Goodbye to the Loch Ness Monster?: on British/Scottish ‘unity’ campaigns and a potential Very Near Abroad Indeed

I haven’t had much to say about the Scottish independence referendum. I’ve never lived or worked in Scotland, and my family background has no relevant connections either, so whether a Yes or No outcome would be best for Scotland isn’t a debate I have much to contribute to.

(I’m also conscious that the problem of Too Many People From The Rest Of The UK Deciding What They Think Is Best For Scotland is one reason the idea of an independence referendum ever got this far, whatever happens on Thursday the 18th.)

I have occasionally commented on aspects of the run-up to the referendum which have resonance for political culture in England, where I do live (I grew up in London, and lived in the South-East until I moved to East Yorkshire in 2012) – such as the astonishing proportion of the electorate (97%) who have registered to vote on Thursday, and the anticipated turnout figures that would be much higher than any recent UK general elections. The rest of the UK needs these levels of political participation too, and whatever happens in the referendum, we need to keep asking what will help achieve it.

Then there’s the mess of Westminster’s contributions to the No campaign, which I feel more comfortable expressing disappointment with – can they really have planned to remind Scottish voters with a week to go that you hardly ever see the Prime Minister in Scotland most of the time, and certainly not in any structured way? And is the continued Conservative brinkmanship about British membership of the EU really the most effective way of persuading voters that No is a  less risky choice than Yes?

Something seems to have shifted in English discourse about the referendum since last weekend, when YouGov published the first opinion poll to give the Yes vote a majority. There are good reasons to be cautious about the conclusions of any one poll (see John Curtice’s daily analyses of the various polls’ methods and results, and Patrick McGhee’s comments on making sense of the Don’t Knows), but in terms of general trends, the strong No lead of a year or more ago has now shifted to a much closer and uncertain outcome, which will need to be carefully managed whatever the result.

Let’s Stay Together?

The Yes-majority poll of a week ago does seem to have made the idea that Scotland might become a separate state from the rest of the UK something much more thinkable in England than it has been before. Part of this, of course, will be to do with agenda-setting in the media – television news in particular needs to keep finding new angles on continuing stories – but the practical implications of an independent Scotland for the rest of the UK have shifted from joke to conversation topic over the course of the referendum campaign.

(Though if the idea of an independent Scotland was practically unimaginable in England before, what does that say about the extent to which political discourse in England has appreciated Scottish claims to be a national community?)

A few days ago, the historians Dan Snow and Tom Holland called a ‘unity rally’ to ‘give a voice to everyone who doesn’t have a vote in the referendum to break up Britain’. The rally, under the slogan Let’s Stay Together, will be held in Trafalgar Square on Monday; a similar unity rally in Montréal is often credited with having defeated Quebecois nationalists’ independence campaign in 1995. (It may, of course, have helped that the 1995 rally was in Quebec.)

The voice of this section of the No campaign seems to be quirkily nostalgic (the Spectator journalist Fraser Nelson, inviting readers to the rally, wrote ‘I’m thinking of inviting some subscribers around for a cup of tea in our garden at 4.30pm and we can walk over later’), much like many items in the list of elements of British culture that the novelist Jenny Colgan gave in today’s Observer that she would be sad to lose if Scotland separated from the UK:

It’s my birthright of James Bond. Fish and Chips. Tutti Frutti. Private Eye. Tizer. The Pet Shop Boys. Spit the dog. The Office. The Ladybird Cinderella. Philip Larkin. Flower of Scotland. Windrush. Christopher Hitchens. The Traverse. The Radio 1 roadshow. Mary Poppins. The Tempest. Narnia.

Colgan (who describes her identity as Scottish, British and European) is arguing that the No campaign has failed to communicate with voters on an emotional level – or at least, that the only emotion it has evoked among its arguments about economic detail has been fear. (Tom Holland broadly agreed, tweeting on Sunday: ‘I like being in the same country as @jennycolgan, Glasgow & the Loch Ness Monster, & I really, REALLY don’t want it to change #Indyref‘)

Colgan argues that instead, the Better Together campaign should have been playing on the same emotions that Danny Boyle appealed to in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics:

When Tim Berners-Lee tweeted, during the Olympics ceremony: “this is for everyone” did he not mean us all? From craggy glens to rocky Cornish coves; from tumbling Yorkshire stonewalls to green and boundless Welsh fields, to the Kent hops; from the vast flat plains of netherlandish Norfolk to the grey formal stones of the New Town; echoing through the silent shipyards of those great brothers-in-arms: Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast?

