What’s the opposite of irredentism? Or, sounds of a different borderland

With a Conservative-led government in Westminster and a Scottish Nationalist majority in Holyrood, Scottish independence is becoming much more widely thinkable. But where would this leave anti-Conservative political identities in England – and how could we expect popular culture to reflect them?

The Scotland secretary, Michael Moore, announced today that Westminster will – temporarily – give the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a legally binding referendum on independence. David Cameron, though not necessarily Nick Clegg, hopes to force the SNP to hold its referendum by 2013 – preventing the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, taking advantage of 2014’s 700-year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

Crucially, this approved referendum would only offer a for/against vote on independence and not allow for ‘devo max’, a hyper-devolved option where the Scottish Parliament would take charge of all Scotland’s domestic affairs. ‘Devo max’  would make Scotland part of what political scientists call an asymmetric federation with the rest of the UK. Excluding it, writes John Curtice, is a political risk:

having been denied the chance to vote for what they want, those who want more devolution might wonder whether unionists could be relied upon to deliver any more devolution at all, especially once the threat of independence was removed. If just one in three such voters were to adopt that view then suddenly the outcome of the referendum would look too close to call.

Independence may still be unlikely, but is suddenly more thinkable, in the sense that the public (or at least the twitterati) are beginning to think about its practical implications. For English leftists, those could be uncomfortable:

'I'm basically happy to give Scotland complete independence, on the condition that they'll take English socialists as asylum seekers.'

In 2010, 41 of Labour’s 258 seats at Westminster came from Scotland, a region where the Conservative vote has been marginal since 1997. Remove Scotland from Westminster and a substantial chunk of likely Labour seats go with it, with no corresponding impact on the Tories.

Is England really likely to witness (or in some eyes suffer) a permanent Conservative majority? We know from studies of ethnopolitical conflict like V. P. Gagnon’s work on Yugoslavia that it’s not the likelihood of threats that matters: it’s the perception of a threat.

An England perpetually predisposed to a Conservative majority, especially if it realised Tory Eurosceptic aspirations of leaving the EU, would leave a substantial minority of the population afraid that their vote would never count.

In 2010, I wrote a book called Sounds of the Borderland about popular music and national identity in Croatia during and after its war of independence. What might the sounds of an Anglo-Scottish borderland be?

I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more

I reside in England and have no ethnic or residential ties to Scotland. My UK citizenship currently entitles me to settle anywhere in Scotland – no need for a job offer, family reunion, or exceptional talent of any kind. (Leave jokes about bagpipes at the door.)

In the last four years, 205,000 people have moved to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK – evidence, for the journalist Jennie Kermode, of why a devolving Scotland needs an integration plan. Even as things are, Kermode finds that Scotland’s social democratic politics have created incentives to move:

There is one other sizeable group of people moving, or thinking of moving, to Scotland, and that’s long term sick and disabled people. Scotland’s free personal care has long been attractive to those south of the border, and coupled with the fact that changes in the UK’s support system look likely to be resisted up here, it’s creating a situation in which many people feel they can’t afford not to move.

What would independence mean for non-ethnically-Scottish English residents who would prefer to settle in a social democratic Scotland than a Conservative, non-EU England, even though it meant leaving home? For those with ongoing healthcare needs, or people who fear living without EU anti-discrimination legislation, it’s not just an academic question.

Would independent Scotland offer citizenship to any UK citizen who chose to move there during or after independence, or only to existing non-Scottish residents? And just how many aspirant new residents might there be?

Lucky that Scotland’s research base contains a large University of Edinburgh project on citizenship after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Holyrood could at least learn what not to do.

It’s grim up north

How would separation from Scotland by an international border affect North-East and North-West England? Not much, if it resembles the UK-Irish border or the ossified state borders within Benelux, although a border always contains the potential for tighter controls.

Make the Scottish-English border an external border of the EU and we might be talking about something much more contentious.

The regions by the Scottish border are some of the most left-wing in the UK. Sunderland constituencies are famous among election fans for two things: their near-unbroken Labour history and their competition to return the quickest election results in the UK. (Think the Palio of Siena, but with ballot boxes.)

And we know about the North-South rivalry, of course.

