Two years later, Brexit felt like a huge betrayal. I am still staggered by the hypocrisy of Conservative politicians dragging Britain into the very situation they had threatened Scotland with. It’s much clearer now how divergent the politics of Scotland and England are becoming. ‘British’ feels a fast vanishing option.
Nicola Sturgeon gives me more confidence than Salmond ever did; she often seems like the only adult in the room of UK politics. If the choice must be between being shackled to an inward-looking, reactionary English nationalism, still drunk on empire and old war movies, or a civic Scottish nationalism with a politically progressive agenda, I know which side I would choose now. I stand with my Scottish daughters. The future is theirs.
Chris Jones, 49, Professor of English Literature, University of St Andrews. Currently trapped in lockdown in Toronto