To me, this reads as a strikingly parochial reinterpretation of the Berners-Lee segment of the opening ceremony – I interpreted Berners-Lee’s ‘everyone’ as global, in line with the director Danny Boyle’s idea for the ceremony to dramatise the message that Britain ‘can be an inspiring beacon for people everywhere’. (The beacon narrative has its own limitations, as I’ve discussed in an article about London 2012 here.)

But the level of intellectual and creative thought that Boyle and his team put into representing the nation at the opening ceremony probably made it inevitable that its symbolic resources would be reused in post-2012 political contention in Britain, even in ways that start putting the components to different purposes – and in a sense, the longer-term ‘meanings’ of the ceremony only emerge through processes like these.

However, offering nostalgia as the reason to keep the United Kingdom together silences much about the British national and imperial past – certainly in Fraser Nelson’s argument last week that the unity rally and its supporters ‘need to tell a different story: about an alliance of countries which, acting as the United Kingdom, has been the greatest force for good that the world has ever known’. A campaign based on this sentiment can hardly give a voice to those for whom the past it evokes has been a source of oppression rather than pleasure.


Although I don’t find Nelson’s narrative or even Colgan’s the most accurate account of how Britain got to be the way it is, I still think something can be gained from thinking about an underlying anxiety they both express: what would happen to day-to-day British culture, to which people from Scotland and representations of Scotland have contributed, if Scotland became an independent state?

Experiences from other cases of secession and fragmentation suggest that social and cultural ties are surprisingly resilient to political break-up. Even with Yugoslavia, a country that was violently destroyed two decades ago, enough cultural contacts and economic relationships have been re-established that one can talk about what Tim Judah called a ‘Yugosphere’, which thrives without any demand for political reintegration. Importantly, this has happened despite intensive efforts by the Slovenian and Croatian states to separate their national cultures from Yugoslavia as far as possible during and after their wars of independence – perhaps a demonstration of the limits of state power over popular culture and everyday life.

The Slovenian sociologist Mitja Velikonja has adopted the phrase ‘ex-home’ from the shelves of Slovenian record stores to describe the relationship between Slovenian culture and ex-Yugoslav culture in general after independence:

In Slovenian music shops, the items (CDs, MCs) are classified not only according to music genres (pop-rock, ethno, jazz, classic music etc.) but also according to the provenance of the music. So, there is Slovenian, ‘domestic’ music (in Slovenian language domača), then ‘foreign’ (tuja) music (predominantly of course from the Anglo-Saxon world); but there is also a curious third category, which is neither ‘ours’ neither ‘theirs’, but between the two: in a paradoxical sense both ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’.

It is classified as ‘ex-home’ music (bivša domača) and it comprises music from the other former-Yugoslav republics. In other words, Croatian, Serbian, Bosniak, Macedonian, and Montenegrin music until and after 1991 still has some kind of special and ambiguous status in our music shops. I think that this tiny and somehow marginal example – not an isolated one – is symptomatic and reveals a very specific attitude of the Slovenes toward the cultural production of the nations with which Slovenes lived for decades in a common state. This cohabitation left not only traces but also stroke roots in Slovenian cultural preferences and also in every-day life in a very specific way.

‘Ex-home’ means more than just ‘not being home any more’; with the Slovenian (and ex-Serbo-Croatian) connotations of the word ‘domestic’, it implies ‘used to be more “home” than it is, but still not “foreign”‘.