Would residents of a region like the North-East wish to stay under a hypothetical, or feared, perma-Tory England? North-easterners rejected John Prescott’s plan for a North-East Assembly in 2004: there’s little history of popular demands for devolved political control. There’d have to be a massive shift in identities (wouldn’t there?) for the region to perceive more in common with a Scottish state than an English one.

Though a social-democratic federation of Scotland and the Borders, compared to rule from distant Southern Westminster? Almost impossible, but not unthinkable.

Let England shake

Sometimes, a group in one state wants the territory it lives on to be incorporated into a different state. The next question – if it’s an ethnopolitical conflict – is asking how the ‘kin state’ is going to respond. When a nation-state wants to expand to absorb a minority outside its borders, that’s irredentism – a term we owe to the Kingdom of Italy and its aspirations to recover Italia Irredenta in the eastern Adriatic.

Milosevic’s Serbia would have been more than happy, and that’s an understatement, to absorb the Croatian Krajina with its Serb majority. Russia has much better things to do than incorporate Transdnistria.

But a North-East aspiring to join Scotland-and-the-Borders would represent the opposite of irredentism – hoping to detach itself from politically Other ethnic kin and join a group with a different identity and traditions.

Though what then becomes of the southern English radicals – the PJ Harveys, Billy Braggs, Frank Turners and all their less musical cousins?

We’ve got to get out of this place

Fear that sheer force of numbers will condemn you and your people to be outvoted for ever more is a motivating factor for separatism. Once Croatia had elected a nationalist president in 1990, Croatian Serb nationalist leaders and the Serbian media in Belgrade spread fear of being forced to live under that Croatian government (which had re-designed the electoral system to help the majority party always stay the majority).

Through a sustained campaign by politicians and cultural producers, Serb/Croat violence in the WW2 Krajina – where Serbs and others had been persecuted by a Croat state allied to the Axis – took on contemporary political relevance. Badging the new Croatian police with a national symbol that Serbs interpreted as fascist didn’t help, and possibly wasn’t designed to.

There’s no history of recent mass violence in the Borders. But the North/South faultline does bring with it recent memories of structural violence – Margaret Thatcher’s repression of the miners’ strike (evoked in the last decade by Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave and David Peace’s novel GB84), and the loss of livelihoods with the collapse of mining and manufacturing across the North.

And there’s nowt that I can bid ye than that peace and love gan with ye

In our hypothetical scenario – of an independent Scotland and rump Tory England – we could, at least, expect a trans-Borders cultural identity to be re-imagined, putting the emphasis on what Scotland and this part of England have in common. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily lead to political claims (after all, Yorkshire’s got on so far without one).

Expect to hear more about the Prince-Bishops of Durham; the Kingdom of Northumbria; Alt Clut and Strathclyde, one of Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms, which ruled from Dumbarton and Glasgow into Cumbria.

In fact, musicians like the Unthanks have been reinterpreting Northumbrian folk music for a while. Here, they’re performing a traditional song from the lost county of Hexhamshire in Durham cathedral, supported by representatives of another Northern tradition in the shape of a public-subscription brass band:

Expect to hear about the Border Reivers, raider clans who operated along the Anglo-Scottish border for 400 years in defiance of kings, tax collectors and the centralising state. (George R. R. Martin modelled the chaotic North of Westeros on the Anglo-Scottish Borders for a reason.)

In fact, a tradition of outlaw-versus-tax-collector ballads is one more thing the Borders have in common with Krajina and other Dinaric parts of former Yugoslavia. (What does ‘Krajina’ mean in English? Oh, yes.)

The border ballad Hughie Graeme, attributed to Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns and performed here by the Midlands-born June Tabor, tells of a relentless horse-thief executed in Carlisle:

Would building a neo-kinship along the Borders be a precondition for any meaningful political identity?

Anything that’s worth having is sure enough worth fighting for

Even the development of a serious Borders Question is unlikely; its resolution by force would be even more so. It would also be asymmetric and, of course, unpleasant.

The conflict Bill Drummond imagined at the end of the Thatcher era in It’s Grim Up North is probably not going to be prophetic. We’re a long way from the Newcastle-born Cheryl Cole being asked to wheel out this performance every year on some pro-union anniversary or other:

Yet recent history in other parts of Europe shows us that, during political and financial crises, identities can re-form faster than we think.

There’s always a place in me that you can call home?