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22 May 2014

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.

By Ed Smith

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.

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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)

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