Something like that third space – the Very Near Abroad Indeed – would very likely open up if Scotland separated from the UK politically. Indeed, the post-Scottish-independence ‘Britannosphere’ would probably be larger than the ‘Yugosphere’; the trajectory of Scottish independence from Westminster would have been much more peaceful than Slovenia’s independence from Belgrade (Czechoslovakia makes a better comparison than Yugoslavia here), and many more inhabitants of Scotland share their first language with the state they would have left behind. (An ambiguous ‘UK & Ireland’ category already exists as something of a precedent – as if, ‘yes, it’s a different country, but less foreign than those other ones somehow, and let’s just not talk about the history of independence, shall we…’)

Where political separation has the most impact on culture is in the domain of funding and other forms of involvement by the state: in television, for instance, the rest-of-UK BBC would likely deal with questions about its remit that would trouble the commercial broadcasters less. (And we do know that the Scottish independence White Paper envisages a Scottish entry in the Eurovision Song Contest – after which I hope we’d hear a lot less of the argument that neighbourly voting is ‘political’ when Balkan countries do it…) In this sense, the cultural implications of a Scottish Yes would be less uncertain than the financial and citizenship-related matters that would depend on post-independence decisions by the governments of Scotland, Westminster and the EU.

But even the framework of the ‘ex-domestic’ or the Very Near Abroad Indeed is only talking about two layers of identity, each linked with a nation and an (existing or hypothetical) sovereign state: Britishness on the one hand, Scottishness on the other. I’m not certain that Scottish independence would mean Britishness suddenly having to exclude Scottishness from itself whereas it had used to be included; but thinking about the impact of Scottish independence on identities in the rest of the UK shouldn’t be reduced to the level of national identities in any case.

Inhabiting the borderlands

It seems to have taken a Scottish independence referendum to put a UK-wide spotlight on regional identities in the Scottish/English Borders. The Cumbrian MP and former diplomat Rory Stewart has tried to attach the Borders’ fluid history to the No campaign; his new book The Marches, which I haven’t yet read, will argue both that the Borders form a culturally distinct ‘Middleland’ in the British Isles and that the Anglo-Scottish border was a ‘colonial’ imposition under the rule of the Roman authorities who built Hadrian’s Wall.

Stewart is also a co-organiser of the Hands Across The Border campaign, which initially planned a torchlit human chain across the UK to demonstrate the rest of the country’s ’emotional links and solidarity’ with Scotland (for logistical reasons this changed to building a stone cairn in the border town of Gretna; it was unveiled this weekend, though this aerial shot might have been better composed if they’d filled out the ‘N’ of ‘No’…).

The Borders are a region where trying to determine whether people or pasts are English ‘or’ Scottish doesn’t make sense, as the art historian Ysanne Holt remarks in her commentary on recent art installations in Gretna and Berwick-upon-Tweed:

 We all recognise that communication networks forge cultural affiliations for groups and individuals who are not neatly defined by geographical boundaries. In my own growing up, some of this was achieved by the Border Television franchise that stretched across most of Cumbria, the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway to the Isle of Man, reporting nightly on news and local affairs. All this helped to shape or reinforce a genuinely cross-border community, to the extent that many in Cumbria would claim closer affinity with their Scottish neighbours than with their English ones to the east. The question of felt identities in relation to place, borders and boundaries, real or imagined, permeable or enforced, has a very particular resonance here. […]

[T]o think positively about the future for this region requires what has been termed a “place-based co-operation”, not competition or contested spaces. We need to adopt new ways of inhabiting the “borderlands” and perhaps of practising “borderliness”.

Thinking in terms of locally grounded ‘place-based co-operation’ might also be productive outside the Border region. The latest phase of referendum-talk in England has also raised the question of whether the north, or indeed Yorkshire, would benefit from devolution; a previous attempt, John Prescott’s proposal for a North East Assembly, collapsed in 2004 after voters in the region rejected it by four to one, and planned assemblies for the North-West and Yorkshire/Humber were never put to a vote. Would greater political and economic localism have more appeal today?

As a solution for English regions, the logic of devolution would need to be based on recognising distinctive social and economic features of a region rather than basing administrative boundaries on territorial claims that relate to a particular nation of people – leading to the unanswerable counter-factual question of whether politics in a federated United Kingdom might have meant things not even getting as far as a Scottish referendum on independence in 2014, or whether creating state structures in regions with potential claims to national self-determination would simply in the long run have accelerated separatism.

The result of Thursday’s referendum is probably too close to call, and not something I have a political say about in any case. If the rest of the UK does have to come to terms with a Very Near Abroad Indeed, historians as well as other cultural producers will find themselves adapting the categories they use for making sense of political and social life in the Isles; but there should be scope for doing so regardless of the result.