No to Nigel: anti Ukip protestors demonstrating in Edinburgh, 9 May. Photo: Getty
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Seeing the UK from a Scottish perspective has made me feel British for the first time

Something changed in me during my trip to Edinburgh. It is hard to articulate the subtle, often contradictory emotions that constitute a sense of national identity.

The debate about Scottish indepen­dence reminds me of a traumatic experience suffered by a friend of mine. Tidying her flat one day, she found a surprising scrap of paper. Two lists, roughly equal in length, were separated by a neatly lined centre margin. The first list was headed “Reasons to leave my girlfriend”. The second was entitled “Reasons to stay with my girlfriend”. As she was the girlfriend in question, it did not make for comfortable reading.

As an Englishman travelling to Scotland recently, I felt renewed sympathy for my friend. It persuaded me to invert the usual journalistic convention. Instead of travelling north, canvassing opinion randomly, then arbitrarily trying to “summarise the mood in Scotland”, I became drawn to a more difficult question. The No campaign is routinely criticised for not making its case with emotional force, as though it cannot muster a compelling and romantic message. Yet is it within the power of Britain, especially the English, to do anything about Scottish attitudes to independence? Might not protestations of devotion and affection prove counterproductive? After all, since when has “Please don’t go!” worked as a strategy for wooing back a disenchanted partner? All this coexisted with a second question, no easier to resolve: how do we feel about Scotland anyway?

Setting out from Edinburgh Castle before breakfast on a cold May morning, I took about 25 minutes – a decent run and a short scramble up stony steps – to get to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Along the route, which was dotted with monuments to Scottish and British history, I tried to work out how it felt as an Englishman to visit British Edinburgh, perhaps for the last time.

Having spent most of my adult life in central London, I must confess to a splash of envy. At the top of Arthur’s Seat, no further from the centre of the city than Regent’s Park is from Trafalgar Square, I could scarcely have felt less penned in. To the south lie the Pentland Hills; to the west stands the city with its abundant parklands; the north and east are framed by the grey-blue water of the Firth of Forth. And you don’t have to climb to the highest point to feel a sense of geographical freedom – Edinburgh offers escape routes at every turn.

With a population of just under half a million, Edinburgh is magnificently proportioned – about the size of Boston and a good deal smaller than Munich. In scale, it is little more than a regional city; in feel, it is far greater. No other British city is like it.

Running back to the centre, I dropped down towards Holyrood, then gradually went up the Royal Mile, passing the high- and low-water marks of Edinburgh’s fin­ancial reputation: a magisterial statue of Adam Smith stands 50 yards or so from the neoclassical façade of the Bank of Scotland, bailed out during the financial crisis.

You sense the hand of government in more mundane ways. The streets of central Edinburgh seem to house a greater proportion of government agencies than their London equivalents. Even the prime shopping streets are peppered with municipal-looking typefaces. The state is not only bigger here but also more visible.

In the afternoon, I meandered in the opposite direction towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a classical mansion set in landscaped gardens. A brisk, enjoyable exhibition featured the works of J D Fergusson (1874-1961), one of the Scottish colourists.

It turned out to be an appropriate show. Born in Leith, Fergusson escaped to Paris as soon as he could. Drenched in colour and often richly sensual, his paintings were overwhelmingly influenced by France, especially the warm south. Some are paeans to Frenchness more than reflections of it. I was hard-pushed, at first glance, to discern anything particularly Scottish about the overall impression.

Fergusson did not see it that way and he carefully honed his Scottish persona as a Highland Gael. He added an extra “s” to his surname to give it a more Scottish sheen and claimed that his father had farmed the soil when, in reality, he had been a spirit merchant in Leith.

The artist rationalised his decampment to France in terms of the old Celtic alliance, united by the esprit gaulois. If England can exist as a phantom oppressor even to a man who is cheerfully painting beautiful nude models in the unbuttoned Cap d’Antibes, you sense the depth and flexibility of Scottish antipathy to Englishness.

It is an antipathy that, apparently, may march towards full independence on 18 September. Until now, I had not been drawn to the debate. My indifference was sustained by the feeling that Scotland would not quite do it, not when the moment comes. Indifference is usually a reliable emotion: if you don’t feel strongly, it’s best not to fake it. But what if comfortable indifference is culpable complacency?

Something changed in me during my trip to Edinburgh. It is hard to articulate the subtle, often contradictory emotions that constitute a sense of national identity. No rational argument can quite explain how a person ends up defining himself as both English and British, or Scottish and British. It relies on differing shades of belonging. Part outsider, part native – that was my experience of Scotland. I enjoyed the complexity and uncertainty. I felt as much British as English, perhaps for the first time, and I didn’t want to lose the dual yet overlapping identity.

I have answered one question but not the other. I now know finally how I feel about the Union. However, I left Edinburgh no clearer about how to make the case to the people who will decide the matter. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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