We Scots poke fun at our neighbours quite a bit. And, truth be known, they do deserve it sometimes. One such occasion was the polTroon fest underway this weekend, during which various ‘heavyweight’ spokespersons (applies in particular to Lord Strathclyde but I’ll try not to make this too personal) have been freighted up to the woolly North to shore up the Union before Babe Ruth gives it all away.
Others have better dissected the largely ill-informed speeches made in Troon. Suffice to say that the premise on which they all depended (‘better off together’) made them all seem to look back to the days of Empire, the enlightenment of dark corners and the ol’ Dunkirk spirit. I wish to disparage none of those, as Scotland was very much a partner in all. But we also shared mining, heavy engineering and shipbuilding. As none are any basis for a prosperous future now, why ipse facto is the Union? That question remained unanswered at Troon.
Co-incidentally (and not, in any way, to avoid the Cameron, May, et al cavalcade heading north) I have headed south this weekend. Spending time in England is always revealing and helps my perspective. This time I was in the non-Home Counties South, traveling from Somerset, through Wiltshire and on through Oxford to Leicester.
The first thing that strikes you is the diversity—the almost bucolic feeling of villages around the Somerset levels, with their narrow streets and crowding-in tall hedgerows giving it a cosiness that is uncommon elsewhere. Then a sheer bustle of places like Trowbridge or Devizes contrasts with the timeless serenity of the Avebury megaliths only a few miles away. Down there, with the sky-splitting early Spring sun bringing them on, the daffodils are fading, buds bursting and the grass glowing green with growth. All rather beautiful, especially approaching some dreaming pile of warm Cotswold stone like Norton Philip.
Also, the level of civilisation is palpable—lunching in the Summertown part of Oxford on a sun-drenched verandah just off the Banbury Road compares with anything on the Rive Gauche or Rodeo Drive. Even stopping off at the Dog and Gun in Chipping Warden, that effortless calm of rural England pervades the soul amidst oak beams, horse brasses and comfortable chairs. Great stuff, which I don’t always get to enjoy on a visit.
But you are also struck by the hectic of most towns and roads; there’s traffic everywhere road signs are appalling and everyone’s in a hurry. Some places like Tamworth are almost choked by cars piling in and out of hypermarkets, sprawling malls and DIY centres, even as pedestrianised streets of the old town centre are thronged too. More than anything, I am struck both by the sheer density of people—whether housing everywhere, town centres choked or roads nose-to-tail. Even far from London—which you expect to be crowded—there is an urban and/or higher-paced feel all over.
This intensifies when you enter quite secondary cities like Swindon or Leicester. Though football crowds make moving about impossible, even on a Sunday roads are thronged with cars and sirens punctuate the air more often than I recall even in Glasgow or Edinburgh. But most striking in virtually ever such city are the rows upon rows of Victorian brick-built terraces where the corner shops are long gone and cultural mixtures abound. Wandering such streets feels like another country, largely because such sprawling suburbs are less common to me but partly because the degree of cultural mixing is limited only to some parts of Scottish cities.
While cultural diversity is relatively unknown in Tamworth or Swindon, in cities of the Midlands and North like Leicester or Oldham, it is the norm. Having little experience of it, I have few insights to give. But such areas do have a very different feel and I start to get some sense why the English seem to be so much keener on border controls than the relatively open-minded Scots. If we had the scale of population mixing, we might share their attitudes. But we don’t.
But, when Theresa ‘Shoes’ May comes North to rouse the polTroons and dares to lecture the Scots how border controls would need to be introduced in the event of Scottish Independence and our signing up to Schengen, despite recent insights, I am still ashamed of such jingoistic paranoia about immigration. From my own experience, immigrants have drive and ambition and are generally not burdens on but benefactors to the state. How immigrants are supposed to reach England via Scotland when we have no direct ferries to the Continent any more on which they might stow away remains a mystery.
And, with the Scots natural curiousity about the world that made us equal partners with the English out of all proportion to our population, it’s time we started to reassert that willingness to engage with others and distance ourselves from an inward-looking, defensive attitude that now dominates English dealings with their neighbours, especially under the congenitally hostile-to-furriners Tory governments, as typified by La May. It wins few friends and impresses no-one.
So, pleased though I am to rediscover the culture of darkest Englandshire and that it, despite overcrowding issues, remains vibrant, until they get themselves a more tolerant, outward-looking government that the rather petty minds we have now, the sooner we Scots should celebrate our distinct culture of inclusiveness by asserting our right to it. And if southern paranoia insists border posts, they can put them up on their side